Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 1, 2023

Does Writer's Block Really Exist?

by Diana Stout, MFA, PhD

The day started out like any other. I sat at the computer prepared to continue writing a first draft for a new book, but that day turned out to be unlike any other.

The Writer's Block Day of Infamy

That day, writer's block paralyzed me for 10 ½ straight hours, the screen blinking at me the entire time. Taunting me. But, I wasn't about to quit. I couldn't. I was on deadline.

Looking back...

Many times, writer’s block had ruled my life. In those times, I would file, organize, clean, or perform any of the usual writer's block avoidance activities. This time, however, I just sat there. Avoidance that day wasn't allowed.

Thus, my ability to stare turned into an art form.

Until that time, I never doubted the existence of writer's block. I had always called it by name. Notable authors wrote about it. Nearly every month, the two most popular writing magazines would feature an article about how to avoid writer's block. If these experts were writing about it, it had to exist, right?

By the end of that horrible day, I vowed writer's block would be gone, never to show its ugliness again.

Magical Moment?

The next day, I sat down facing that same blank page. Minutes later, I decided to skip over it. I'd write the next scene instead. And, I did. Quickly and easily.

By the end of the day, having written a healthy pile of pages, I knew something magical had just occurred. But what? I began questioning the existence of writer's block and started researching it.

The Origin of Writer's Block

After World War II, psychiatry became a popular and prestige topic. Edmund Bergler, a New York City Austrian psychiatrist, termed writer's block in 1947. Within the field of psychiatry, writer's block is tied to depression, anxiety, a sense of failure, pressure, a lack of inspiration, illness, and other common debilitating factors. Some theories that arose from the psychiatry field tied writer's block to perfectionism or the lack of ideas, even the loss of self-confidence. Sometimes alcohol was involved as a reason.

Also, procrastination became part of the discussion with added reasons for writer's block: finances and life-changing events, such as war, births, moving, deaths, weather-related disasters, divorce, marriage, and so forth.

Basically, writer's block and procrastination were deemed as either a physical or emotional issue.

Traits of Writer's Block

The more common excuses of writer's block that I hear writers using today are:

  • I don't have enough time to write
  • I don't have a good place where I can write: it's too [noisy, hot, cold, not comfortable, etc.]
  • I'm not selling anything; I must not be a good writer
  • I'm not writing as fast as [insert favorite author's name]
  • I'm feeling [depressed, angry, stressed, sad, etc.]
  • I don't know what to write about
  • I'm distracted by [people walked by, social media notifications, smell of food, etc.]
  • I'm not motivated

In the past, I've written in a closet, busy airports, bus terminals, restaurants, playgrounds, where temperatures were so cold, I was blowing on my fingers, or so hot, I put a cold washcloth on the back of my neck to cool off.

I've written piles of pages during all kinds of life-changing effects. Writing was a stress release, a pressure valve where I could let go of my feelings and thoughts. Sometimes, I was doing nothing more than journaling, performing a stream of consciousness writing with no idea of where I'd use the work.

So, if I'd been able to write during those life-changing events, what was the real reason for that 10.5-hour day of no writing?

That's the day, I realized that writer’s block is a myth. Writer's block is nothing more than being stuck.

The "Aha" Moment

Skipping where I had been stuck allowed me to continue writing with renewed passion and motivation for the project.

The real aha, eye-opening moment occurred when I got to the end of that first draft. That's when I knew exactly what the skipped scene needed.

That book taught me, too, that inspiration and motivation occur after I've started typing. The more I typed, the more passionate I became about the project.

Writer's Block No More: Moves You Can Make to Get Unstuck

Getting unstuck requires action. Let me repeat that.

Getting unstuck requires action!

Here are some suggestions:

  • Skip where you're stuck; leave comments, thoughts, possible ideas. Then, move on. Don't come back to this empty space, this hole until you have finished the draft.
  • Could it be that you don't know your characters well enough? Stop and ask them questions that reveal their true motives, hidden secrets, life-long desires, wounds, and flaws. Obtain deeper information. This action helps eliminate shallow characters, too.
  • If you're a panster, stop and decide on an ending, which, like taking a vacation, will provide you with a destination, allowing you to write/move toward it. Sometimes knowing the ending and the main beats / bigger plot points (stops you want to make while on vacation) is all that's needed to get the story moving again.
  • Not sure what to write? Start writing your thoughts about various topics and see which one generates more content and passion. Not only will you zero in on one topic eventually, but now you'll have the starts to several more topics for potential use later.

Getting stuck isn't about where you're writing, what tools you're using, or if your writing style is as a panster or plotter.

Getting stuck is always about character or plot.

You're stuck because you need to learn more, to dig down deep on either or both. Do that and you'll be on the writing road again, happily pounding the keys.

Have you ever experienced writer's block? What did you do to overcome it?

* * * * * *

About Diana

Diana Stout, MFA, PhD

Dr. Diana Stout is an award-winning writer in multiple genres, a screenwriter, author, blogger, and writing coach who travels with a crowd: characters who each want their voice and folks giving voice from the other side.

Stuck for a few years on her novella series after publishing the first one, Shattered Dreams, last year three were published, one so far this year, with the last two soon to come.

So, she won't get stuck later, she's plotting out a historical Gothic romance due later this summer, and completing a writer's resource book so many have been asking for. Fortunately, since she's taught the subject in the past, there's no getting stuck on that project. You can learn more about Dr. Stout at her website, Sharpened Pencils Productions.

