The Ugly Truth About Writer’s Block and the Beautiful Way to Kick It

Writer’s Block is like rejection — its part of the deal if you write seriously.  It reminds me of the blush of new love — in the beginning there’s excitement, the world is all adrenalin and tongue hockey, you can’t focus or sleep… and then reality slaps you upside the head like a mother-in-law who’s just discovered your porn collection.

Okay, bad analogy.  And no, that’s never happened to me.  But writer’s block has, and I’ve learned a thing or two about it.  The hard way, and it’s cost me more than one story.

What is a good analogy is comparing your writing to love and sex.  Because despite all your blame-diverting rationalizations about being too busy or too tired or too distracted, or despite having none of these excuses but you’re still clueless about why you’d rather have a root canal than sit down to face your manuscript again… the real reason that you have writer’s block is this: your story isn’t working the way it should.

Something is broken.  It isn’t working anymore.  You’ve made a mistake and you don’t know it, or you’re unwilling to fix it if you do.

If this sounds familiar, I’m guessing you’re married.

You’re blocked because your inner editor knows there’s a story problem.  Even if your outer storyteller doesn’t.  Your story won’t have sex with you again until you fix the problem.

Writing is like sex in many ways.  First of all, you get off on it.  There is casual writing, just as there are casual relationships.  One gets you a rejection slip, the other the dinner tab and an STD.  Neither gets you where you want to go: something long-term and meaningful.

As in, a book contract or a screenplay sale.

As it is with love, you have to commit to a new writing project before it has a shot at working, and you have to bring a lot of life experience and the backstory of your scars to the table to prevent resurrecting the failures of your past.  Great storytelling requires great passion, tempered by a respect for what your partner desires and requires along the way.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that stories desire and require a lot.  They’re high maintenance, demanding, unyeilding and highly complex.

Just like every woman I’ve ever loved.

And, just the like the woman I love now, my soul mate, the love of my life.  The adjectives still apply. The difference it that I’m a revision of my former self, and because of that the story finally works.

And she’s oh-so-worth the effort.

Staying in this analogous groove, writer’s block is like a serious rift in a relationship.  Or not — it could just be a bad creative decision that is spitting consequences back at you.  Or simply giving you the cold shoulder.

The big mistake is allow writer’s block to fester, to give it the silent treatment in return and then, when you think the heat is off, ease your way back into a daily routine without ever addressing the problem.  No, deeper issues are afoot.  Sometimes it takes a counselor — as in, a critique group, a trusted friend in editorial mode, or a degree of vulnerability and honesty that may have been heretofore missing — to clear the air between you.

You have to let your story win.  It knows what it needs, and it won’t talk to you until it gets it.

Again, welcome to primary relationships.

If you can’t isolate a specific problem and the air between you is still chilly, you could just go back to the beginning and try to remember what made you fall in love with this story in the first place, and then retrace your steps to see where you fell off the path.  Which, if you’re blocked, you did.

Fair warning, though: you may discover that you’re in bed with the wrong story.  It happens.  Writers block can be an indicator that your story just doesn’t feel the love at all.  It’s telling you that you should move on.  Not all problems are solvable, and if you’ve ever lived with someone you don’t like, you know it’s the very definition of hell itself.

Intrinsic to the fix is an awareness of how well you know the path itself.  If you aren’t schooled in the nuances of character development and the intricacies of story architecture — proven standards and criteria for the engineering of a story that works — then you’re tying to erect a massive palace by feel instead of using a solid plan and process, and that’s tough.

There are known principles for making a relationship — and a story — functional.  Most break-ups occur because someone isn’t observing those principles.

The more you know about what your story needs and expects, the sooner you’ll realize what you’ve done wrong.

And that’s the source of your writer’s block.  You don’t know yet.  Or, you don’t own your mistakes.

Your story is giving you the silent treatment.  It’s no longer whispering sweet plot points in your ear.  It’s no longer caressing your vicarious writing jones with surprising gifts and pearls.  Little kisses of affection.  It’s just lying there, letting you do all the work.

The trick is to fall in love again.  And you do it by bringing your story flowers — new ideas, new energy, a change of scenery.  Or, if the problem is more serious — maybe you’ve cheated and strayed into the arms of another story — counseling in the form of outside help.

But make no mistake, your block is not because you’re too tired.  Or that you can’t think of what to write next.

No, it’s because your story is seeing a divorce attorney on the side.

If, after deep soul searching and the best counseling you can find, you decide you are in the right relationship and want to save it, do what you have to do to win back the love of your life.  And that always requires dropping your defenses and getting real, getting vulnerable… and most all, summoning a new willingness to change something.

Doing nothing, waiting for things to warm up on their own, is a recipe for failure.  Fix it.

When you do, many orgasmic nights of literary lovemaking will be yours.

2 Comments

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2 Responses to The Ugly Truth About Writer’s Block and the Beautiful Way to Kick It

  1. This so far is my fav. I love the analogy of the mother-in-law. Your right, if I can’t see past the block I go back and usually find something out of place.

    Bravo!

  2. This is so right. After reading Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, I’ve never experienced writers block as a lack of creativity. It’s always been something that I’ve realized is a problem with a scene or a character or something. My most recent case of writers block actually kept me from writing on OTHER stories. But after reading your Story Structure series (and suffering a few personal things that made that story too light for me to write anyway), I’ve realized the problem and been able to work on a new project. Since now I realize that I was having problems with that one because it needs a complete structural overhaul. And somehow figuring out what the problem was (even though I haven’t fixed it yet) made it so that at least it wasn’t keeping me from working on other things anymore.
    So I suppose that story was just one of those girls that’s in denial and doesn’t want to let you go even though she knows it’s over (or at least, over for a while). But once I saw the same thing, I was able to end it and move on.