The Upside of Writer’s Block

I just began reading Dennis Palumbo‘s book, Writing from the Inside Out, and my first reaction to it was, “Why couldn’t I have discovered this four years ago?!”

That was when my creative process first started going awry. I continued to write, but it became more and more difficult for several years, until fear, depression, and utter burnout led me to believe I might have to give up writing altogether. I’d dreamed of being a writer since I was 8, so the idea of giving it up was not so different than the idea of cutting my heart out of my chest and tossing it into the compost bin.

I didn’t give up writing, but I did take a break from it for a while. In the meantime, I tried to write again in fits and starts, read lots of books, and tried to do things that had absolutely nothing to do with writing but that would, I hoped, give me a richer set of life experiences to draw from whenever my creative muse decided to visit me again.

Back to Dennis’s book. In the first chapter, he talks about the gift of writer’s block, a phrase that at first glance sounded about as appealing to me as “the gift of dog shit.” But I kept reading, and he continues on to describe the ways a bout with writer’s block can communicate to us something we need to learn in order to move to the next level as writers.

A big part of my creative burnout, I realize after having several years to contemplate it, came from writing out of fear. Fear of not being a good-enough writer, fear of not earning enough money to survive, fear of not getting my next writing contract, fear of losing my career altogether. Such feelings can serve a positive purpose, but in large doses, fear is utterly destructive to creativity.

There are other lessons I’ve learned from writer’s block as well, but I won’t go into all of them here today. The point is, if you’re finding yourself stuck, unable to move forward in your writing in spite of showing up faithfully day after day to get your work done, consider what might be going on at a deeper level. Are you writing what you want to write? Do you have faith in yourself and your story? Do you sense something is amiss? Are you writing in joy or in some other more negative emotion?

It might be time to take a step back and allow yourself a chance to seek out the lesson your writer’s block has to teach you.

3 comments

  1. Hey Jamie,
    I love that advice! I never even thought about writer’s block having a deeper meaning. I do notice that when I’m working on something I’m not really passionate about I have to keep stopping to regroup. I should focus on what I like to write (I have my first critique partner and she’s changing almost everything about my story because it doesn’t fit the romance formula).

    I like my quirky characters or interesting, funny setups that have nothing to do with love. Those are all the things she’s changing (all the things I love the most LOL). I think I’ll keep it as romance because that’s how I’ve announced it on my blog, etc. but from now on, I’ll just stick with women’s fiction where I can write what I want.

    I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid with a dream of becoming an author. But, I never tried to get published because of fear (the same reasons you mentioned); now that I’m 29 I think I’ll take the dive and follow my dreams. That means not just writing for myself–I have to give readers what they want.

    Keep smiling,
    Yawatta

  2. Hi Yawatta, Thank you for your thoughtful response! I think I would consider not listening to any critique that changes the essence of your story. And if you love the romance genre and have read widely in it, you are well-armed to take the tried and true and do something new and original with it. That’s always the huge and daunting challenge of writing within any genre.

    Anyway, with critique partners when you are starting out, it’s good to have various people read your work so you can get a feel for the type of partner you need. I was lucky to have started out way back in the 90s (cough, cough) when AOL message boards had a free service that matched up critique partners, and I ended up in a group of maybe 5 women. We exchanged our work online, and over a few months time it became clear which of us worked best together. I still know a few of those women and at least two of us have gone on to become published in the romance genre. From that group I moved on eventually to at least 3 different two-partner critiquing relationships, one of which has endured to this day. Over the years, the good relationships become supportive friendships in which you can ask for a reading when you need it, and vice versa.

    It’s invaluable!

    I don’t think you should do away with what makes you most excited about your work. Keep at it, and keep having fun. 🙂

  3. To me, it has to mean something, whether it be time for a cup of tea or time to really take a break and address some of the fears or wants I am trying to put down on paper through a character. Sometimes we have our own stories that we have to let play out before we can move on to building our words. Great post – I’m going to check out that book for sure!

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