This is a hashtag that I have rarely been able to use in the last couple of years. You (most of you) didn't know this but I have been suffering from writer's block. And don't let anyone tell you it doesn't exist, only that they have not experienced it. (And it is completely different from hating your job or not wanting to go to work or not wanting to start a task. It is something peculiar to those who need the emotional parts of their brain working properly for their work - writers, artists, musicians.)
The block does not have to be a brick wall, just ugly sludge, preventing free flow, causing a grim trickle. Sometimes, you do force words through the sludge, because if you're a professional you just have to do it, but it doesn't feel like writing. Not really. I have been performing to order for two years and hating almost every minute of it. And feeling ashamed of hating it. Yes, I've written words - I even wrote a novel - but it was a horrible process.
I know the reasons for this. You don't need to know the reasons. Let's just say, "Stuff happened." The stuff began in January 2010, and continued for over a year. It was stuff that was sufficient to rock me. It speared me in the part of my brain that allows creativity. And for a while that part was almost completely paralysed. I could blog, tweet, speak, plan, campaign, but not write fiction.
None of that matters, because now I truly #amwriting.
Conversation with my husband this morning:
Me: I need to warn you about something.Indeed.
Mr M (looks worried): Ye-es?
Me: You know that thing I used to do when I was really into the book I was writing?
Mr M (After a short struggle to remember): You mean when you won't answer questions and you go all silent and get up early in the morning and suddenly say odd things in the middle of a meal? And you're sometimes grumpier than usual?
Me: Yes, that.
Mr M: What about it?
Me: It's happening now.
Mr M: Good!
Me: What, you don't mind?
Mr M: Is it going to make any money?
Me: Actually, rather possibly. You never know.
Mr M: Well, about time, too.
What am I writing? I'll tell you soon! It is very exciting for me, and I have not written the words "writing" and "exciting" in the same paragraph for a long time.
This blog post would be self-indulgent if I didn't have some advice for you. Here it is.
Creative* writing relies heavily on the emotional parts of our brain: the limbic system. The things that cause writer's block are those that overwhelm that emotional limbic system: grief, shock, anger, stress, hate, fear. Those things take so much of the limbic system's power that there is none left to fuel and allow the writing. Every time you try to access the emotional parts, they are busy grieving or being angry or going over and over and over the emotion of whatever it is that is happening to you and around you.
[*By "creative" I don't only mean fiction; I feel that good non-fiction needs to access the emotional part, too, though not so heavily, and depending on what it is.]
That is what happened to me. Every time I tried to get into that limbic writing state, emotions from the "stuff" intruded. I lay awake at night full of the wrong emotion, the negative thoughts. The writer in me had been used to lying awake thinking of plots and having conversations with my characters; the blocked, stressed, angry me couldn't. Every time I tried, the other stuff raged.
It is hardly surprising that when emotions overwhelm us, we cannot also write. Except perhaps write about those emotions - which is perhaps why sometimes people can write during depression. (Depression was not what I had, by the way.)
So, if this is happening to you, what to do about it?
Give yourself time for the cause of emotional overload to dissipate and lessen. It will. How quickly that happens and what (if anything) you can do to speed it depends on the cause and on how deeply it has troubled you. You may not be able to rush it. But everything passes and one day you will find that you want to write.
But, and here's the important thing: you may not be able to. When you find you still can't write at the point when you feel you should be able to, you will doubt yourself, your very core. This is when you need to act. Now you need to coax your battered creative brain back into life, and I'm afraid no one will do it for you.
Give your brain three things:
1. Time to think. Not about your stupid job or stuff or tasks or lists. But ideas, characters, scenes, words, stories. Time on your own, with no one talking to you. Make that time. No one will give it to you if you don't give it to yourself. It's something to fight for. Fight those around you and fight yourself.
2. Light, air and the great outdoors. Our brains are more creative when we are in big, high spaces and can see far into the distance (preferably a green, natural distance.) Go walking. Alone. Breathe. Give your brain oxygen, literally and metaphorically.
3. Desire. You have to want it enough. You have to remember that this is what gives you heartsong. Remember heartsong? If not, you need to read Write to be Published, the bit at the end, the bit that everyone writes to me about.
