Home » David Farland, Writing Advice » The Truth About Writer’s Block

The Truth About Writer’s Block

2 June 2015

From NYT bestseller and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Some authors never get “Writer’s Block,” and they don’t believe that it exists. They’ll blithely say, “Do doctors ever get ‘Doctor’s block,’ or do plumbers ever get ‘plumber’s block’?” and they think that they’ve just scored a point.

If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have told you much the same.

The truth is, doctors do get doctor’s block. Plumbers do get plumber’s block. It’s just that only writers have been smart enough to give the problem a name.

Think about it. Have you ever known someone who didn’t like their work environment, so they just got up and quit from a job that perhaps they had loved a year before? It’s a huge problem. I’ve worked as a manager in a number of businesses and believe me, employee retention is a big problem for management. So we have to make sure that the employees know that we care about them, that they’re properly reimbursed for their time, talents, and expertise, and that they’re given a nice work environment.

Right now, in my online writing workshops at www.mystorydoctor.com, I’m training a number of professionals with high-paying jobs that they were probably once happy with—lawyers, doctors, dentists, pilots, government officials, and execs in Fortune 500 companies. But all of them have decided that they would rather write.

But being a writer can be a tough job. If you’re starting out, early in your career you probably don’t get much in the way of benefits. Instead of praise from fans, you get torn apart by the critics in your writing group. Instead of a pleasant office, you may be writing in a dusty cellar. Instead of big paychecks, your first stories might be paid in copies of the small-press magazine that you just got published in.

. . . .

Several years ago, an agent called and asked me to hurry up and get a book turned in—the last novel in my Runelords series. Now, I’m going to be honest here. He called at a very bad time. I had gone to Oregon to take care of my mother, who was dying. I had literally been holding her hand, trying to comfort her, when my agent called. You can imagine that I wasn’t in a great mood to write.

On the phone my agent relayed a threatening message from my editor—one that I found outrageous. I thought about calling my publisher and demanding a new editor. I thought about just quitting my work with the publisher altogether.

In short, I became blocked on that project.

I tried working on it over and over again, but each time that I did I felt . . . confused. I couldn’t focus. I began to worry that I was getting Alzheimer disease, or something else. So I began taking vitamins and exercising, trying to get back on track.

Each time that I tried to write on that project, I also found myself getting angry all over again and feeling a keen sense of despair.

. . . .

People are most often blocked by negative criticism. The criticism might come from literary critics, from writers in a writing group, from editors, from random terrorists posting on Amazon.com, from family members or friends, or even a thought that flashes through the back of a writer’s own mind.

Some writers get anxious. They set unrealistic deadlines for themselves, or they feel undue pressure with their work. They may worry about tough critics or the possibility of bad reviews—or they might worry that they’ll actually succeed. And those worries block the creative process.

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59 Comments to “The Truth About Writer’s Block”

  1. I have a collaboration story I have yet to finish my part for solely because my collaborator is always sooo negative about it (as a subset of her writing in general) that it kills my motivation and momentum dead.

  2. I’ve found that writer’s block means something’s wrong. Maybe it’s that you’re sick or stressed. Maybe a character acted marionette-y two scenes back. Maybe your story’s jumping down a plot hole. Maybe you’re afraid of what you have to do next.

    Whatever the cause, if you identify the cause of the “stuck”, you can seek a way around or through it.

    • I agree. Whenever I get a case of the “block”, it’s usually plot related. If I step away from it, I can usually figure it out. But I don’t just stop writing. I focus on one of my many WIP. Eventually things work themselves out and I’m back on track. With something “extra” to publish 🙂

    • I’m with you, Carradee. Every time I’ve been “stuck” something’s wrong with the story or something’s wrong in life.

      In David’s case, his mom’s dying and his editor is such a d***** that he’s threatening David? That’s wrong on so many levels I can’t count them all.

      • Agree Suzan. I’d be blocked too. As in, blocking them from ever making another dime off me. I hope that the editor and agent didn’t know.

        • Suburbanbanshee

          Nurturing. So nurturing.

