I recently taught a class of sixth graders about the elements of story. After I finished the bulk of my presentation, I opened the floor for questions. A kid in the back raised his hand. “Have you ever had writer’s block?”
After a brief, cinematic-style flashback to months of crippling doubts and blank pages, I answered affirmatively. I should have predicted his next question: “How do you get over it?”
Every writer has a theory about the cause and the remedy. Some believe that creativity needs to lay fallow every few seasons to stay healthy, like a farmer’s field. Others insist that writer’s block is a myth. And still more put the blame on flawed ideas or life-related stress.
Writer’s block comes in a wide variety of shapes, and it can last anywhere from a few hours to months or even years. No one has all the solutions, but that isn’t an excuse to stop searching. Certain mindsets and circumstances tend to trigger writer’s block—and making a concerted effort to counter those negative patterns can reawaken inspiration.
Block #1: Is Writing Worthwhile?
More often than not, writer’s block springs from our insecurities. We’ll wrestle with doubts our entire careers, but failures and setbacks can sometimes damage our confidence so much that we’re unable to move forward.
Many of our insecurities boil down to the question, “Does my writing have value?” And dwelling on this thought breeds unhealthy habits. We procrastinate. We assume our writing is too trivial to bring to God. We give up too quickly and spend less and less time typing at our computers, all because we’ve succumbed to the lie that we’re wasting our time—or even worse, defying God’s plan for us.
I’ve wondered whether God has called me to write. Guilt, despair, and all sorts of unfortunate and dramatic emotions have weighed me down as I’ve pondered if my writing is selfish, a false sense of security, or a sin. During those months, my creativity shriveled, and I couldn’t finish any projects.
But even though my writing suffered, I learned three lessons that now help me to press on.
1. Commitment Is Unavoidable
Part of the reason we have misgivings about our writing is because we’re afraid. Once we dedicate ourselves to it, what if we have regrets? What if we misplace our priorities? Or disregard other opportunities to serve God? We shudder at the prospect of being wrong, and we let that paralyze us.
Producing art in this state of uncertainty is nearly impossible. We need to make a choice using the wisdom that’s available to us, remembering that God and His kingdom must come first. If God leads us to wait, then we should listen and try to lay our worries aside, because rushing toward a goal can be a mistake too. But following a path that appears to be God’s will (even if we alter our course later) is always better than standing at the crossroads of indecision indefinitely.
I’ve come to the conviction that my writing matters. If God nudges me to set aside my pen in the future, my stint as a writer has grown me as a person—or at least kept me too occupied to listen to the dark little voices in my head. That doesn’t mean I’m going to quit my day job. I might only squeeze in a few hours of writing per week for the rest of my life. But I’m determined to continue, and that’s a powerful blow in the battle against insecurity.
2. Patience Is Essential
As writers, we understand that first drafts are terrible because getting the words down is only the beginning of a process. Hammering out a solid story involves months (if we’re lucky) or years (if we’re normal) of practice and revisions. But when we’re in the middle of the mess, and far from our last accomplishment, we struggle to see how anyone—even God—could approve of our clumsy attempts at eloquence.
To escape from this sinkhole of vulnerability, we need to psych ourselves into our role and treat ourselves like writers instead of wannabes. When I started working a split shift in January, I made a point of changing into nice clothes, grabbing a black cup of house brew, and settling into a coffee shop during the interval between morning and afternoon. The atmosphere separates me from distractions at home and partitions off the guilt that says I should be doing something “more important” than writing. The unholy amount of money I spend on coffee every month is painful, but the productivity I achieve is more than a fair trade.
3. Purpose Is Fragile
Once we’ve been writing for a few years, we tell ourselves—in a snobbish tone of voice—that the beauty and strength and honor of our craft is imprinted on our hearts, so its virtues don’t need preached at us. But pride won’t prevent disappointments from wearing down our resolve unless we regularly remind ourselves why we write.