Give it those things and bit by bit your battered, comatose, creative brain will slowly waken and strengthen and you will write again. The heartsong will return and you will remember once more how it feels to be a writer. You will be a writer again.
(PS If you're interested in what I said about the brain being more creative in big spaces, see here. But come back and comment here because I won't see comments over there!)
Oh yes, it exists all right. I stopped writing for a very long time - university took up all my intellectual, physical and emotional energy first (I had to work as well to keep myself). Other things happened too and, although I wrote, I did not write anything worthwhile. It was actually frightening. I thought I had lost the ability to write anything. When things calmed down a bit I found little pockets of time - and the courage - to try again. I suspect one should never-ever give up on oneself.
The interesting thing about writer's block is that writers think it's something special that only happens to them.
In a sense, of course, this is true. You're 'blocked' from writing and getting on, and when you can write, it somehow doesn't seem 'right'.
But blocks are universal. Even plumbers have them. As you say, stuff happens, and it's our reaction to all that stuff that determines whether we're 'blocked' or simply having a crappy time.
I try not to think about writer's block too much, not to deny that it's real and happens, but just to take care I don't try to make myself 'special' - wrestling with a 'special' problem unique to writers.
What we're talking about here is a 'brain block' - that state where you can't seem to do what you need or want to do because you can't quite think straight and the sensations associated with this seem unpleasant.
Sometimes it's best to plough on, but sometimes the kind of 'stopping' you describe is the best remedy.
If it helps, I'm a little stuck for words this morning, yet here I am trotting out a bunch as I sip my coffee and inject myself with morphine. Won't necessarily work with projects I'm working on, of course, but it's a start. And I think that's the thing — when you're stuck in the middle of your block like a useless turd beached in the Minotaur bowels of strangled silence, it's tempting to think you'll never be capable of writing anything again. But blocks are like moods and they pass. For writers, plumbers, and occasionally gymnasts in mid flick-flack.
Oh Nicola I could hug you! I refuse to acknowledge 'writer's block' mainly because if I admit it exists I then have to admit I may have it. I wrote in a recent post how I get through those moments when being creative is like walking through treacle. Now reading your blog explains to me why and how it works. 'Stuff' can be so debilitating when you are trying to do anything creative and it doesn't have to be just fiction writing. I find it can get in the way of anything that needs the brain to think creatively.
As always a great and insightful post that made my day - thank you
PS congratulations on getting through yours. And long may it last
A generous and honest post, Nicola. I'll email you xx
Whirlochre, I'm going to have to disagree. We may be talking about two different things because the thing I'm talking about is not something that could affect plumbers, gardeners, bankers, secretaries. With NO disrespect to them and I'm not saying those people aren't creative, but I am saying that artists (writers, musicians, artists) do something which, when it's working, requires an emotional state, a narrative transportation in the case of writers, and that this very much can be blocked if the emotional brain is overloaded. "a little stuck for words this morning" is not what I'm talking about, believe me! When you talk about eg plumbers being blocked, I believe that what you're talking about is something anyone can experience: not liking your job, not wanting to do it, not knowing what to do next, a feeling of "can't be bothered". What I do agree is that we have to just deal with it and not play the suffering artist role - I don't want to play to that at all. As I said in the post, anyone who says writer's block doesn't exist is simply lucky enough not to have experienced it.
I hope you don't mind my disagreeing. And I've added a sentence to the post to clarify my position.
Thanks, all, for your comments. Stroppy, please do!
All very true... I'm excited to hear you're writing fiction again. Can't wait to hear more! X
Thank you so much for this post. I went through the same thing a couple of years ago & it was horrible sitting with a beautiful blank piece of paper in front of me only to find that absolutely nothing was happening. The more I obsessed the worse it got. Thankfully it passed & I'm now back to my scribbly self again.
This is fascinating. Thank you, Nicola.
I used an understanding of 'brain stuff' all the time when I was working in Child Protection, to make sense of the complex responses of children. This is a great reminder of how universally useful such knowledge is.
Oh thank you for this, really helpful. I have suffered from it I think - I first started to write seriously 13 years ago, wrote lots of poetry and became OK at it, got a few published and found that the words were flowing. Then stuff happened in my life and the poems stopped. I haven't been able to write a decent one for many years now. I don't know if I ever will again. However, I have written a novel and that has taken up my creative energies I think, so not all gloom and doom, in fact it's been exhilarating moving into novel writing, but I miss poetry and would love to be able to write that too. Greedy!