          And yet, seriously, if there were ever a time for an agent to be kind and soothing and helpful (and maybe even take dictation over the phone), you’d think that crunchtime with a client’s mother dying would be that moment. Nurturing would really be needed. And yet, no nurture.

  3. Farland’s comparison is just as ridiculous as the claim that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Not wanting to go to your work as a plumber isn’t remotely like not being able to get words out of your head. Neither is *not wanting to write,* for some reason. That isn’t writer’s block at all, as far as I’m concerned.

    • The comparison bothered me, too. Did the plumber suddenly forget how to install a toilet? If not, he’s not blocked, just unhappy.

    • I’d have to disagree there, quite strongly. I’ve seen electrician’s block. It manifests in the bowels of an international airport, with well over ten thousand miles of conveyor belt run by hundreds of motors, almost all of them different… and trying to diagnose which motors where might be set by design mistake to run too fast, too slow, or was a from-factory defect and not running smoothly (usually it’s not just one of these things) in order to set the whole system off its rhythm.

      While the political heads are screaming at the shop heads to fix it because they look bad, and the airlines are all calling in complaints, and the mechanics are bitching up a storm because they’re having issues with the increased maintenance, and TSA is being… their usual selves. And customs is getting “grumpy.”

      It’s a toxic environment that can stop a bright, experienced electrician absolutely cold, so they just look at the schematics and their eyes glaze over, and they don’t even want to touch the problem and just yell at the mechanics to keep fixing the bad bearings, even when they know that’s akin to pouring more blood into the guy with the gunshot wounds in his chest – at best, expensively buying time.

      Trust me, plumbers, electricians, and mechanics have to do creative problem solving ALL the time. And when your creative isn’t working, and you can’t figure out the source of the problem, it’s incredibly, utterly frustrating, and it will drive a man who’s making six figures a year to say, in very short words of approximately one syllable, that they’re not going to tackle this anymore.

      • Thanks for the detail, Dorothy.

      • I’m with Dorothy on this one. My job for several decades has been as a computer programmer. Although not creative in the same sense as writing, it does compare in many ways. (In writing terms, figuring out what “scenes” you need and what each needs to accomplish, how they fit together, etc.) As soon as I saw his comparison I immediately understood from personal experience what he was getting at and agreed.

      • Thank you, Dorothy! I was about to suggest similar but you’ve made the point far better. I have an old house (like coming up on the big 140). Its rock and mortar base and basement is 4 feet thick in some points. I have an electrician that has done a lot of work and done it well and at a decent price – but he always has one eye on the exit door and some of the things I want, even though he knows I’m willing to pay premium for the difficult/challenging tasks, he says they’re impossible. I know they are not – but I also don’t want to find another electrician for my wish list (versus my must haves, which is what he’s taken care of).

      • Yeah, been there, had that, though it was a large computer network.

        Another think that can tie a writer in knots is a ‘needed change’ to the story. Needing to be longer/shorter or adding/removing something can have you running around in circles trying to bite the back of your own neck. (I wouldn’t get into the fun when you’ve woven the perfect tale and one of your test readers points out a ‘plot hole from hell’ … 😉 )

        • Ah, yes. “Cut 15,000 words so it fits our first-time author length.” is awfully akin to “We need you to switch all of the servers to this software because we’re changing vendors to this new one (who promised us the moon, the stars, and a cut-rate price).”

          I like that phrase “running around in circles trying to bite the back of your own neck.” With your permission, I may use that the next time the situation warrants.

          • It’s yours, have fun! 😉

            The network was only ‘partly’ down, but middle of the workday so not allowed to reboot anything that ‘might’ take even more systems down (and since they were using microsoft servers the number one fix is always rebooting the dang things!)

            And I’ve had the ‘suggestion(s)’ that something be changed and the suggester just not getting it that the suggestion is completely counter to the way your character(s) would normally respond to that type of scene.

            ETA

            In your case, they also don’t tell you until you’re almost through that one of the other ‘must have working’ programs is no longer working on all those you’ve changed as ordered … 😉

        • Yeah, been there, had that, though it was a large computer network.

