52 Weeks of Editing: Week 7—What I'm Talking About When I Talk About Writer's Block

52 Weeks of Editing: Week 7—What I'm Talking About When I Talk About Writer's Block
Photo by Ariel / Unsplash

Last week, one of my favourite blogs dropped this article into my inbox. At the time, I was having A Week Of It, so I didn't have time to read it immediately, but the title really caught my eye.

An Anxiety Episode Changed My (Dis)Belief In Writer’s Block ….
During my prolific writing days, and even during my not prolific writing days, when I’d hear the term “writer’s block,” I believed it to be a self-indulgent myth. Either you were writing or you wer…

It's a great article; you should totally drop whatever you're doing and read it. Go on. I'll wait.


OK. We're talking about writer's block. It must be the most discussed—often disparaged—facet of writing life other than Famous Writer X Does These Five Things to Be A Top Tier Author. You know, the kind of thing you find a billion versions of on Medium.

So, confession time. I was planning to write a very similar piece this week about my experience of writer's block. I went on that self-same journey from thinking that writing was something you could just sit down and do, through a long (decade-long, at least, at this point) struggle with denial, to finally stepping up and admitting here and now: I think writer's block is real, I think it happens, and it's not just about sitting down in that chair and cranking out words.

I'll go further. When we talk (or write) about writer's block, what we're often really talking (or writing) about is mental health.

Dismissing Things You Don't Understand Because You've Never Been There

I know somebody who says writer's block doesn't exist. It was a bland conversation, as I recall, and the comment was also throw-away, off-hand. It's not the first time I've heard it, but at the time it rankled. It really got under my skin. I was trying, at the time, to pretend I was writing another novel and keeping up with the rest of the group while feverishly in denial about my own inability to write.

I was scared, alone, and frightened. When she said this in front of me, I instantly knew I wouldn't be able to talk honestly about my experience with it. And that, in a writing group, is a worrying thing.

Like Kathryn Magendie describes above, I'd spent a long time just knocking out novels without really thinking too much about it. If you asked me around the time I was writing the series I'm now editing, I'd have said writer's block doesn't exist. I did that because I was in my twenties, I was foolish, and I'd never experienced it before.

But then my world fell apart. I blamed writing. I blamed myself. I struggled. I still do it now. I had those same panic attacks. I had flashbacks and pain. It wasn't that I sat down and found I couldn't write. It was much more subtle than that. I'd find very good reasons not to write. I had to spend time with my boyfriend. I had to work to earn money. I had to study. I had to do marking...

My key avoidance technique was a clever one. I'd compel myself to take on far more work than I could ever possibly cope with (PhD thesis #2, amirite), so I was always either overwhelmed and trying to keep up with all my tasks, or burnt out and unable to do anything. I caught myself in a constant state of panic about work and life and writing and Amnar and and and I never got around to writing because I was always in some way broken by my own attempts to avoid it.

I didn't even say or admit I had writer's block. If I did, I'd push myself into doing courses, or buying books, or listening to podcasts and lectures, so I was trying to push past whatever I was feeling when I thought about writing or Amnar in a rush of panic about providing feedback or posting on some writing course forum. I wasn't enjoying it; I was trying very hard to pretend I was okay and measure up to the expectation of all those who said the solution to the problem of not being able to write was just to, well, write.

I couldn't admit to having "writer's block", because I couldn't admit that safely in a space that operates very much like discourse around mental illness. That can be summed up as: "It doesn't exist because I haven't experienced it". Or, "Have you tried yoga/meditation/clean eating/broccoli/ritualised clothes-folding?"

If there is a thing human beings do most often in a casually hurtful way, it's dismissing somebody's experience because they haven't had it themselves. It's therefore a little odd that writers do this. You know, writers, the people who are supposed to devote themselves to understanding, empathising, and exploring the experiences of others.

Oh, the irony.

Claiming To Know How Plumbers Work

The other thing I see a lot of, because everybody writes about writer's block a lot, is this. "Plumbers don't get plumber's block", as Patrick Rothfuss says in a quote from Lit Hub:

But no plumber ever gets to call in to work, and they’re like “Jake, I have plumber’s block,” you know? What would your boss say?! I have teacher’s block. I have accounting block. They would say “You are fired! You have problems and you are fired. Get your ass in here and plumb some stuff, Jerry!”

