Writer’s block is an evocative term that describes a dreadful state that some writers succumb to from time to time. When the wall of writer’s block erects itself, the writer’s creativity and motivation depart. The ink well dries up.
But is the stymied writer really blocked?
One thing I’ve learned from NLP (Neuro Linguistic Processing) is that the language we use makes a critical difference. The brain engages in a very visual form of processing. Tell your brain there’s a block in the way and it will perceive an impenetrable wall prohibiting your progress. That’s not super helpful when you’re trying to be creative.
I suggest that we have chosen the wrong metaphor for this writerly affliction. Whenever we have the metaphor wrong, we are probably defining the problem in the wrong way.
Einstein said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem. Once that—the real work of problem solving—was done it would take him only 5 minutes to figure out the answer.
What happens when we call our struggles “writer’s block?”
The brain envisions a wall and wonders how to get around it or over it. There are two problems with that approach. Walls can be hard to evade, and so we remain stuck. Second, even if we make our way around the wall, we’ve avoided it.
What’s Wrong with Avoiding It
The wall erects itself for a particular reason. It’s trying to tell you something. If you avoid it, you might not learn the needed lesson. A lesson not learned will reassert itself.
Your wall might pop up for a variety of reasons:
- You don’t have a clear direction for your work.
- You’re pushing yourself too hard (energetically, physically, or both).
- You’re not sure where your priorities lie amongst a few different projects, or even how you prioritize your writing within the larger context of your life.
- You’re distracting yourself with unsupportive thoughts (e.g. self-doubt, impostor syndrome, etc.)
A bulldozer could bust through the wall. This might look like “white knuckling” — just mustering the discipline to make ourselves write. But if we haven’t addressed the root of the problem, a nagging voice will disrupt our efforts. Those seeds will sprout again.
We must integrate whatever has slowed us down. The antidote comes as a new metaphor that, like Einstein’s problem framing, leads to a more constructive approach characterized by self-empathy and curiosity.
We can start by renaming the issue. Hillary Rettig suggests calling it a “writer’s snarl” instead. I prefer “writer’s tangle.”
I love this metaphor. It brings to mind my grandpa. His mother was a weaver and, as a boy, his job was untangling snarls of yarn. The yarn loosens itself if you lightly bounce it. Gently, gently pull at a string here and there.
Hold It Lightly
Let’s play with this metaphor. Imagine a pile of string in front of you, ostensibly obstructing your path. That’s not as scary and insurmountable as a wall, is it? I mean, what’s it going to do? Trip you?
What if we lightly bounced that messy tangle of yarn?
We’d be holding it lightly. We wouldn’t be making such a big deal out of it. We’d stop giving ourselves a hard time.
One of the insidious qualities of writer’s block is what we make it mean about ourselves. We find ourselves unable to write when we want and, instead of working on our novel, we make up stories about ourselves.
“See,” you might tell yourself, “I knew you couldn’t do it. You’re not good enough. You don’t have enough good ideas. You painted yourself into a corner in that last chapter and now you’re stuck.”
When we are being nasty with ourselves, we’re heading in a negative spiral right down the drain. Choosing to hold the tangle lightly can make a big difference. We can stop the shame game.
Examine the Threads
Next, we look at the individual threads, gently pulling on them. What are they? Where are they caught up in knots or tangled with other threads?
Then you might see:
- You’ve forgotten the details of what happened in Chapter 3. What did Colonel Mustard say about the candlestick and was Professor Plum in the room at the time?
- Maybe you truly don’t understand the antagonist’s sister’s motives.
- Maybe you’re not completely decided on how your story ends.
- Maybe it has nothing to do with writing:
- The way your daughter keeps interrupting you.
- You’re too exhausted because of having to cope with your impatient boss.
4 Strategies to Untangle the tangle
1) Rename it.
Defang the problem by calling it a “tangle” instead of a “block.”
Journalling is a good practice to embrace daily whether you are tangled or not. Ask yourself what’s on your mind. Process your thoughts. Observe the feelings you’ve been having (remain detached from them like a watcher). Reflect on how your writing is progressing and how your story is unfolding.
If you are tangled, see where the story seems to be resisting and where your writing routine is feeling challenging. Sometimes that feeling of being “blocked” is your subconscious throwing up a flag that you’re moving too fast and overlooking something important; that might be true in your story or in your life. See if your priorities are out of alignment.
3) Interview Your Characters
Think about your cast of characters. Who among them has been reluctant to speak? Who seems to have a secret? Who has been causing you problems?
Resolve to chat it out with them. Imagine that character sitting down across from you. You buy them a coffee or if you really want them to cut loose, maybe a gin and tonic. Ask the following questions (from Donald Maass) and write your answers:
- What am I missing about this story?
- What is something that you would like to say or do that I haven’t let you?
- Where is this story heading?
- Who else should I be talking to?
Want these questions as a worksheet? Grab them here:
4) Tell Yourself the Story Backwards
Often, we become snagged when there is an issue with the story. The plot isn’t hanging together somewhere, something is missing, the scenes are feeling forced. Diagnose the problem by working the story backward. This is a good journalling exercise, too.
Start with the end. Describe what happens and then say, “And that all occurred because…” Then go back to the previous scene, quickly summarizing the plot. Once again say: “And that all occurred because…” Work your way back to the beginning or until you’ve struck clarity or inspiration. If the latter happens, then — Cha-Ching! go back to writing the novel!
If your story has multiple threads and tangents, trace those too. Follow each branch as though you are following the root system of a tree. One scene might require three branches. That’s okay. Just keep working your way backwards.
Chances are this exercise will help you see things that don’t quite fit. You’ll find errant scenes not organically unfolding from the previous events. Intimate knowledge of your story will reveal its shortcomings.
Give these strategies a try. Start with redefining the problem. Nothing is blocking you. Nothing stands in your way. You have a tangle. (See, doesn’t that feel lighter?). Then journal, interview a character, or trace the roots of your story.
Tell me in the comments how these techniques work for you or share your own strategies.
I’m Dr. Kira Swanson and I’m a Life Coach for people who dread Monday. I work with corporate misfits who feel unfulfilled in their work. Together, we tune into what they really want, find new perspectives, and summon the courage to take bold action. Whether it’s striking out on their own, landing in a new job, or thriving right where they are, I help my clients to Love Monday.
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Wow, this is a much more sophisticated way of looking at writer’s block. I myself tend to just go: “So you think you’re blocked, eh? Well then let’s write crap. Then we’ll show it to the world and they’ll see how crappy you are. That’s what you get for getting writer’s block.”
Thanks for sharing!
Hi Stuart, LOL! Yes, you get what you think about your writing! Thanks for your comments. You might want to also check out my recent blog about the Talent Myth in writing: https://kiraswanson.com/2021/04/02/the-talent-myth/ Take care! Kira
Brilliant post. I love the idea of working backwards- starting with the conclusion and then working it out in the form of “it all occurred because … ”. I think this will definitely help filling in the holes.
Thanks Karen! Please let me know how it goes. I would love to hear how it works for you!
What about us “tangled” writers of NONfiction? Where’s help for _us_?
Hi Kate, a lot of the techniques apply to nonfiction writers, too, but you’re right, this was largely focused on fiction. Here are some questions to get nonfiction writers untangled: Why are you writing this? Who is your audience? What do they most need to know? What’s a logical progression for building on that knowledge? Without knowing the specifics of your book, it’s hard to generate more questions, but next, I’d think about before and after. Where are they now (this could be in terms of their understanding of the issue, on their journey, etc) and where would you like them to end up? I hope that helps!