Here is another post in my WRITERLY WISDOM series I first ran back in 2013. Five years later, I’ve updated the material and made sure it still applies to today’s writers. You first got the chance to meet Kristi Holl when she talked about writing the middle-grade novel in her previous Writerly Wisdom post. She has returned to share her words of wisdom on ways to handle writer’s block. You can visit Kristi at her website, www.kristiholl.com.
“A Block by Any Other Name…”
By Kristi Holl
A Rose is a Rose is a Rose…
If you’ve been writing any length of time at all, you’ve experienced writer’s block. You may have read articles about it, following different authors’ recommendations to blast through your block. Did the solution you tried do the trick? If not, the reason could be that you applied the wrong answer to your problem.
Aspirin or Band-Aid?
If you go to a physician, he doesn’t doctor you with a one-medicine-fits-all or one-treatment-fits-all solution. Instead, there are specific treatments for specific ailments: the broken arm gets a cast, the cut gets stitched, the fever gets an antibiotic. Only when you identify the specific ailment can the right treatment be given, or a cure found. The same is true for writer’s block.
A Multitude of Sources
Reading an article on writer’s block might help you if you happen to stumble across a suggestion that truly corresponds to your problem. However, twenty years of writing and fifteen years of teaching the craft of writing have led me to believe that is no one type of writer’s block.
If you can’t identify the origin of your block, treating it is impossible. Have you stopped writing because you can’t face any more rejection slips, or your spouse (or a parent) is/was overly critical, or you’re disillusioned with having to shape your writing for the market? Are you blocked because you drink too much, or you’re just plain exhausted from waitressing while raising four small children?
Take time to get to know your own blocks. Until you do, until you identify specific sources of blockage, you won’t be able to apply suitable remedies that work.
Possible Causes of Writer’s Block
1. Critical childhood voices: those voices from the past who tell you that you’re not good enough, you’re not creative, you’re untalented, or lazy. They might have originated with parents, grandparents, caretakers, teachers or siblings. While you no longer may hear actual voices in your head, you’ve incorporated their views of you somewhere along the way, and these views (or self-beliefs) crop up at the worst times for your writing. The feelings of anger and self-doubt that result produce confusion, sap your motivation and makes you wonder if you should even proceed.
2. Personality style: passive or aggressive, outgoing or shy, rigid or flexible, courageous or fearful. An outgoing person may be great at book signings and marketing his work, yet block when it’s time to sit down–alone–and write for three hours. The flexible person may have numerous ideas that flow effortlessly from him, and he may be able to juggle a number of different projects, yet he may block when it’s time to choose just one idea and get to work. The insecure person may write fluidly and happily alone, yet block when nearing the end of her story because she’s too afraid of rejection to submit a finished product.
Your past may have produced defense mechanisms that can also cause you to block. If you have been rejected by parents as a child, you may tend to reject others before they can reject you as an adult. You may quit your critique group, rejecting them before they can reject your work, and end up blocked in your writing. Get to know the quirks–both positive and negative–of your own personality.
3. Self-criticism: harsh and self-punishing judgments on our work and marketing efforts. Even when our criticism is well founded and accurate, harsh criticism defeats and blocks us before we can get started. Self-esteem plummets, courage then fails, and we shut off the computer and head to the refrigerator. We’re afraid we’re deluding ourselves both about the viability of the project we’re working on, as well as our basic ability to tell a good story. This can certainly stop our writing in its tracks.
4. Marketplace blues: delays and rejection. After a few months or years of nothing but rejection slips, it can become harder and harder to keep pouring your heart into your work. Sometimes, after enough “near misses” and “almost sales,” writers can come to mistrust editors, agents, even the writers in their critique group, wondering if they have hidden agendas. After being rejected enough, the writer may feel unable to face another editorial comment, bad review, “lost” manuscript, payment that never arrives and stories that don’t get published. In other words, he’s blocked.
5. Regular life: finding time and energy to write while attending to the ongoing demands of life. All the pressures we human beings face–family and financial needs, inner compulsions, leaky faucets, illnesses, rebellious teens–make us sometimes feel that we can’t have both a writing life and a regular life. (Regular life means different things to different people: children, single friends, volunteer work and hobbies, going out for dinner, being active in sports, etc.) When we’re busy writing, we feel guilty for taking time from the family and friends, yet when we’re socializing, we can feel guilty for not writing. This inner push/pull can eventually cause us to block.