          ***

          Amen. The computer/tech sector is actually very, very creative. I think anyone who solves complex problems that haven’t been solved before is tapped into that creative side of the brain.

      • Yes! Any profession that requires problem solving can get blocked. Thanks for the great example.

        • My day job’s in health care. We deal with docs all the time, and they do get blocked. We call it “constipation.”

          • I’m in veterinary care – not human medicine – but I think the term ‘compassion fatigue’ is used in both. That’s what came to my mind at the ‘doctor block’ part. I know I’ve been through it, and seen it happen to others too. It can drive some out of the profession completely.

  4. But you’re talking about trying to find the one solution to a complex problem (not of your own making), while a lot of external forces are pulling you in different directions, and it makes you not want to do it anymore.

    I’d argue that’s significantly different than being unable to advance the plot of your book.

    I see your point, but I still think it’s apples and polar bears.

    Edit: comment meant as a reply to Dorothy.

    • I think I see her point of comparison. There is creativity involved in an electrician trying to locate the source of a problem. It’s not a matter of following a set step in a process, at least at the beginning. It’s trying to figure out where to begin, to ferret out the clues that can lead you on the first step of a path that will lead to the solution.

      I saw something like that when I was a copy editor. One of us would be assigned press room duty, charged with examining a copy of the newspaper after it came off the press. Sometimes, at the start of the press run, when the sorters are standing by to insert the ad packets, when the drivers are cooling their heels in the parking lot, the press would not start.

      Now, the press was a used model, bought from an Alaskan paper. Its builders were in Scandinavia. If the press crew can’t restart the press, the repair crew has to locate the problem, and if they can’t troubleshoot it, call Scandinavia and sort it out.

      This can be a tremendous amount of pressure. It could be a blown fuse. It could be a power surge has killed a motherboard. It could be a physical jam somewhere else. And right now, you know that 500 newspapers a minute should be coming out of there and get the rest of the cogs moving.

      That’s a lot of pressure.

      At least with the press, you have something physical you can hold in your hand. With a plot, unless you use an outline or whiteboard or computer screen, it’s all in your head. There’s a difference.

    • Thank you. That saves me from having to point out the difference.

    • I don’t think it’s significantly different at all. I’d argue that being blocked while trying to advance the plot of your book suffers from the same external forces, although some of those “external” forces aren’t necessarily physical.

      Example from my own struggles, and this is kind of embarrassing, considering how easy it was to solve.

      Protagonist wakes up in his bed. The point of the chapter is that he’s kind of “running away,” and he’s going to

      – collect his things
      – sneak outside
      – swim across a river

      I went into some detail about the stuff he packed/prepared, because I wanted to show that he’d put some thought into it. I didn’t, however, want to go into much detail about him leaving the house. I didn’t think it was necessary to describe the house as he was leaving — that was too much. But suddenly I found myself unable to figure out how to get the guy downstairs.

      “I don’t want to go into too much detail.”

      “But I’ve already gone into a fair amount of detail showing what he packed.”

      “I need to make sure there’s enough room in the chapter for the river crossing.”

      “Make sure there’s enough rhythm in what he’s doing to keep the reader going.”

      None of those concerns have anything specific to do with the plot. But they were things I needed get right, and I couldn’t just “do it and re-edit it later” because it was part of a serial — once posted there’s no do-overs. So trying to get all that sorted paralyzed me, because they all needed to be done and I couldn’t figure out how. I spent WEEKS, literally WEEKS, trying to get the damn character down a stupid flight of stairs.

      (The solution, by the way: “He went downstairs.” GAH)

      The point above was that the solution was mind-numbingly simple — I mean STUPID simple — and I just. couldn’t. see it. I even had someone SUGGEST it to me “well why don’t you just say “he goes downstairs?”) and I brushed it off because I was CONVINCED the only prerequisite it met was the “don’t go into a lot of description” part. But I was juggling so many bits and pieces and expectations of the part of the story that was beyond moving the plot forward that I was blind to the simple solution.