Thanks, Nicola, for such an honest blog post.
I often feel like there is a wall in front of me that's stopping me from really letting myself go into the writing. Then I feel guilty, and frustrated, and that doesn't help much. I manage bits, but I never feel like it's enough.
Your words are a good reminder that looking after your head-self is essential. And I'm really pleased to hear you're writing and excited. Magic, that is.
Peter Levine, trauma specialist/neuroscientist and writer of the most excellent In An Unspoken Voice and n'tWaking the Tiger (which I recommend to everyone), writes that trauma and curiosity cannot exist together. This I know from my own experience and do not need an MRI scan to prove it! And trauma is just confined to war heroes or victims of earth's disasters. We all encounter trauma of some kind and at some stage in our lives.
Grr at jumpy sensitive mousey pads. My last post is inaccurate:
I meant to write "trauma ISN'T just confined to blah blah blah - see if you can spot where the n't jumped to ;)
I' currently reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Johan Lehrer. Most excellent insight.
Yay! I think it's also worth mentioning that one's ability to force words out in a professional way can also contribute to writer's block - because the more you do a 'professional' job. the further you move from the state of creative excitement that you've so beautifully described. It's such a great feeling when you fall in love with your writing, and a completely different one from the satisfaction of completing a writing-related task.
Rght, back to writing some journalism with my competent professional hat on.
Sorry I am here again, but this is just right up my street (I am studying written forms of counselling for my Masters). Often writing is a strategy for getting through the block, but not writing about what you want to write about. Rather, writing about what you need to write about. Sitting with a pen and just letting the unconscious flow. I've been blocked for the last few weeks and last night I wrote a letter to the self that started the counselling studies 2 years ago. A lot of rage and fury in that letter and an insight finally to what was bothering me. Today I feel I've emptied something out of that blinkin' limbic system and am ready to roll!!! Another great book if you are interested, Nicola is Writing Cures by Gillian Bolton. It is counselling and psychotherapy based but I think what fiction writers do taps in to the counselling need in all of us! And now I need to go to work. Glad things are feeling more creative for you now.
I am so pleased that you have tapped into your creative mind. I'd completed 80k words of a first draft and for the past few months seem unable to order what I've written or improve on it, and I know it needs improvement!
I've been fully aware that circumstances are taking much of my energy but your explanation makes me feel not quite so wretched about my lack of creativity. Going to take your advice and just think about it, no pressure, just thoughts and a notepad perhaps.
Thank you once again for sharing.
Good to hear your writer's wrong-frame-of-mind is lifting. I often suffer from what my friend Jane calls writer's can't-be-arsed.
Hurrah! I knew you were feeling inspired but this sounds even better.
For me it's so hard to keep my creativity going when I've had a knock back. No matter how hard i try to get my conscious brain to tell me it's ok all the sub conscious doubts just stymie it. On the upside tho, i just need a sniff of encouragement and i find ideas flowing.
Hope you're out tramping the fields somewhere and letting your brain buzz away.
Oh Nicola. I understand all too well what you've been going through. It's not a block--that's just a convenient name. It's sludge, a grey, murky mass of mediocrity and, most especially, an inability of the brain to spin gold out of straw. Something alchemical happens when we are writing well but that eludes us for many reasons; often illness or more likely, personal 'stuff'. The brain has a habit of shutting down its creative side when it has too much to cope with or its plain worn down.
So pleased that spark has returned for you. Nurture it.
Hi Nicola, I’m a frequent visitor/commenter but here but have gone anonymous for this post – hope you all understand!
I just wanted to add another perspective - I like that you said about giving yourself time for the cause of distress to lessen, to allow yourself time to grieve and adjust to trauma. My experience however, was slightly different in that it wasn’t something that would ease with time.
I became very ill with anorexia for around a year and a half a few years back, and during that time it was, as you say, like the emotional part of my brain had shut off. I couldn’t access it at all. I had a novel that I’d started shortly after leaving university and it sat untouched for the entire time I was ill. Needless to say it was a fairly miserable existence and I will spare you the details, but it was the last point you mention on your list, that heartsong, the desire, that finally turned things around for me.
More than anything I wanted the old ‘me’ back and the ability to write is what holds me together. So I used that to claw my way out. Instead of making charts and lists of how much exercise I’d done or calories consumed, I set deadlines and made targets for word counts instead. My brain was still stuck in its analytical mode for a long time and a lot of what I wrote was appalling, self indulgent over-written rubbish, BUT it helped me break my damaging cycle (after all you can’t exercise and write at the same time) and, eventually as I started to get better, I started writing better.
I’m still recovering now, but my ability to write is one of the things that keeps me on the straight and narrow, because it is the very first thing to go out the window when I start to relapse.
That was more intense that I intended it to be, but I hope someone finds it helpful!
Anonymous - that is an incredibly powerful and moving testimony. I'm sure I echo everyone when I thank you for sharing it.
I want to observe something and please shoot me down if I have totally missed the point or made the mistake of assuming anything about someone else and a condition I haven't experienced.
It is this: anorexia is known to be (often/usually) characterised by obsessive self-control and it seems to me that you actually used that trait in yourself to turn your (negative) food obsession into a (positive) writing obsession, channelling your need to control into a positive thing. So, the very aspect of your personality that contributed towards anorexia was the tool that helped move you out of the anorexic dangerous behaviour? Obsession is not always bad? I think it's an incredibly heartening story, anyway. Thank you, congratulations and good luck.
Captain Black - oh, I suffer from can't-be-arsed much of the time. But it's when it turns to "can't" that it's horrible. Even though our mothers always told us that there's no such thing as can't...
I totally stuck my tongue out at people who always laughed at me each time I complained of a writers' block after reading your piece...
Writers' block does exist,and you have clearly stated that..thank you for this piece.
Hi Nicola - yes part of my recovery was to accept those personality traits but to learn how to channel them differently! And positively!
I do think this is the main reason why you cannot ever escape an eating disorder until you really want to, or have something that you want to pursue even more? I don’t know, a lot of it is still a mystery to me!
A very articulate, thoughtful and sensitive post on a subject that’s close to my heart. I absolutely understand the sense of “not being able to go” certain places because our minds hive them off for our own protection, and I absolutely agree those are the places particularly associated with creativity (might we, ahem, add poetry to the fiction/non-fiction thingy?). I think I also see the point about plumbers and people in other jobs and think that’s not a question of what one might call a general lethargy or disaffection. I’ve certainly found that depression shuts down the functional part of my brain to the point I experience it as a paralysis that affects both cognitive and motor skills. That’s a different thing from the emotional shutdown that’s part of the grieving process (during the latter we often experience a need to carry out mundane tasks almost frantically as part of the way we shut down our emotions, during the former those tasks are as impossible as the higher functioning ones), but can affect a person in the same way.
I think your point about getting outside and exercising is about the very very best advice that can possibly be given.
Very best wishes to you and I’m delighted you are writing again!
Oh, and as I’m sure everyone is aware, #amwriting is so much more than just a hashtag, it’s an incredible community only the very tip of which is visible on twitter, held together by the selflessness and determination of Johanna Harness (http://amwriting.org/)
Nicola, I appreciate your willingness to own up to feeling blocked and why.
I am just coming out of that state myself after traumatic times with elderly relatives. During the worst of the stresses I found that I could get by with typing in the old bones of the sequels to the book I was trying to complete. This ancient, peurile mass of words needed little creative input. I just typed up copy, feeling that I was at least preparing these future books for a later date. Lke keeping the fire going until I could find some proper wood to burn on it.
Your Skills Session at Aye Write was great new fuel. You helped to get me going again.
This blog post rings so true for me. I've been in a place of writer's block for a few years now. Fortunately I don't earn a living currently from writing but I was wondering whether I was alone in this. I'm just emerging now... I think I need to take some walks at the weekends to get the creative ideas flowing!
Oh, when you described it as sludge, I just nodded and thought, yup, that's exactly how it feels. Psychic sludge. Gotta sluice that sludge away.
Really glad to hear that you are back in the zone.
I loved this brave and insightful post, but am also in awe of your ability to batter through it and blog, lecture, write non-fiction and even a novel through it all!
