Change your relationship with writer’s block, instead of fearing it
When someone asks you about writer’s block, you never know how vulnerable it’s going to get.
But last time I had that conversation, I opened up without shame. No shame about my anxiety. Not about feeling inadequate. And certainly not about writer’s block.
What helped me be so brutally honest?
I know that I’m not alone. And I don’t want you to feel alone. Here are the biggest questions — and surprising answers — to help you embrace writer’s block instead of dreading it.
But I’ll start with my story.
A year of shame during my PhD
Fresh out of school I worked as a journalist. There was a daily deadline, a word count, and an editor waiting. The words came easily, and every byline boosted my confidence. I thought I was a born writer. For ten years, I didn’t really know how block feels like.
But years later, as a Ph.D. student at Cambridge, that changed drastically. My dissertation felt like a huge mountain. My days had no structure. No one held me accountable. It was painful, and I started wondering why they ever let me into the program — they must have made a mistake! So I kept myself busy with other tasks and avoided my thesis. I couldn’t bear the pain. I ended up spending almost a year being ashamed, deep in writer’s block. I almost quit.
Have you ever been in a situation like that? Where you couldn’t start, or felt like it’s never going to be good enough?
The solution was simpler than I thought.
I started showing up for myself in tiny steps. I broke down the mountain and focused on micro goals. I talked to my supervisor with honesty, instead of hiding that I was not producing any words. I removed some of the biggest distractions and co-founded a writing group. Soon, the words flowed and writing became easier. But the most important step was to let go of my high expectations (that was the hardest).
Now, I have a new way of approaching writer’s block that not only works for me, but I’ve shared this with others and I hope it resonates with you, too.
What is a healthy way to approach writer’s block?
Writer’s block is vastly misunderstood. There’s a myth that it is ‘invisible illness’ that might hit you at any time. And once it hits you, you’re paralysed.
Most people see writer’s block is seen as failure. It’s ‘the enemy.’
But there’s a way to see writer’s block in a different way. It’s a sign. It’s your body and mind telling you something is ‘off.’ It might have to do with your content; or your life or relationships are out of balance. After coaching hundreds of writers, I’ve found that:
- Writer’s block happens on purpose.
- It forces you to pause.
- It’s your chance to stop and think about what might be going on.
When block enters your life, accept the discomfort and listen. The secret is not to try and avoid writer’s block at all cost. Instead, change your relationship with it. Instead of fearing it, learn from it.
I’ve learned from my anxiety coach that writer’s block is similar to anxiety. If I try not to be anxious and worry about potential panic attacks, sure as hell, I’m going to get a panic attack. But if I trust that block is a sign to listen, I can let go and see what emerges from that space.
Calm and trust is a healthy place to write from. And if block comes your way, you’ll use it to grow.
If you’re trying to ‘embrace’ writer’s block, what does that look like?
Here is a simple journaling exercise that I do with all my clients. If you’re unsure how to embrace and learn from block, take 10 minutes and go through these steps.
Step 1: Be clear what ‘feeling stuck’ means exactly
Take pen and paper, and journal about:
- What project worries you the most right in this moment?
- Where exactly in your writing project was the point when you stopped writing and started worrying?
- Which part of the chapter or article is making not want to go to the desk?
- What happened in your life when you started dreading the writing — might there be something bigger at work?
In this initial step, you show awareness for your block and fully see it. Instead of distracting yourself with social media or ‘busy’ tasks to avoid the pain, you gently turn towards it. Here are some examples:
One writer told me she stopped writing in the middle of a book proposal because she couldn’t see herself ever finishing a whole book while having a stressful job and commute. So she never got beyond the first few paragraphs, because she feared the success of the proposal being accepted.
Another writer I worked with procrastinated on starting an essay. The writer was stuck in the introduction and kept writing and rewriting it several times. He did not believe he could focus on writing while managing his busy day job and family obligations at home.
Both writers needed to see where exactly they stopped and what else in their life was difficult at the time. That insight alone helped them let go of some of the self-blame and stress; they simply saw the facts.