      Eventually I gave up in desperation, wrote “he went downstairs” (telling myself that it was just a placeholder and the piece wouldn’t be done till I fixed it) and after I’d written everything else, I could actually see, clearly, that it was fine. Like Dorothy’s example, I had a lot of authority figures screaming at me to fix the problem — sure, all the authority figures were me, just me wearing different hats, but the toxicity was relatively the same.

      • The solution, by the way: “He went downstairs.”

        🙂

      • Your inner editor is turned up way too high, Christopher. Stuff like what you’re describing pretty much stopped me from writing for a while. I finally told Inner Editor, “I don’t care,” and she shut up and let me write.

        • It’s a little too high, but not as high you think. Serial writing requires you combine some of the story editing with the actual writing, unless you’re not publishing your serial until the whole thing is finished, which some people do but I don’t. 🙂

  5. “from random terrorists posting on Amazon.com”

    No matter what else he ever says or has said, I’m always going to love Dave at least a little bit for this. 😀

  6. I want to know which businesses are worried enough about employee retention to give a rat’s butt about keeping their workers happy. This must have been happening a long long time ago. I’ve worked for a lot of places in a few industries, and have never experienced this kind of management concern.

    • sadly, yes.

    • It’s a management concern, but it’s a different set of managers than the managers who are managing day-to-day.

      So the upper level managers have meetings about retention and decide the best way to keep employees is to make them feel enabled or whatever, and the middle managers shout “YOU ARE ENABLED NOW GET THIS DONE YESTERDAY WITH HALF THE RESOURCES AND WORK LATE SORRY NO OVERTIME”

    • Lydia

      LOL – They’re all worried about the millennials. (Says the Gen X’r who loves her millennial son but is sick of all the articles aimed at hiring and obtaining them – and also wondering why his job search hasn’t been easier for him).

    • I work for one for my day job. Best company I’ve ever worked for, honestly, but also the only one in two decades that’s actually put action behind their words. Most companies *care* about employee retention but not enough to expend resources or time to do anything about it.

  7. Well. I broke my left foot and wrist on May 1st. I’ve written only a few hundred words since then, because it hurt like hell to type at first, and then I was having issues due to being stuck in the house and unable to do everyday things without a lot more effort or someone else helping.

    I was pretty mad at myself until a friend pointed out that I’d been through something huge. Also when two fans on Facebook said that healing my wrist was more important than getting the book a month earlier.

    Sometimes it’s not just mental.

    Going to give it a try this weekend if the wrist feels right. Everything is compounded by having to work. And what do I do for my day job? I’m a web manager. Yep, typing all day.

    • Poor you, Meryl! An arm or a leg is bad, both is…very bad indeed. If you are managing to eat and wash, you are doing well :o)

      With luck, you will get to use it in a book. I broke my shoulder five years ago when my bicycle slipped off an icy speed cushion. Long tramps to and from work in the cold gave me the idea for a book I wouldn’t otherwise have written, and it’s one of my favourites.

      • I have a whole new insight on how the less abled have to get about. Here’s a hint: Even with the ADA, it sucks.

        Best places to shop with a broken limb? Supermarkets. Those electric carts are teh awesome. And yet, you won’t believe how many people see you coming and STILL DON’T GET OUT OF YOUR WAY. They stand there watching you. Why? No idea. It’s like they’ve never seen anyone with a broken wrist and foot before.

        • Wait…I’m supposed to get out of the way? You can’t just drive your lazy butt around me? Good to know…

          -insert sarcastic satire emoticon here-

          I’ve seen humanity from the seat of a cart, how freakin’ judgy people are is insane. They are looking for the internal reason for the situation, what bad decision YOU made to make YOUR life require a cart. 10 pounds overweight? Must be that. Yeah.

          Instead people need to look at the external reasons. How fate or chance or luck or fortune kicked you in the shins but hey, you still need to shop. That’s my attitude now but I’m in the firm minority.

