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Writer’s Block, Laziness, and Perseverance in Writing: How to Gentle Parent Yourself into Writing Again
Lately I feel as though I have come to a catastrophic full stop in my fantasy writing. Like, I’m here doing this (the blog), but what of aCATemy, which I was “supposed to” write in April? What of Magic Princess Academy, which I can’t seem to figure out how to revise? What of that new shiny cozy fantasy I want to write but haven’t written more than a chapter of, with a monster hunter who gives up hunting to raise two cerberi puppies?
ON WRITER’S BLOCK
I think there are three kinds of writer’s block, each with their own solution:
Type one is where you don’t have any ideas—that’s when you “fill the well” with other media. Hopefully the new media inspires you and gives you new thinky thoughts that you can use to play with new creative work. This one is not a frequent visitor for me. I usually have ideas: it’s more a question of “How passionate am I about them?” or “How will they go?” (If you’re currently stuck on this one, I have a blog post on how to re-inspire yourself here.)
Type two is when you think you know what you’re doing—you have ideas—but something in your subconscious is stopping you from moving forward linearly on the draft because it knows better than you that the scene has taken a wrong turn and it wants to save you time by not letting you write a huge chunk of words that will just end up junked anyway. This is probably the type of writer’s block that I have most often. My brain will be like “nah man this scene is dumb. Don’t write it.” And I’ll have to struggle through brainstorming my way out of it.
But the third type… the third type is a bitch. The third type of writer’s block is when you want to be writing, you have the idea, you’re passionate about the idea, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the structure of the idea, but your brain still REFUSES to write it. Point blank refusal. You want to be writing, but the very act feels impossible.
When I am not writing, I feel like a ✨failure✨. Having been, what reads to my brain as “not writing” for so long (I’ve been struggling to write consistently since about 2020), has absolutely turned my self-esteem into mashed potatoes. I’m working with the saddest potatoes you’ve ever damn seen. Not a drop of molasses to be found.
It’s hard to have a goal like writing in which at least the first step seems like it’s completely within my power: all I have to do is write the book. Other forces can stop me once the book is written, but it seems like the only thing stopping my progress is me. I feel like the problem is a moral failing within myself. For whatever reason—vestigial protestantism?—I guilt myself into feeling like a terrible, double-plus-ungood writer/person.
And I don’t think I’m alone in this! A lot of writers feel like they’ve lost their mojo when they’re not writing. Writing is a pretty big part of our identities. We want to succeed—we want to move forward on our projects so that we can share them with others and feel proud knowing that we started something and finished it and did a pretty okay job.
While suffering from writer’s block, feeling like a failure can compound and make taking up a writing project seem more and more impossible. The longer a writer doesn’t write, the further they feel from their idealized self. This causes one of the worst forms of writer angst. The agonies. For me, it can get to the point where I wonder if I can even write anymore—as if the skill leaves me the moment I close my laptop.
So how do you jump-start the momentum to get yourself writing again after a particularly long bout of not-writing?
Take a second to look at this chart. I made it. I’m proud of it. I think it’s funny because there’s an unhappy face on it. But it also exemplifies some pretty serious emotions I’ve been feeling.
Maybe some people have short writer’s block. I don’t. And because it lingers, it allows this sad amplification process to begin. When I’m not writing, I feel guilty. I define guilt as different from shame here in that guilt is guilt toward myself for not doing the (theoretically) fun and good task that is writing. I know I can do it (theoretically), so why am I not doing it? Shame, on the other hand, is more of a societal pressure. I.e. I am comparing myself to other people who are good and writing and being cool and valuable and I’m like, “gdi why am I not like them.”
Guilt and shame, combined with fear of inability, which manifests as something like, “What if I actually can’t write anymore? What if that creative ability has dried up forever?” can cause me to become avoidant of my writing. The more that negative emotions such as guilt and shame pile on, the more pressure there is to succeed really well when I do write. Which is maybe not the best way to look at it, as it doesn’t allow any grace to screw up or stumble when I finally put words on the page.
Then lastly, the longer I’m away from a manuscript, the further I get from the “flow” of being deep in it, which makes it one step harder to slip back in.
YOU ARE ALWAYS A WRITER
Beginning to write again after a long period of inactivity can feel absolutely paralyzing—even if there is a part of you that is eager or excited to get back to it. But when your brain is acting like a feral cat that spooks at the slightest gesture, the techniques to make it work with you, rather than against you, require a lot of gentleness and patience.
There was a reason you started writing. You want to be a writer. When I doubt my creative prospects, I keep an eye out for little things I am doing. Like, the way I analyze and critique the hell out of other media, comparing what the writers did with what I would do. Or the way I write prosy descriptions in my head (but not on paper, RIP). Or the way I write blog posts. (You are writing a blog post right now, Chelsea, you big gulug. Of course you’re a gd writer.)(I am literally shaking my head at myself in disbelief.)
But how do I, and you, jump start momentum to get us back into the things we want to be writing?
MOVE BEYOND WRITER’S BLOCK THROUGH GENTLE PARENTING
If you have ever read a dog training manual, you know that the way to get a dog to do what you want is to reward them with positivity and treats. If, every time you tried to get Fido to sit and he didn’t sit, you raised your voice and threw hands, Fido would not learn to sit. Instead, he would learn to fear you—to fear working with you. And he would probably be much less eager to participate in your training sessions in the future.
In this way too, writers (myself included) have to be kind to ourselves in order to get ourselves to write. Guilt and shame and self-flagellation are not good incentives to work. Rewards, positivity, and play, on the other hand, are.