Do you struggle with procrastination? Check out her June 5-16, 2023 Master Class: Using (& Avoiding) Procrastination, limited to 25 people. Procrastinate on signing up and you could lose out!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

26 comments on “Does Writer's Block Really Exist?”

  1. Hi Diana,

    I like your suggestions for getting unstuck.

    When that happens to me I step away and do something else with the intention to come back later.

    I find that doing something mindless frees up that muse.

    1. I find it magical, Ellen, how stepping away and doing something as mundane as taking a shower or washing the dishes has our subconscious still noodling on the project. I love those Eureka moments of Now I Know What To Do! appear seemingly from nowhere! Thanks for commenting.

  2. Great points. Thanks. It always amazes me how just sitting down to write generates more writing.

    1. It's the secret handshake so many writers are looking for, don't you think? I'm always amazed, too. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Michelle!

  3. Wonderful advice, Diana. I especially like, "The more I typed, the more passionate I became about the project." It's like exercise. You won't get in shape if you don't move!

    1. I love your analogy to exercise, Karen. It's so true! The magic is in the doing, the action. Just like for our characters! Thanks for visiting.

  4. When I started out writing, I always wrote from Page One straight to Page End, whether I was using an outline or just racing down the rails on a train of thought.Those were the good ole days before I had to return to the work force. Then stress of limited time and looming deadline would grab me in a choke hold, robbing me of the next words. So I skipped ahead. What a revelation! Then I'd assemble those scattered scene and link them together by a time line. And scenes that didn't find a home . . . extra content or maybe a home in a different book. There is no right way, just the right way for that project.

    1. I'm always amazed at how deadlines can cause a writer to stumble and like you said, be caught in a chokehold. You made a lot of discoveries early on in your career! And, you were always generous in sharing what you'd learned, too. Thanks for commenting, Nancy!

  5. If I get stuck, I never think of it as writer's block - something I don't think I have ever had over 40 years of writing 76 books. Getting stuck is simply deciding the best way to have a particular event take place because in my books (lots of action and dialogue) each chapter/event has a direct affect on what is coming next and on the ending. I love cliff-hanger chapter endings, so I always keep that in mind, which means I have to lead up to that cliff-hanger. I also write a lot of action, so those chapters (scenes) have to be carefully planned so that they make sense and things happen in a logical, believable way. I admit I have had moments involving lack of motivation, but only if I am deeply upset over personal loss or nervous worry over a loved one. But that doesn't happen very often and usually gets solved. And I usually solve "getting stuck" by writing anyway - anything that makes the story move a little. Almost always, the scene suddenly just unfolds, probably because I usually write by the seat of my pants and love action, so once I get characters moving and talking, things just begin to fall into place. I always say, if you are stuck, write anything, even if it starts with "Once upon a time ..."

  6. Great suggestions! I’ve done them all, and sometimes it takes doing two or three of them on consecutive days, but as you say, it takes action. I’ve also had success just talking it over with someone, or mulling it over while doing something else with my hands.

    1. There's nothing like brainstorming with others to help one get unstuck! And, as writers, we all love having a chance to talk about our writing, right? 😉 Thanks for commenting, Patty!

  7. This was so helpful! I am a victim of realizing I don't know my characters well enough. That is usually what keeps me from writing.

  8. The only time I've experienced writer's block is when I (my conscious, critical mind) decided the story should go one way but the characters (i.e. my subconscious creative mind) wanted to go another. The story totally stalled out. When I stopped fighting it, went back and read over what I'd already written, and corrected where things went wrong, writing moved right along without issue.

    I'm a total pantser, so I never know the end until I get there. Not interested in knowing the end until I get there. That will stop me from writing faster than anything, because why write when you already know the end. Talk about a wicked spoiler. LOL

    1. Exactly what I find so fascinating about pansters, Dawn. In how you don't want to know the end until you get there and how I can't write unless I do know the ending. Thanks for visiting.

  9. Stepping away for a little bit is usually enough. Sometimes a little plot tweak or twist is needed.

    1. I so wish I lived next to a nature trail, Betty. I'd be walking a lot more than I am now, which is near zero! LOL Thanks for sharing.

  10. Sometimes when I get stuck, I'll make a list of the possible things that can happen. Then I'll roll dice to pick one. If I pick something and my brain reacts negatively, I take that off the list and reroll. This gets rid of things I know are wrong and gets me moving forward again.

    1. Ooooo, Lisa, I love the idea of making a list and then randomly picking one. That could be helpful in future early plotting brainstorming sessions for me. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I am not sure I've ever really had writer's block but sometimes, like you said, I do get stuck. But if I know what's going to happen later in the story, I start thinking about what has to happen first before that next thing happens. Do I need to show that? Or can I just go on to the important scene? Or add a bit of narrative to lead up to it. I will also go ahead and write that next important scene if it's clear, which often leads to knowing what needs to come in between. You're right about not knowing your characters. Once you know them, they take over the story!

  12. I've experienced what I called writer's block at the time. Just because it was all in my head doesn't mean it wasn't real. I couldn't write a word from the day I got my cancer diagnosis and all the way through treatment. I wasn't in the right mindset for writing romance. I'm sure other writers powered through similar circumstances, but I couldn't. I got back to writing slowly as I started reading again. It was a full year after treatment ended that I was able to write productively again.

  13. Excellent thoughts! I like the idea of giving oneself permission (or orders) to skip "the spot" and don't return until the draft is done. I think you're correct that sometimes we don't have all the info we need from our characters yet and have to just let it rest for a while.

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