          I learned all of this in about 10 minutes after I dislocated my knee and went knee brace shopping. Fill up the front cart thingy with knee braces, pain killers and gauze wraps while your leg is immobilized and hanging out the side of the cart and you still get no slack. Even the checker gives a brief sigh at having to lean over to take your money. Gah.

          Or maybe I’m imagining things. Could be I’m projecting. Maybe people just don’t know how to act so they freeze. I’m hoping it’s that.

          So I guess I’m still hopeful for my species. I just wasn’t on that day, that’s for sure.

    • Meryl – Don’t know if you’ve thought of it, but you might want to try some dictation software, like Dragon Naturally Speaking. You just speak into a microphone, and it transcribes it for you. Might be worth it if you think your wrist will be out of action for a while.

  8. I do get “blocked” if I receive too much constructive criticism on a WIP. It’s not the criticism that’s the problem, it’s trying to process it while continuing forward. I’ve learned to scan it, but wait until I’m done before utilizing most of the criticism.

    Though I have threatened to bonk my editor over the head for correcting the formatting. Drives me nuts to see loads of “comments” where she’s removed a space or whatever. I take care of formatting as the very last step before publishing.

    Like others have mentioned, I get “blocked” when there’s something wrong with a story. I know something’s wrong, and can’t figure out what, so I lose interest in working on it for a while. Usually going back in a few days or weeks, I can spot the problem and fix it.

    And I’ve gotten “blocked” due to day job issues, injuries, and illnesses.

  9. I’m confused. I thought writer’s block happens when you don’t know what to write next, where the story is going. Composers have that problem often, and there is a way out for them. From what Dave describes the ‘block’ is getting tired of doing the same old thing. When you do it as a profession for a paycheck, and do it for pleasure, although the root cause is the same, the remedies are different. When employed, you take a vacation or change jobs. Tired of writing (not blocked) you can take a break, read a new book for inspiration or write a new story.

  10. Writer’s block is for amateurs.

  11. “The truth is, doctors do get doctor’s block. Plumbers do get plumber’s block. It’s just that only writers have been smart enough to give the problem a name.”

    Sorry, but writers aren’t the only ones smart enough. Golfers call it the yips. Dart players call it dartitis. It comes from overthinking the wrong part of the procedure, and can only be solved by getting past the immediate block and not thinking about it.

    I struggled with dartitis for eight years, and only got past it when I found a timing mechanism that worked with my rhythm. Once I broke through, all I have to do is not obsess over my mechanics, and focus on the target.

    I’ve also struggled with writer’s block, but now accept that the solution is just to get the next word written and go on from there. Not the only things that block me are technological issues (eight months without a computer) and work issues (mandatory overtime again? Yippee!)

    • True story – I once forgot how to whistle for 2 years!

      • Whistler’s Block. I love it. Don’t know why and I hope you weren’t traumatized. Still, that belongs in some characters bag of warts.

        Dan

    • I think there are many different things that cause word-flow difficulties. Calling all of them “writer’s block” is not helpful. It’s like visiting the doctor and receiving the diagnosis, “You’re sick.”

      Occupational burn out seems to be the cause of the block that applies to the people in Dave’s class.

      Negative associations seem to be the cause of the block he describes later in the piece.

      I get oh no, my plot makes no sense block. Also how do I write sentences? block (referred to above as dartitis). Right now I have I’m working on other projects block. New writers have I don’t know what to write about block.

      All these things are different, and they have different cures.

      • Well “you’re sick” *is* useful in a very general sense. “Why aren’t you coming in to work today?” “I’m sick.”

        “Why are we being quiet this morning?” “Mommy’s sick, she needs to rest.”

        It doesn’t specifically isolate the problem, but it communicates that there is a problem. When you’re telling someone you have “writer’s block” you’re not telling them the specific problem which is fine because they probably don’t want to hear the specific problem.

  12. Long ago, I was told Writer’s Block is actually Writer’s Don’t Want To. Now, the why they don’t want to can be anything from illness, allergies, plotting or life stress. When you sit down at the computer and your mind just goes blank, it indicates a problem and it best behooves you to figure out what, exactly, that problem is. Some problems are easy to see, like a jerk of an editor and agent, others are subtle, like a wooden character you don’t want to spend much time with.

