Identifying Writer's Block


The concept of writer’s block was one I never challenged—until I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She points out—beautifully, I might add—that a block of some kind suggests “that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.”

She peels back the layers to tell us that, perhaps, we’ve been looking at the problem of a lack of creativity from the wrong angle: “If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.”

I think Anne is on to a lot of things in life, and she’s definitely on to something here. That emptiness that writers feel is often what paralyzes us—keeping us from writing the stories we were meant to tell, even the painful ones or those deep below the surface.

Fixing What’s Broken

A lot of creative people have claimed to know some magical remedy for writer’s block. I’ve believed them, and I’ve even come up with a few answers myself.

Sometimes when I have the hiccups, I think drinking upside down and singing—well, at least trying to accomplish this—will somehow get rid of my hiccups. I don’t know when I started believing in this myth, and hey, there could be scientific evidence out there that it works, who knows. Regardless, I am willing to look like a fool and try something ridiculous, all because I once believed it could work. Whether it works or not, my hiccups eventually fade away, and isn’t that how it goes? Writer’s block and spurts of creative energy seem to come and go, ebb and flow, for any artist in this life; and sometimes the remedy for creative emptiness is as clear as day—and sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for it at all.

Anne seemed to be one of the first writers to point at the elephant in the room and challenge everything. “The problem is acceptance,” she states. “Which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again.”

Creative Emptiness

I don’t know about you, but this idea has brought me tremendous amounts of comfort over the years as I have struggled to understand my creative identity. Whether you want to call it writer’s block or creative emptiness, perhaps the problem isn’t fixed by figuring out how to “un-block,” perhaps the answer comes from identifying certain unhealthy triggers in our writing patterns, our daily, creative, or non-creative lives. Identifying why we become blocked or empty—and accepting the reality of what we’ve been given—just may free us to begin again, getting those creative juices flowing.

Here are a few patterns, habits, or obstacles that sometimes lead to creative emptiness in my life:

#1: “Not Good Enough”—i.e., the Comparison Game

I will blame this on my type four personality on the Enneagram test until I’m blue in the face, but just because I am an individualist at heart does not mean I should be complacent in my fear of never measuring up. I’m going to venture to say that 90 percent of artists and writers relate to this: the feeling that never being good enough, or never reaching the standards of X, is often the only reason we don’t start or finish our art, the thing we love.

The comparison game is a lousy, slimy one and it will get you every time! Writers are often readers, and readers who want to write often say, “I’ll never be as good as this author.” It’s time to nip this in the bud, my friends. Anne agrees (I should have called this post What Would Anne Lamott Do?). When she started to write about the envy she struggled with, she “got to look in some cold dark corners, see what was there, shine a little light on what we all have in common. Sometimes this human stuff is slimy and pathetic—jealousy especially so—but better to feel it and talk about it and walk through it than to spend a lifetime being silently poisoned.”

The truth is that our feelings of not being good enough and the creativity-sucking problem of comparison stem from another problem: our desperate desire for authenticity . . . which leads me to number two.

#2: “It’s All Been Done Before”—i.e., Authenticity Paralysis

“It’s all been done before! My idea is so unoriginal! Why can’t I write something unrelated to what I’m reading? Where do I draw the line between inspiration and recycled stories? Authenticity! I must write something new, something different, something, something . . .” Does this sound like you? If so, grab a name tag. We have a club. It’s perfectly normal to have that fear that you will not write the next American novel—egotistical, maybe (okay, yes), but hey, this is a judgment-free zone and we all do it.

The problem with authenticity paralysis is simply this: if you wait forever to write something that’s never been told, that’s completely original, you’ll be waiting a very, very long time. Since I’m on a roll and slightly addicted to Anne Lamott, heed her words, again, writers:

“All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way. Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.”

Sometimes, saying it out loud and naming our fears or our bad habits in the dark is the only way to “fill up again”—to really accept writer’s block or emptiness and, by doing so, open ourselves up to new creative energy. I always say writing is viewed as a lonely activity. When you start a new novel or creative project, no one can go down that rabbit hole with you (unless, of course, you’re a co-author).

There are many other triggers I could dive into—lack of vulnerability and creativity, the illusions of control we cling to, just to name a few. Examine your own emptiness and ask yourself, “What am I doing or saying or thinking about my worth as a writer, my identity, my skills, my time, that is possibly draining my creativity? What’s exhausting my writing process?”

It’s time to accept things as they are, to stop sweeping it under the rug. The moment we agree to stop fighting the “blockage” or emptiness, that is the moment we are gearing up to be filled again.