I am not sure if writer’s block exists or not. In my experience, I do have instances where I cannot seem to write, but with a little mental interrogation I can usually uncover the real problem and sort it out.
There are various things that pose as a writer’s block for me.
1. Too distracted
I spend most of my time alone and quiet. Often when I have a big social event in the near future, for example, a literary festival I must attend, my mind will be busy thinking about that leaving no room for thinking about the project I am working on.
I also have quite a low tolerance level for noise and, unfortunately, a neighbour who when he is home plays very loud music. The distraction makes it impossible to write. Usually I just stop trying and instead read or attend to administrative tasks until the distraction passes.
2. The perfect sentence
Sometimes when writing you want to describe or explain something and the words are coming out quite pedestrian and you are wishing for something much more.
You are stuck. You write, you delete, you write,, you fiddle with it, and suddenly the day is gone. The best writing advice I have ever read was from Anne Lamott: “write a shitty first draft”. Just write, do not edit.
It’s easier to edit something that is written down than to start with a blank page. I have learned that, in fact, perfection is never reached. You can only do your best. The hopeful thing is that, almost always, if you are working at your craft, you will improve.
To be honest I think nearly every time that I cannot write the cause is self-doubt. “I’ll never be able to write like (fill-in-the-blank with my latest favourite writer at the moment).” “I’m crap.” “What’s the point of this anyway?” And on and on it goes.
That negative self-talk can stop you in place and have you never writing again. I try to deal with this by first telling myself that, yes I will never write like John Steinbeck or Hilary Mantel or Kate Atkinson; I can only write like me. Maybe that will be good enough, maybe it won’t. But I will try to write the very best that I can.
I think self-doubt must be helpful. It may not feel that way, but anecdotal evidence tells me it is an important part of the process. Every overly-confidant writer I have met has been an average
4. The hustle
Nowadays it is tougher than ever to make a living as a writer; you either must have a day job or be willing to hustle in a serious way. That constant pressure to survive can affect your writing. Often you must write things you have no interest in writing just to make some money.
The kind of work you love to do, rarely makes enough to live on. So often I am forced to leave my passion project, to go off and try to find work that will earn me some pulas. When I come back to my project, it is hard to get back into it, I have lost my way.
Sometimes the hustle kills your writing by reminding you of the financial reality. You spend two or more years writing a novel and you are lucky to earn P4,000 on it; P166 per month for the work you put in—how can that make sense? When I get in this dark mental place, I remind myself that for me the writing is the important thing, sometimes I do not even mind if it is never published.
5. Worrying too much about the audience
Of course some writing, such as this column, the audience needs to be considered since it is the only reason I write this. But if you are writing fiction and you start thinking: “what will my mother say about this?” or “how can I impress people with this?” – you are doomed.
At least for me, during most of the process until the very, very end when a piece is to be published, I never think about the audience. If I do it can stop everything. I write for me. I write what needs to come out. I try not to edit or censor. In this way the writing will flow in a truthful way which is the most important kind of writing.
Sometimes the best antidote to a writer’s block is to just keep on writing. You might be writing complete rubbish that will eventually have to be deleted but eventually you will get to the good stuff.