You’ve done it before. Sat in front of a pristine notebook, in front of a blank screen and agonised. ‘The’ you type, or ‘She’ you write. But where next?
Intermittent writer’s block affects plenty of new writers, but we’re going to share our thoughts on why it happens and what you can do to move past it.
In my own experience, writer’s block happens for one of two reasons:
- Mental exhaustion
Both require different medication. This post is going to focus on self-doubt.
Self-doubt and writer’s block.
The biggest source of writer’s block I’ve experienced is self-doubt. You’ll know it. Hands hovering above the keyboard. Every word agonising since you’ve backspaced about 6000 miles. ‘What is this? But it’s not good enough. It’s so cliché. Why would anyone want to read this? This isn’t me. This is all nonsense. This is trash.’
When we have those thoughts running through our heads, it’s easy to see why a block might appear. You already see the task ahead as impossible. It’s because you ‘know’ you can’t live up to your current expectations (even though you don’t really know, because no one knows the future).
The funny thing is that writer’s block is then only a symptom of something larger, the overwhelming monstrosity that is self-doubt. Sure, I can remind you that no one expects your first draft to be good (except you), but that is only part of the issue. The other part is believing what you’re writing is worth writing. If you’re struggling with a block, a shift away from your self-judging mindset will help most.
If we’re starting small and tackling both components of this self-doubt, start by writing about the things you care about. Maybe a book that’s changed your life, a person who’s changed your life, or how much your shoes mean to you. And you’ll notice (I hope) that the more specific and unique the things you care about are, the harder it is for the voice in your head to cut you down. You might choose to describe something in a cliché way, but the more you return to the very specific details about what it is you care about, what real changes something has made, or how something has shaped you as a person, the more you’ll notice the return of your own voice. You haven’t lost it. It’s just waiting for a place to be used.
Bonus exercise: Try making it a letter. Write a letter to someone or something about the things that matter to you. Or write it to yourself. Ask yourself what you care about now, or tell yourself what you want to remember in the future.
When returning to or starting your next writing project, make sure there is something in your piece of writing that matters to you, a personal hook for you: maybe a character you’ve fallen in love with, or a place, or an idea.
If we’re starting big, however, we have to think broadly. Where is your self-doubt coming from? Was it triggered? Did you read a particularly good piece of writing and find yourself questioning whether you could ever come close? Have you spent some time away from writing and don’t know how to get back into it?
Comparisons are at the heart of self-doubt, either comparing yourself to others or to your past self. Do away with all the comparisons. Tell your self-doubt to shove off every time it appears because, as much as the fear of doing badly is linked to our self-preservation instinct, more often than not writing badly doesn’t mean failure (or death). The impulse to compare will be useful later, when editing. But in the midst of writing, all that matters is expressing what you want to express.
Also, self-doubt triggered by comparison can only be quashed by changing your mindset. This video about jealousy by Anna Akana hits the nail on the head. She talks about how there are two ways of approaching jealousy (but this equally applies to the phenomena of comparing yourself). The good approach is taking what you compare as a source of inspiration. The purpose is not to create something better, but to draw from it the energy you need to produce your own work. When I’m reading a novel, short story or poem I really enjoy, my impulse is to talk back to it, tell myself what I love about it and work from there. Build yourself a solid foundation of ‘It will all be ok.’ Because it will all be ok. We’re all in the same boat. Writing is hard. Don’t make it harder by overthinking the act of writing before you’ve even started. In the end, writing is putting words on a page. And you can definitely do that. (And inevitably you’ll improve the more you do it!)