When I began reading more nonfiction over the past year, I realized how much my spirit hungered for positive reinforcement. C. S. Lewis’s logical, well-reasoned essays and Annie Lamott’s risqué but classic Bird by Bird revitalized my passion for writing by highlighting old truths I’d forgotten and new ones I’d never uncovered.
Although my lapses into doubt prompted me to improve my writing habits, not all of my questions have faded. Half the time, I still forget to include God in my writing, and I feel too imperfect—like a long-time addict in a crowd of saints—to challenge or encourage anyone. But surrounding myself with assurances that I’m not alone has relieved my anxiety long enough to give me space to explore where I can take my stories.
Block #2: The Creative Well Has Gone Dry
When the existential questions that keep us awake at night are at a manageable level yet we still can’t form coherent sentences, we’re likely suffering from the most mysterious kind of writer’s block: the dry spell. Sometimes we just run out of ideas and can’t identify why.
When we face this sort of writer’s block, pushing our brains harder can be tempting. Buckling down will surely cure a classic case of laziness, right? But if we’re genuinely striving to meet the quotas we’ve set and the words still won’t flow, we need to feed our brains instead of activating overdrive.
1. Pursue Interests
Anything that stretches, surprises, or scares us can turn into story fodder. For me, I love discovering the quirky details in firsthand accounts of past eras, such as the descriptions of the small mining village in Tomboy Bride by Harriet Backus. But mental rejuvenation doesn’t have to be a journey into history. Investing in a relationship or borrowing a book that brought a friend to tears can also be enriching.
I prefer filling myself up with new experiences over muscling through the block because inspiration never shows up when and where we expect it. It’s unpredictable. Ideas smack us in the head when we’re washing dishes, admiring a sunrise, watching movies, taking showers, eating Chinese food—you name it. Staring at a computer screen won’t roll out a welcome mat for inspiration, but going out and paying attention to life will.
2. Switch Projects
Sometimes writer’s block haunts us because our instincts are sending off signals that our manuscript has serious problems. But we shouldn’t abandon a project at the first sight of trouble. If a plot hole or criticism has suddenly convinced us that we’re spewing out garbage, that’s a common insecurity we need to push past, not justification for starting over. But if we’ve reached the conclusion that a project is beyond the scope of our skills after months of trying, that’s a different scenario.
Last month, one of my Story Embers articles was a week overdue and counting. The piece I’d managed to stitch together was lifeless, and I hated it. Deep down, I knew I was attempting to explain nitty-gritty storytelling mechanics that I didn’t fully grasp, but I wanted my advice to be effective. It wasn’t. Finally, I opted for a topic more my style: writing mindset, which was infinitely easier to address. I cranked out most of the first draft in one afternoon.
I wish someone had warned me how much courage I’d need to switch on a laptop and that doubt is a normal, albeit unpleasant, part of an author’s life. Confidence must be fought for, and it’s a war we’ll continue to wage even after we’ve been published multiple times.
But focusing on heavenly realities can help us cope with the highs and lows. Becoming successful writers isn’t our ultimate goal. Our worth is in Christ, not the novels we receive awards for. It’s the direction we’re facing, not the obstacles we break through, that lends meaning to our steps. Keeping our eyes trained above will ward off despair when the going gets tough. I think Andrew Peterson expresses it best in his book Adorning the Dark:
“Here’s what I know in a nutshell: ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you’ (Matt. 6:33)… That simple Scripture draws into sharp focus the only thing that will satisfy us in our desperate seeking for what it is that we think we want. So boil it all down.”
“…Wrench your heart away from all the things you think you need for your supposed financial security, your social status. Set fire to your expectations, your rights, and even your dreams. When all that is gone, it will be clear that the only thing you ever really had was this wild and Holy Spirit that whirls about inside you, urging you to follow where His wind blows.
“If you can put aside your worry long enough to feel that wind and to walk with it at your back, it will lead you to a good land.”
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.