Which makes me think-perhaps there is one more thing to add to your list-go easy on yourself. Not for ever, just for a while. So many writers are so driven and such high achievers that to give in to whatever one's body and brain are telling you, feels too much like defeat. I find that giving myself permission not to write (taking time off for 'research' or just to give myself brain space) makes me want to write more.
Good to hear you are back in the zone. I get annoyed when I hear people talking of writer's block when what they are really referring to is the Cap'n's writer's-can't-be-arsed. But I agree there is a very different phenomenon when your brain is completely filled with other stuff and as you say, there's just no space for creation. I had a tough time a couple of years back when external pressures took all my time and energy. I didn't even try to write then. But it did come back, thank goodness!
Looking forward to seeing what this creative period produces from you.
Wonderful post. Hope your heart keeps right on singing!
Dismissing writer's block as not a real phenomenon might be a defence mechanism rather than some casual disregard. If it is acknowledged to be real, that is potentially one more stress to paralyse the creative brain. Yet acknowledgement can be a step towards getting past it.
Echo ... wonderful post. The brain is a wonderful thing - endlessly fascinating. I am glad glad for you that you are re-experiencing the freedom, and easy joy of creation.
caution - long post alert...
Not sure if what follows is of any value to the discussion, but I thought I'd add it for what it's worth.
My darling dad began a decline into dementia at the age of 93, in late 2008/early 2009. I'd been working on 'the' novel at that stage for maybe three years, on and off, through ups and downs, always treating it as 'one day this will be finished' but never giving it the undivided love and respect it begged for.
I remember the day I took dad to his GP for a memory test, and sat there while he floundered, trying to recall the name of our village, unable to copy two simple interlocking circles, and forgetting an easy sequence of numbers - (he'd been an engineer, a surveyor - that sort of thing was second nature.) The GP announced that he had lost 38% of his short term memory and must hand over financial affairs, all responsibilities, to me, forthwith.
Grief piled in. For a still-living man I loved dearly, and was going to lose slowly, in front of my eyes.
But - and this is the point - so did a real solid determination to carry on doing the thing I do best - and finish this book - set in the town where he grew up. And sure, sometimes, over the ensuing months, the writing had to fight its way through guilt that I wasn't at his side all the time - through a lot of grief, and through high levels of stress.
BUT. It seemed to pick up a lot of love on the way, as it fought its way through. People tell me over and over - and reviews carry the same message - about the deep humanity of the work, and the love in the words.
I finished the book before he died. I have to thank him, and all that 'stuff' really.
funny old world, innit - here's to creativity, in all its myriad guises.
sorry if that was off-topic... but I was moved to post, in case there was someone experiencing what I did, and caught between needing to write and not knowing if they should...
That's really interesting Vanessa - an alternate viewpoint, and I agree 'the' work does carry a lot of humanity and deep kindness within it!
I read your blog, though I don't often comment, but I just wanted to say thank you so much for this post - I felt almost sick with relief reading it. I've read a few things recently saying that writer's block doesn't exist and it's just a matter of ignoring it, but for the last three months for various reasons I simply haven't been able to write as I normally do - the stories just aren't there in my head. Thank you for reassuring me firstly that this is allowed and secondly that it's something that I can work through.
Thanks for sharing that with us, Nicola. A refreshing and honest post. And I would add from personal experience job-loss, divorce and depression to the list of emotional traumas that affect that limbic creativity engine.
Vanessa, having read and loved The Coward's Tale, your wonderful novel, I now appreciate it even more. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. And for writing your novel.
Philip - thank you. Agree, though those things are the triggers that cause the emotions that the limbic system processes. I listed the emotions - grief, anger, hate, fear etc - and had chosen not to list the very many things that produce the emotions.
Thanks to everyone for your comments and I'm so glad this post was reassuring for those who needed it.
I’m a short story writer by trade and have sold literally hundreds of stories to various magazines (www.akacatherinehoward.weebly.com). When my private life imploded (2010 and then even more so in March 2011), I carried on writing fiction but the stories just weren’t any good – proved by the marked decrease in sales.
In the end I had to take a break from fiction. The good news is I ended up writing a non fiction book about how to find ideas which I would probably never have got round to doing otherwise.