  13. I’ve never been so blocked up and disappointed than late last fall when I sent my first book out to all my friends who had been requesting it. It was half a dozen people, I figured to get a good first reader or two out of the group. They are all sci fi fans and readers. They’d been yammering for the book for months.

    No one read it. No one gave feedback. It was devastating. These are people I’ve been friends with for 20+ years, we speak every day. Total betrayal.

    The mental process was, “Well if they don’t give a rip then neither to I. Screw it!”

    I was miffed for months. MONTHS. It’s still bouncing around in my head, killing entire days worth of writing. Gah!

    Luckily my father and sister stepped up. And my proofreader (copy editor) isn’t entirely unfamiliar with the genre, and she gave good feed back as well. Still…my lifelong buddies failed me.

    It nearly melted my snowflake.

    • Wow. They requested it and didn’t read it? That’s crappy. You need to find better friends. Seriously.

    • Suburbanbanshee

      Are you sure they actually got the email? When I started sending out stuff to friends, I found out that an awful lot of people:

      a) have anti-spam systems that trash all emails with large attachments

      b) never check their emails except the one at work

      • No chance of that, I followed up with them. Sent paper copies to the ones that requested it. I email or call them daily. It’s a close group of friends. They were just too busy to read it, that’s the consensus. Baffling.

        I learned to write by emailing these 6 friends the stories from my day. I am the crazy one, or used to be, so every few days I’d have an awesome story to tell. Fully embellished. They are the ones that urged me to write books once I got too sick to practice law.

        Great friends in many ways, but man did they drop the ball here.

        EDIT: To be fair, one of the six did read it and the grand sum total of feedback was, “It got better at the end.” Whatever the heck that means I dunno. Doesn’t every story get better at the end, at the climax? What I did learn was that reviews and feedback are very problematic for my fragile little psyche. 🙂

    • That really sucks. I can heartily sympathize. I now no longer ask friends to review or read my work. It’s just too heartbreaking when they either give me a silent rejection or, even worse, one to my face. I’d rather have that from competent strangers.

  14. Have you ever known someone who didn’t like their work environment, so they just got up and quit from a job that perhaps they had loved a year before?

    Have you ever known a writer who didn’t like her work environment, just got up and quit, and then called it writer’s block?

    • Tons. People easily talk themselves into the idea that they are still writers even when they haven’t written in months or more, even if they spend the majority of their writing time fiddling with their environment, etc. There’s a reason for the adage: Writers write!

      • I find most people want to have written, to be an author of a great work. Fewer want to be writers or are, in fact, writers.

        Jury is still out on which one of these categories I fall into. The proof will be in the pudding I guess.

  15. I don’t know the whole reason for my writer’s block. There are several possibilities, among them the stress of my parents’ health, my youngest son trying hard to come off the rails, my own health issues, and a big chunk of fear. Fear that I’ll fail, fear that I’ll succeed. They are not mutually exclusive.

    I also don’t know if other professions suffer from the same thing, but I do know that when I was doing maintenance work, I had a few episodes of not being able to do the job. I’d look at a problem and have no idea how to solve it, even though I knew I’d tackled similar issues before.

    I found that taking “mental health days” was usually enough to get me back on track, until it got to be so overwhelming that the only thing to do was change jobs. Not the best solution, but sometimes there was no other choice.

    I’ve had to totally stop writing before, sometimes taking decades to get back to it. I’m getting too old to have that kind of time, but that’s also not helping me get over this mess.

  16. READERS block…

    I really love to read. Have since I was a small child. There have been many times where I read a book a day for months at a time.

    And yet I can think back to three times (all highly emotional) where I just couldn’t read at all. Life was just too difficult at those times.

    If I can get readers block, then I can fully believe there are people who get writers block even though it has never happened to me.

    (There are periods when I stop writing but those aren’t “blocked” periods because I could have written if I wanted to. Mainly just other things getting in the way).

  17. I was disappointed that this article was essentially an advertisement for services on offer.

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