6. Fatigue: physically worn out. You could be tired from the writing and marketing of your work, from wrestling with plot or character problems that seem insurmountable. Your block at this point may feel like you’ve disconnected from your work and especially from the passion for it. Each step in the creative process requires energy, and frequently after working a day job to put food on the table, car pooling the kids to activities, and giving a dinner party for your partner’s boss, there simply isn’t any energy left. You may still want to write, truly want to, but be blocked because your mind is simply too exhausted to cough up a creative idea.
7. Environmental blocks: too much noise and chaos in your surroundings. Writers who can’t write at home–who swear they’re totally blocked–have been able to write easily and prolifically when transported to a cabin in the mountains or an isolated seaside retreat. Why? They were removed from the noise of city streets, roommates’ stereos, toddlers’ crying or whatever was keeping them too distracted and on edge to write. Freed from the noise and chaos, then surrounded by peace and quiet, these blocked writers often find they’re not blocked at all.
8. Information-specific blocks: when you can’t answer or solve a particular question in your writing. Perhaps it’s your first mystery novel, a private eye whodunit, but you realize you don’t know how this should differ from a police procedural. You’re blocked, but it’s because you lack specific knowledge about how a private eye operates. These types of blocks can be taken care of easily, as soon as you identify what it is you need to know.
9. Skill deficiency block: when you simply don’t have the skill needed to proceed with your work. Perhaps you’re blocked in finishing your biography of the first woman astronaut because you don’t know how to write for permissions for the photos you found. Or maybe you want to do a photo essay about beaches, and you have the writing all done, yet you’re blocked from finishing because you don’t know enough about cameras and lighting and film speeds. These are physical skills you need to acquire before you can unblock.
10. Anxiety and/or depression blocks: nerves, doubts, worries, fears, and panic. This may be the first sign of any kind of block, and the foremost symptom to deal with. Sometimes our worries are realistic. Can we afford to spend time writing stories that might never sell? On the other hand, if we sell a book, will our insecure spouse walk away? If we write that “coming of age” novel, will our parents or siblings recognized themselves in our work and abandon us? Anxiety can produce a restless energy that keeps us from being able to sit still long enough to write. On the other hand, depression can leave us too lethargic to get up off the couch and make it to our desk.
A Tailor-Made Solution
Different blocks require different solutions. A few days of peace at a seaside cottage wouldn’t help the blocked writer who didn’t know how private eyes operate (but it could work wonders for the mother of triplets). Taking an assertiveness training/confidence building course won’t help the postal employee exhausted from trekking twenty miles a day from house to house (but it could work miracles for the shy, retiring writer with a drawer full of manuscripts he’s afraid to submit).
So take the time to get to know yourself. If you’re blocked, find out why. Then outline and implement a step-by-step plan for blasting through your block. Read excellent books on the subject, like If You Can Talk, You Can Write by Joel Saltzman, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Deep Writing by Eric Maisel, and The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes. Help is available if you want to break through your personal blocks and create the writing life of your dreams.
Kristi Holl is an award-winning author of 42 books for children, two nonfiction books for writers (Writer’s First Aid and More Writer’s First Aid), and over 150 stories and articles for children and adults, as well as conference speaker and web editor. Her stories and articles have appeared in Jack and Jill, Child Life, Hi-Call, Your Life & Health, Touch, The Writer, Children’s Writer, and the SCBWI Bulletin, among others. She also wrote a mystery column and self-coaching column for the magazine Once Upon a Time.
Kristi Holl was born in Iowa, graduated from Marshalltown High School and has lived in Mason City, Cedar Falls, Red Oak, Knoxville, Conrad, and Story City (all in Iowa). In July 2003, she moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she and her husband live near their grandchildren.
Kristi started as an elementary teacher after graduating from the University of Northern Iowa in l974, and began writing as a hobby when staying home with her children. She has taught writing for children for the Institute of Children’s Literature since l983. In l998 she created and became Web Editor for the Institute’s web site at http://www.institutechildrenslit.com where she monitored Open Forums, wrote articles for the Writer’s Support Rooms and Writing Tips, and moderated online interviews with editors and writers. In 2000 she added web editing for the Long Ridge Writers Group web site at http://www.longridgewritersgroup.com. She retired as web editor in 2002. From 2008 to 2012 she blogged for the Institute. She now spends the majority of her time writing books, doing manuscript critiques and speaking at writers’ conferences.
Her books are on many recommended reading lists and have been nominated for numerous Children’s Choice Awards.