The bad news was that as time passed and I still couldn’t write fiction, I began to wonder if I’d ever be able to do it again. This was a major concern as I’m teaching short story courses at both Swanwick and the NAWG Festival in 2012 and lack of sales was making me feel like a bit of a fraud..
It took me a while to work out that I simply didn’t have enough in my emotional bank to spare any for writing. It was all being used up by personal problems which, sadly, are still affecting me.
In some ways I’m lucky because I can still write decent non–fiction but I miss writing stories. Fiction has always given me so much pleasure. It’s such a wonderful way to escape reality.
I found the way your blog post described the problem wonderfully clear and illuminating. I can now stop worrying that my fiction knack has gone for ever. It will come back, sometime. I just have to be patient.
All I can say is "hooray!" and empathise. I get small blockages (or slumps?) and do something else for a little while to help me ignore the problem.
I find it so easy to tweet, blog, edit, revise or write non fiction when I'm in these creative flops.
Nicola, thank you so much for this post and I too am going anon for this one.
Your description rings so true - as a parent, my experience has been that when I am emotionally wound up in my child's problems, it leaves no time in my mind or heart for any creativity. All that creative emotion goes into trying to support my child. Nor can I find any of the deep joy or curiosity in life, that sense that everything is interesting; instead, it all becomes a blur. You know that phrase about only being as happy as your least happy child? It's that - and that utter focus on the child in need, whether or not they're actually even in the house! You function on the surface but underneath you are on permanent alert for their needs. Writing requires a focus which is almost selfish in its intensity when things are going well and you don't dare take your inner eye off your child for long enough.
Then it all becomes a vicious cycle because, I'm guessing, for all of us, writing is how we make the world coherent and so when we can't write, we get increasingly screwed up!
The other part of your post that rang so true was the bit about making time. 'Fight those around you and fight yourself' - love it! Asserting my right to take the leap of faith that is writing - is the hardest part. As a parent, you become so accustomed to putting your needs last.
Oh, and I hope there's no link between how much space you require and how well your brain functions? Because I need HUGE outdoor spaces to kickstart my creativity and let my mind run free!
I can't thank you enough for this lovely post - not only true, wise, encouraging, and helpful, it also made me realise how very much not alone I am with this.
In my life, "stuff" happened circa 2009 and writing was the first to go. Unlike you, though, I also lost (and always have, in times of crisis) my ability to write emails and letters, "do" social media, and keep in touch with my friends. Then I lost my ability to do normal everyday things, like cleaning the house... it seems glaringly obvious to me now that it was depression, but it still feels as though the writer's block - or "communication block", as I call it - part of it all was a stress reaction unto itself, not just another symptom of the depression proper. What you say about the limbic system makes a lot of sense. (And I suppose that, depending on the way one's brain is wired, one might need that kind of a creative emotional connection in order to communicate with people socially, as well.)
My normal everyday life slowly came back to me, but writing was the last to come back, and it's been coming back in a rather fitful fashion, at that. But I know it will come for good when the time is right. I'm no longer even angry and frustrated about the years that went by in a cloud of emptiness: those lost years are a part of me now, and I think they'll make me stronger in the future.
For me, writing has always been a pretty good indicator of happiness. When life is good and I'm mentally in a good place, I'm driven to write. When I'm unhappy, I can't write so much as a shopping list. I wonder why the stereotypical artist is someone who turns their unhappiness into art, when that appears to be impossible to most? No matter what illusions people have about starving and suffering artists, I'm convinced that the best writing is done by dull, contented people who are mostly pretty satisfied with their everyday lives. Or at least my own unhappiness is silence - a long, empty silence, and nothing more.
Thanks for this terrific post, Nicola. I think I need to take the word "heartsong" and have it displayed prominently near my computer and notebooks, to remind me of the joy I feel from writing when the storm clouds block the signal.
Some Dark Romantic
Your news sounds exciting, Nicola. Good luck.
Thanks for "coming out" about your writer's block - I've heard it said that writers suffer more from depression than any other creative types, perhaps because it's such a solitary occupation, but your post (and your blog) have provided a great opportunity to talk about the tougher side of our slightly obsessive way of life. Heartsong is a perfect description for the best that writing can give you -- hope the singing continues.
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