Why is this happening to me?

All writers go through periods of writing and not writing, but some writers find they experience periods of not writing that fall outside their natural cycle. These periods of not writing often seem totally inexplicable. The writer is at a good place and time in his life to write; he may even have had some career success, and certainly gets good feedback on finished work. Yet one morning he wakes up and he simply can't write. He wants to write, he tries to write, he pushes himself to write and yet he can accomplish nothing. Some days he can't even bear to sit at the keyboard. And this condition persists for weeks, months -- even years at a time. It's painful and demoralizing and humiliating and worst of all, it just doesn't make any sense.

Except maybe if you look at it from another angle, it does make sense. Here are some possible reasons why despite all desires to the contrary, you are not writing now:


The curse of the talented. Once you know you're good, it's hard not to think that somehow, in some way you should be better. And from better, it is really only a small hop, skip and jump right over into the realm of best and even perfect. And herein lies the trap -- because if everything you get down on paper could be better, then it's also easy to fall into the fallacy that nothing you've done is really good enough. And the gap between not good enough and best is pretty hard to bridge first thing in the morning, even with a cup of really good coffee in your hand.

 Understand that I'm not talking here about constructive self-criticism -- the ability to step back from your work ONCE YOU'VE FINISHED A DRAFT and look at it with a measure of objectivity. Nor am I talking about earnest striving to better one's self at one's art and craft. What I am talking about here is the evil see-saw of thinking that a) you're talented enough to be the best and b) nothing you've ever done matches up to that potential.

 If you think you might be doing this, try the self-dialogue exercise on the exercises page and see if your ego and your self-esteem are engaged in a battle whose main casualty is your ability to write.

This is a point Victoria Nelson makes very strongly in "On Writer's Block". Sometimes writers get involved with writing because of a style or genre or milieu they like to read or watch on TV. Maybe they love romances or science fiction and fantasy; maybe the love obscure literaria or Gilligan's Island. They love these with a passion, and yet, when they become writers they feel they should move on to something serious. So the fantasy lovers try to write 'hard sf' and the romance lovers try to write literary fiction and the deconstructionist lit junkies struggle away at writing a best seller and after a while, they all find themselves miserable and not writing and they wonder why. To see if this might be your problem, try the 3 lists exercise on the exercises page.
This is another affliction of the talented and is actually the monstrous offspring of excessive self-criticism and perfectionism. It begins with a story that, much as it compels the writer, seems impossible to finish. The writer works on this story and puts it away unfinished. He drafts and redrafts, outlines, writes copious notes, even gets out occasional unrelated chapters but never quite manages to get out a workable draft (or if he does get a workable draft, it is always undergoing revision).

The trap here is twofold. One, the more time and work the writer lavishes on this project, often to the exclusion of other projects, the more he requires the project to pay off, so this feeds comfortably into the self-criticism/perfectionism cycle. The other trap is that if the writer began working on this one project at a time when his mastery of craft wasn't up to the level required to make it work, and if he has worked on nothing but this one project since then, it is possible that he will never learn the things he needs to know in order to finish the work that has swallowed his career.

One of the most common causes of writer's block among beginning and neo-professional writers is the gap between what they imagine their writing life will be like and the reality that confronts them as they meet the challenges of a career in writing.

 For the beginning writer who is facing the challenge of finishing stories and learning the basics of craft the fantasy may be that it will be easy to write, or that it will get progressively easier with time. The panic that strikes when each story is as harder or harder than the last can bring on writer's block before writing even properly begins.

For neo-pro's -- those writers who have been at it for a while and have had some success -- a sale or three, a contest won, a pitch received -- the problems may be more related to career track. The fantasy expectation here is that once you get started, the career will continues to rise in some kind of straight steady line. The reality may be that after the initial burst of success, there is a levelling off, or worse yet a lull where nothing sells. If this persists, the discouragement turns into doubts and the writer may experience a withdrawal of the passion that fuelled the initial success. The dis-impassioned writer is then vulnerable to all the negative influences, and, lacking the conviction that it will be worthwhile, may give up what would otherwise be a promising career.

This kind of block can strike at any time in a writer's career. It is sometimes related to misplaced expectations about where the writer should be in her career or what level of skill she should have acheived, but it can also be triggered by more general disillusionments. In terms of the process of the art and craft of writing, the writer may lose faith in their own talent, in their own worthiness; in the validity of what they have to say. On the career track side the writer may be disillusioned in the general milieu in which they're working -- the decline of publishing and shrinking markets; the soullessness of Hollywood; even just the rotten state of the world as a whole.

The writer, faced with the same writing challenges has to now contend with another inner voice that constantly whines: "Why bother?". When the writer's only reply is: "I don't know...", the block may not be far behind.

As you may already know, writer's block is a self-propelling mechanism -- the more you don't write, the more you feel you can't write. The more you feel you can't write, the more you feel hopeless and helpless to try.

If you've been down in the depths of writer's block for a while and would like to test the waters or have a little stretch, go try out the amazing WRITE-o-MATIC


m a i n  m e n u / m y  o w n  p a g e