Writer’s Block: The 12-Step Cure

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

At his first inaugural address, FDR helped launch his presidency with those famous words. He was, of course, talking about measures the United States needed to take in order to pull itself out of the Great Depression. But he could have just as easily been giving a pep talk to writers wallowing in a creative slump.

99% of the time, writer’s block is nothing more than fear. You’re afraid you’re out of ideas. You’re afraid your best work is behind you. You’re afraid that you’re a phony. You’re afraid that you’ve exposed too much of yourself, or not enough. You’re afraid of failure. You’re afraid you’re not the genius you wanted to be when you started.

Rid yourself of the Genius Curse

Elizabeth Gilbert did a great job in her 2009 TED Talk of illustrating how we’re crippled by an obsession with our own intrinsic genius. We’re limited by the notion that every utterance we make, every phrase we write, every idea we have, should be pure brilliance. No pressure, or anything!

Do we really think our work should be transcendent at every turn?

No wonder we end up going through extended periods just staring at a blank page or hating absolutely everything we’ve recently written. Creativity requires a sense of hard work and discipline as well as a sense of play and discovery.

Here are 12 ways to free up your writing and cure you of your fear of failure:

1. Don’t be married to results.

This first tip is common curing-writer’s-block advice, but it’s also absolutely critical! Most people have to write pages of utter crap before they stumble upon that moment, phrase, idea, or character that really makes things click. No one else has to see that pile of crumpled papers in the trash. It’s your little secret.

Remember, brilliance has no deadline. Just sit back and enjoy the sound of your fingers on the keyboard or the scratch of your pen. If you DO have a deadline, be easy on yourself and accept the fact that not every sentence you write will sparkle.

2. Don’t compare yourself to other writers.

While you should constantly be reading other peoples’ work, it does little good to bemoan the fact that you do not posses the same kind of talent that, say, Nabokov or Dickens wielded. Your talents are unique. And Jealousy is bad for the soul; it is energy poorly spent.

Plenty of authors have been praised in their day, only to be forgotten decades later. Plenty now-infamous writers were relatively unknown while alive. Poet X might have you beat in terms of vocabulary, lyricism, rich imagery, and clever turns of logic, but your simple, conversational style may communicate with readers in a far more raw and visceral way.

Basically, there’s no way to assess how your audience (perceived or real) is going to react to your words in comparison to any other writer’s, living or dead. You just can’t know. So don’t worry about other writers. Don’t worry about your perceived audience. Just write. Once you’ve written enough material, judge yourself (but not too harshly) and revise from there!

3. Remember rejection letters are made of paper.

And paper can be burned. It makes an especially pretty glow at night. Rejection letters do NOT reflect upon you as a person or on your writing. They simply mean that your submission wasn’t a perfect fit for a particular editor, a particular agent, a particular publisher, a particular issue of a particular magazine, a particular theme or season… a particular particular. Keep trying until you find that fit. Your audience will follow.

4. Ask if your intentions are holding you back.

W.H. Auden was asked what advice he would give to a young poet: He said he would ask the poet why he wanted to write poetry. If the aspiring poet said, “Because I have something important to say,” Auden feared there would be no hope for this young writer. But if, on the other hand, the novice said he wanted to write because he loved to play with language, Auden thought there was some promise since he the young writer was open to the discovery aspect of the poetic process.

Just because you have something to say doesn’t mean that it is interestingly said. Is what you have to say less interesting than what you have to discover? If so…

5. Write ahead of yourself.

Get out in front of your conscious, deliberate, critical mind. Free yourself from patterns and intentions wherever they’re stifling your writing. You may uncover something interesting you never even knew that you knew.

But how? It’s difficult to offer particular advice here, since every writer is walled-in by unique habits and proclivities. But I would recommend that you NOT start relying on drink or drugs to free up your creative mind. Your writing will suffer in a completely different way. Instead, try some of the free-writing prompts you can find online. (http://creativewritingprompts.com/)

6. Cannibalize your older writing.

Everyone knows you shouldn’t be afraid to “kill your darlings” when revising current work. But don’t be afraid to dig up the dead for spare parts, either. I know it’s embarrassing to go back and read your younger work, but it can be a fruitful scavenging experience. I once went through a whole notebook of dreadful poems I’d written in college and filled up 3 pages’ worth of decent lines and titles that spawned newer, better poems. The same could be true of your old poems, stories, essays, etc.

If you’re feeling particularly brave, try combining some of those surviving lines and see if that launches something unexpected.

7. Break old habits of voice and style.

After you’ve been writing for a while, your style can grow stale, especially to YOU! So try something else for a change. Trade your typical Hen Lit romance for dreary Sci Fi, your dreary Sci Fi for historical fiction, your long and lyrical lines for terse and choppy fragments, your satirical smirk for a somber frown, etc.

8. Similarly, break from your assumptions.

This goes along with my earlier point about divorcing yourself from your intentions, but your assumptions can hold you back too. Maybe you’ve spent 6 months writing a light-hearted romance with characters you absolutely love, but the plot has dead-ended. Great! Kill one of your characters off and turn it into a murder mystery. If such a radical shift works to reinvigorate your writing, you can always use the revision process to balance out the narrative and style, or not!

If you have spent your whole life smack-talking love poems, spend the next few months trying to craft the most beautiful love poems you can muster! If nothing else, you’ll learn something.

9. Take a lesson out of the Ray Davies songwriting book.

A story or poem idea is never more than just a newspaper away. Inhabit a character from current events. Write rhymed verse about the underwater photography in National Geographic. Look to the outer world to inspire you. If it resonates you’re your inner life, you’ll be able to take the subject in a new direction.

10. Write every single day.

If you’re having fun simply writing, and if your work doesn’t have to be unbelievably brilliant every single time you put pen to paper, then there’s no excuse not to do it as often as possible. Practice doesn’t make you perfect; it makes you a better problem-solver.

11. Join or start a writing group.

The encouragement that comes from a writing group can be invaluable. If you trust and respect the other members of the group, your confidence and skills as a reader and writer will grow. You’ll also be challenging each other with weekly writing prompts. Check out BookBaby’s advice on how to start your own writing group and run an informal workshop. (http://blog.bookbaby.com/2011/06/top-5-tips-to-starting-a-writers-group/)

12. Combine all of these approaches.

Make a habit of habit-breaking. Since you won’t be staring down the barrel of any deadlines (right?), you can try as many crazy approaches as you like. Write as often as you can. Don’t be afraid to write absolute drivel. Once you’ve amassed enough material you can throw out the garbage, keep the good stuff, revise, and release only your most polished prose or poetry into the world. Everybody but your trash collector will assume you’re a total genius all the time!

13. ___________________________________.

Ah, lucky #13: the mystery step. This is one for you to fill in based on your own experience, tastes, talents, and limitations. The above suggestions are just the advice of one occasionally humble man. Trust yourself. You probably know better than anyone else what you need as a writer.

Courtesy of Book Baby



  1. I found these tips to be really insightful. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: