Writer’s Block and the Pursuit of Excellence

I wrote most of another blog before I completely chucked it in the bin.  It didn’t feel right, it felt trite and forced and I am so not about that.  The reason I chose that topic was because I’ve been struggling to come up with new material lately and it was the first thing that popped in my head, even though it was trite and forced.

And we’re not about trite and forced here, though sometimes that’s still the end result.  We can only do the best we can, you know?  Sometimes we fail.  That’s how you find the balance with this work.

In the endless pursuit of excellence as a writer, you’ll often find moments where you completely dead end.  Some people call this “Writer’s Block,” but since I don’t believe in the wall, I call that bullshit.  Writer’s Block is just a place where perfectionism meets anxiety and causes you to freeze up.  It’s a natural result of reaching as far as you can with every keystroke.

As a professional, you can’t have Writer’s Block.  It’s a luxury reserved for people who don’t live in a production-based world.  You have to perform like a keyboard mashing monkey every day.  Your head hurts?  Too bad.  Your words are coming out stiff and jagged like kidney stones?  Push, baby, push.  Deadline’s looming.

Writer’s Block is a Myth

The sooner you understand and really accept that Writer’s Block is a myth, the sooner you can help yourself help yourself.  There isn’t Writer’s Block, there’s performance anxiety.  And performance anxiety is a thing we can deal with because it’s a set of actual symptoms that can be alleviated.  

Look, you’re a writer (or maybe you want to be), it’s time to accept that you’re at least a little bit neurotic.  I’ll give you a minute to process that.  There you go.  Baby steps.  We score high in neuroticism and, as a group, suffer from a large range of mental illnesses.  I’m not sure if this is cause or effect, but it’s definitely something that I’ve seen time after time among writing circles (and is backed by actual science!).  

Do we become writers because we’re neurotic?  Do we become neurotic because we’re writers?  Living with an extremely powerful imagination is challenging, there’s no lie about it.  Even if you write sales copy, you spend all day imagining scenarios where someone will use your product, and that’s just as much a mental exercise as dreaming up new worlds for fictional characters to inhabit.

You dream out loud, and that’s hugely risky, even if you think your dreams are pretty boring.  You expose your delicate brain bits to the world and hope no one stabs them with a fork.  It’s a big deal, and it definitely can make a person a bit twitchy.  It can even make you seize up after a while, doubly so if you’re experiencing setbacks.

Outsmarting Yourself and Getting Back to Work

When I’m in a real way (sometimes it takes me a while to actually realize this is the issue), I just have to trick myself.  Why am I not writing more?  I’m too busy destroying my self-esteem with negative self-talk and so, so much self-doubt.  No one likes me, obviously, and I’m the literal worst.

But Writer’s Block isn’t an option for us.  We have to keep writing or we starve.  So, I’m going to show you how I get back on track.

  1. Phone a friend.  Seriously, your real friends are the most valuable tools you have for getting back on track.  If you’re the sort who believes they’re only saying nice things to make you feel better, well, that’s a different issue you need to deal with first.  The way you talk to yourself has huge implications for your mental health, so just remember to take everything people say to you at face value unless an individual has really proven they mean otherwise.  If they aren’t straight with you, dump that jerk.  You don’t have room for that kind of negativity in your life.

    Assuming your friends aren’t flaming assholes, tell them you’re struggling and need reminders of how super awesome you are.  People respond well to direct instructions and will help when they can.  If you beat around the bush, you may never get what you need and end up in a worse place.  Trust me, your friends are in your corner.  They’re armed with all the good stuff.
  1. Save old reviews and feedback.  For God’s sake, don’t read fresh reviews or comments when you’re in a way.  But do cultivate the nice ones for a day when you aren’t sure you have the strength to go on.  For example, today I got some really nice feedback from my editors at the Motley Fool (they are really nice editors anyway, so it’s easy to find examples of places they’ve given nice feedback).  I’m going to put that in a file, because the day will come when The Doubting Man has me in his clutches, and I’m gonna need evidence that he’s not a friend.
  1. Go back and read your old stuff.  We all have portfolios that we’ve cultivated throughout our careers.  Some of the oldest stuff gets bumped for newer stuff, for sure, but the really good pieces are always going to be really good pieces.  Sometimes I really do need a reminder that I’m a good writer and more than a ghost for websites.  That’s when I get out my stories from my short stint at Gold Prospectors Magazine or dig up some of the funnier things I’ve written for newspapers or The Motley Fool.  I have a huge collection of stories of my own that I love, and they serve me well on these days.

    Right now, in fact, I’m waiting for a new one to publish for Millionacres.  I basically laughed all the way through writing it, and I think it’s one of my most clever pieces in some time.  I’ll share it to the blog’s FB page (or search for Waterworth Writes on Facebook).  Spoiler alert: it’s about tunnels.

For me, not being able to write is 100% about anxiety and self-doubt.  I suspect it’s the same for everyone, but I can’t say that for sure.  I’m not a psychologist, I’m just a filthy word slinger.  There’s an audience for everything, and someone thinks you’re absolutely fabulous.  

You know how I know this?  Someone paid you to write something, by buying your books, or contracting with you to write material for their publication, or asking you to compose their website.  Hell, if someone asked you to write their college essay for them, you’ve got a fan, whether you know it or not.

Don’t let the wall get you.  Writer’s Block isn’t real, it’s just your anxiety overriding your good sense.  You can do this.  I believe in you!