How d'you know, my guy? I'm a teacher and an academic and an editor and I get all of those blocks too. You wanna talk about blocks? Let me tell you about marking block. "If I have to mark another one of these things I'm going to fling this laptop out the damned window!"

(Also, as an aside, who has time to just hop in the car and drive around the States, Jim? I have a job to do. I have a hustle to work, my actual dude, and $25 a night is the same as all I'll make in a day. And Botswana, Alex, are you kidding me?)

If we can all get some kind of a block, that suggests what we're talking about, as Kathryn says, is something about mental health. That page of quotes suggests that because people are defining writer's block in whatever manner suits their argument, they can decide whether it exists or not.

The Lit Hub quotes demonstrate that this is what a lot of famous writers do. They reframe it. It's not "you can't write" but "you can't figure out what happens next"; it's not "writer's block" but merely something else, something less ephemeral. So it doesn't matter that you can't write in the end—what matters is why you can't write.

Or, to make it more personal, why I can't write like I used to write... but think I ought to.

These Are My Excuses

It's depression. Or it's anxiety, or PTSD, or being neurodivergent or otherwise disabled in a world that makes it excessively hard for you to just exist in this space called the universe. That's what it is for me.

I was deeply upset at the failure of myself to get my series out there, to commit to the process that came after writing. The one that involves querying agents and such. And then ashamed of myself for failing to make it through the Great Recession in one piece.

I had this expectation that it would be huge, and it wasn't. I also had this expectation that it would fail, so paradoxically, I couldn't even attempt to get beyond the writing stage. Part of the process of going back to a very old project is handling the emotions that show up when I look at it.

Also, understanding the problem of being autistic in a complicated world with competing demands on my fractured attention. When I was writing the first draft, my life consisted of work—PhD—write. I was single, I was free to do as I liked as long as I went to work and wrote the PhD. I had very little extraneous matter I had to tangle with in my existence.

Cut to now, and life is much more complicated. I have to teach, I have to edit, I have to make tea for the roofers replacing the colander that passes for a roof on our house. I have to listen and be supportive of my partner when he has stress. I have to go to book club. I have to keep up with an unpredictable academic system that operates on last-minute principles with a brain wired in such a way that it cannot cope with last-minute principles.

Editor's Block

I don't have writer's block so much as I have a difficulty finding the space and freedom to just be a writer. I find the advice to sit down with it every day and do a set amount of words unhelpful, and shaming. On top of marking, editing, teaching, the politics of strike action, PhD administration, Access to Work administration, and girlfriending, I also have a cold. I feel flat-out awful as I write this.

It takes ages to steer my brain, which is kind of like a supertanker and very good at going in one direction slowly, back to what I want to think about, which is Amnar. I can't do a lot of recommended writing things like "15 minutes in the morning, every morning". Because my brain is not an ordered thing. It's more of a cat-herding thing.

Actual picture of me and my thoughts

In Conclusion, Therefore

This is a 2,000 word way of saying this is a slow process because I have Reasons. That I show up sometimes and I just sit there, frustrated at myself, because I can't get anything done and can't figure out how or why I can't think and imagine like I used to do.

I relate to Kathryn's experience. All you can do, if you find yourself experiencing writer's block, is to figure out what sort of writer's block it is. Is it that you're scared of something that your brain secretly thinks of when you sit down and write? How do you make excuses not to write? How do you tackle that? Did something bad happen while you were writing that made it hard to contemplate going back to it?*

Something bad did happen to me around writing some time ago. Actually, somethings. I didn't deal with them properly, and now I have to figure out how to do that. These fifty-two weeks are partly not just a process of editing a novel or series, but also about wrestling with the emotional journey I have to go on to come back to the world in my head I've spent a lifetime feverishly trying to ignore.

Generally, I think being a writer is about being able to convey truth in fiction (I'll write more about that another time, because I have Thoughts). And the more truthful we can be about what it is to be human, the better writers we are. That means sometimes writers need to get off their high horse, or their faux "I'm not an artist, I'm a working person!" horse and accept that for every job and thing there is a block, and the least we can do is be kind to ourselves when it shows up for us.

*If you sniff at this, I'm not being all Artistic and Sensitive and Fragile. Lots of people experience horrible things in relationship to their jobs on all kinds of unexpected levels. That's why mental health is A Thing.