Step 2: Where in your body can you feel your block?
Surprisingly, writer’s block can show up in our body. Many writers I talk to feel it as tension in their neck, or the chest gets tight, back pain, or you develop a constant stomach ache. If they unaware, I can see it in their body posture. In fact, once they speak about their block, my body mirrors their feelings and I get tense as well (it’s called mirroring).
When block starts manifesting in your body, it wants to be seen.
Take a few breaths and move your attention into your body.
- Scan yourself from top to bottom. Which area in your body is hurting?
- Lay your hand on that area and take a deep breath.
- Turn to that area with the thought ‘I’m listening. I’m here. What do you want to tell me?’
When you calm your nervous system and focus on your body, insights will come up. And if you start crying and and feel despair, let that happen. It’s a form of release that will help you let go of the block.
One writer I talked to told me at the end of our coaching that they needed to break an inner psychological barrier. “I was convinced that it’s completely impossible to write because I tried and failed a hundred times before. But that doesn’t mean I can’t change. ”
Another writer told me that she had so many immediate deadlines that were non-writing related that she needed to take a few days off writing. It almost pushed her into block. “I needed a break, but I also didn’t want to lose momentum.” That inner tension of needing to take a break from writing, but feeling she can’t afford it, created pressure and mental exhaustion.
If that sounds familiar, pay attention to your body. Create a listening space and acknowledge what’s going on in your body. This simple act is how you change your relationship with block. Because you’re not shutting it out. You’re present with it, it’s probably going to be uncomfortable (sorry!), but you’re here and you’re open.
I’ve noticed that when I’m calm, I open up a door to find out what’s really wrong here. What doesn’t work is when I get frustrated, force the writing, and try to avoid the pain by distracting myself.
Your block will only become more severe if you ignore it, because it wants to be seen.
But when you turn toward it gently and with compassion, you can start diagnosing yourself.
Step 3: Diagnose yourself and find solutions
Once you’re in a calm, present state, you can think through different options of why you might be blocked. I’ve found that there are at least 12 potential ways or reasons why you might have block, which of course determines how to get out of it.
A few common examples:
- Does your body need a break? Are you on the verge of burnout?
- Do you need to go and live and gather new inspiration?
- Do you not believe in the project anymore and you need to reconnect or drop it?
- Do you need to think it through in a brainstorm session or by talking with a friend?
Every writer is different, but something will appear for you.
A podcaster I recently talked to said, “I noticed that when I’m calm, I have such a clearer perspective. Because then I’m not just trying to fix the symptom, but I go to the real cause of what’s holding me back from writing.”
You can do it, too. Once you have explored what’s behind your block, there is only one more thing to do. Ask yourself:
- What’s one tiny step to go forward?
It doesn’t always have to be a big change in your writing environment, habits, or approach. Sometimes you just need to take a post-it and write down a tiny goal that you can do in 10 minutes.
The podcaster I talked to said that her next step was going from computer to a notepad and pen, “I now have a notepad and pencils or pens nearby. It’s a fun little notepad that’s just for writing. I know that when I go to it, it’s my signal for ‘okay, now it’s time to sit down and just write.’ ”
Another writer told me that they needed to make one small change in their environment. “When I sit at my desk, I look directly at the cluttered whiteboard above me. I think I need to take off all the old tasks from years ago to get my focus back.”
What could go wrong with these steps?
Listening to your body and making space to turn towards that thing you’re avoiding — block — has helped hundreds of writers I’ve worked with. So the first answer is that you can’t do it wrong, and you also don’t have to do it perfectly.
One caveat is this: Don’t jump over steps one and two.
Outthinking writer’s block without acknowledging your body will not work. If you ignore the bigger issues behind the block, it is likely to return. (The good thing is that then you will get another chance to listen.)
Let go of the thought that you need to battle writer’s block with force, and start listening — soon you will know that there is always one small thing you can do to relieve the pain and find flow again.