I read this blog by Casey von Neumann, and she had a super compelling allegory about creating success in a child through inspiring play and confidence rather than just forcing them to do something. She writes:
We feel good about ourselves when we’re accomplishing things that are meaningful to us…
Therefore, my carefully constructed, gentle pedagogy is actually designed to be as effective as possible, ideally in as short a time as possible. I’m fighting the same battle as the “tiger mother” with a totally different strategy. I’m seeking the ultimate victory: a student who wants their own success for their own reasons and is utterly assured of their own capacity to achieve it.
I recommend reading her whole post, but the tl; dr is that she teaches music, and if some mother asked her to “make her daughter a top violinist by the time she was a senior in high school,” she wouldn’t browbeat the child, force her to work past the point of tears, and give her tasks that were extremely difficult. Instead, she would encourage play, switch up the activities, and keep the lessons very close to the child’s abilities so that she learned a sense of confidence and esteem, while also enjoying the work.
When you are a writer who has fallen out of writing and is struggling with this particularly nasty flavor of writer's block, inspiring a return to writing requires a gentle hand, not unlike what you would use with a child.
Imagine you are a child, maybe ten years old, and you are trying to inspire yourself to be interested in writing again. You wouldn’t shame a child. You wouldn’t say, “You, child, are a failure for not writing. You are a loser and your peers are climbing higher and higher while you fall further behind!”
Instead, you would keep things positive. You would create writing goals that were playful and gentle. You would never be harsh and punishing—you would reward the child (yourself) for small victories and say, “Good job! You are a spectacular writer! You are really going places! I am proud of you!”
Your writer brain is like a puppy or a child. When going from a full standstill to creative empowerment, you want to train your brain to desire the journey of writing. When writing, you want to feel like writing = good. You don’t want to feel like writing = pain/misery/suffering.
That means stepping away from writing if you are hating it. (Otherwise you will train your brain to hate it.) That means taking more breaks. That means resting, and small goals, and consistent positivity for every small goal that is achieved.
Obviously you’re not a ten-year-old, but think of a ten-year-old’s attention span. You wouldn’t force them to grind out three hours of writing—especially if they didn’t want to.
As a person who is also a writer, I am dealing with a lot of baggage when I’m writing. I am a formerly gifted child. This is an identity that wasn’t cultivated in a vacuum. It was cultivated by my parents and teachers and everyone around me. They taught me that my value was inherent—that my intellect and accomplishments were due to me “being smart” and not from hard work or persistence. The expectations of society formed in childhood weigh heavily on us as adults. Not only is there pressure to succeed and to seek the highs of external praise from childhood that never appear in adulthood, but there is ALSO a sense that the skills I do have are inherent and limited. That any self-worth I have is not defined by my ability to overcome obstacles, but by my ability to succeed on the first try. I genuinely believe that if I don’t succeed greatly on the first try, I am some kind of trash. When you are in this mindset, it’s so much harder to face setbacks and continue positively. That’s why I have to think of myself like the dog, or the child (both entities I would take it much easier on). It’s mental gymnastics, but it’s a workaround to something deeply ingrained, so it takes gymnastics.
Writing is an incredibly long con. As writers, we have to write hundreds of thousands of words—all with narrative and thematic integrity!—and then we have to revise them again and again and again, probably until our eyeballs fall out. Probably until we hate ourselves.
Except we shouldn’t have to hate ourselves. There must be a way to inspire perseverance in our writing and train our brains to desire the journey and not just the success of the end goal.
So how can we do that?
The following list is inspired by a lifehacker article about instilling perseverance in children.
Praise yourself for working, regardless of the quality of work—i.e. “Wow, you wrote the shit out of that paragraph! You worked so hard today. This scene was so tricky, and you did it regardless! You are very brave.”
Remember that your skills are always growing, and you are always adding to your toolbox—i.e. “This first draft might be messy, but I can see where I need to change it. I have the vision and the skills to improve upon my work. Learning this new structure might be difficult, but I believe I can handle it because I have encountered difficulties before.”
Acknowledge that success is not immediate, and that mistakes are made by everyone—i.e. “Okay, I accidentally sent that query to the wrong agent, and that’s embarrassing, but everyone makes mistakes and I will do better next time. I have eighty agents to query and I will learn more and more about this process the more I do it. In the future, I will send out queries when I’ve had more sleep. A mistake does not make me a permanent failure—it makes me human.”
Maintain self-awareness of your emotional state and your needs—i.e. “Man, I’m feeling kind of crummy today. Okay, really crummy. Maybe writing would make that even worse and I should give myself grace for a day.” Or “Wow, I’ve written for an hour—that’s so good, but I’m feeling tired and losing focus. Maybe I should take a break so that I can come back with the passion and energy I need to succeed on this project.” Or even, “Man, I’ve never written a multi-POV book and I am finding it really difficult. I definitely think I can do it, but perhaps I need to fill my toolbox by reading several other books with multi-pov and study how they do it before continuing in this direction.”
Allow yourself to feel your frustration as a valid emotion—i.e. “Gosh, even though I love this book and I stand by my themes, I am feeling a lot of frustration as I struggle through the swampy middle. I am still learning narrative structure, and it is really hard, but I can probably do it if I keep trying, while also taking restorative breaks.”
Praise the shit out of literally anything you do right—i.e. “You know, I rather like this new first chapter I’ve come up with. It’s much more engaging than the last one, and I’m proud of myself for following my intuition here.”
And finally, remember that writing (as well as training yourself that writing is a positive thing) are both long games. Success is not expected to be immediate (though that would be great, don’t get me wrong). What’s most important is to encourage the belief that we have the capacity as writers to achieve our goals. Everything beyond that is just words on paper.
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