Writer’s Block: When to Push Through and When Not

book-gianni testoreToday’s post came out of a conversation I had with a fellow author the other day, and it occurred to me it might be useful to others as well.

Recently, I posted about the struggle I’ve been having to write. I don’t sit and stare at a blinking cursor, which is how I think many people perceive writer’s block. No, instead I come up with a great idea and dive headlong into it–writing madly until I hit the 40 K mark or so, when I suddenly lose all faith in the story and my ability to tell it. As such, it doesn’t really feel like writer’s block, but I think it’s a form of it just the same.

I’ve done this with four stories in the past year. Four stories that I walked away from at the halfway point.

Now, 2016 wasn’t a good year for me. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t good for a lot of people. Living with fear or depression is sapping to one’s creative energy. So is working an exhausting job. But these things were only additional factors in my decision to walk away from these stories. The real issue was that I didn’t believe they were any good. I thought they were fatally flawed and not worth finishing.

The thing is, I think there is a natural rhythm to writing. Most of us experience a lull in productivity after we’ve finished a big project. That’s normal. That’s not writer’s block. Farmers used to let fields lie fallow for a season to allow the ground replenish the minerals needed to grow healthy crops. Now we stuff the dirt with fertilizer and force earth to produce more food faster without any rest.

I’m a firm believer in taking a little break between projects so your well of creativity can restock. Just don’t let that break go on too long, or it represents too much lost time between one story and the next–and these days, like the farmers, writers are expected to produce new works rapidly. An experienced author knows this and doesn’t let that natural lull go on too long or else it becomes wasted time.

laptop-user-1-1241192But what I experienced last year was not a naturally occurring wane in production. So if you hit a roadblock in your writing–think about why you want to bail on it now. The most important question you have to ask yourself is this: is the problem with THIS story or is it with your self-confidence?

The thing with writer’s block of any sort (even if you’re still writing but it’s like pulling teeth with a pair of pliers) is that sometimes you’re blocked for a good reason. Either the story isn’t working or you’re trying to force the characters in a direction they don’t want to go. That kind of ‘I can’t write today’ is totally different from the feeling that everything you write is utter crap and you’re stymied because you either keep writing the same bit over and over or nothing at all because ALL THE WORDS SUCK.

In the first situation, sometimes you need to walk away from the story for a bit and let it simmer in your subconscious while you figure out the problems. Or you need to read other stories and watch some movies while you re-charge your writing mojo. Be kind to yourself in these situations. Take the dog for a walk. Do something different. Let your brain unravel the thorny problem as best it can. If taking a little break doesn’t help, then skip that scene and write something else until you can come back to the one giving you trouble. The solution might well have come to you by then–maybe even as a result of you moving on with the story.

If you feel hamstrung in your writing because of self-doubt however, the most important thing is to write SOMETHING. Part of the problem with writer’s block in any form is the belief nothing you write is good enough. You know what? The first draft of anything written isn’t good enough. But you can’t know what to fix until you get it down on paper. I’m discovering that sometimes my first draft is just me getting to know the characters and the universe they live in. That means a lot of things might change in the second draft. And there is nothing wrong with this!

There’s also nothing wrong with realizing something isn’t your forte and not expending any more time or energy on it. I’ve finally accepted that as much as a love a cleverly written short story, it’s just not something I do well. I have spent as much time struggling with a 10 K short story as I have with an 80 K novel. Don’t beat yourself up because you don’t do something as well as other people you know. Figure out what your strengths are as a writer and hone them until they are razor sharp. This is even more important when you’re already struggling to write, regardless of the reasons.

If self-doubt is holding you back–and I believe depression and fear are huge contributing factors to this category as well–sometimes the wise thing to do is soldier on. Will it be your best work? Probably not. But dropping out of things and not finishing things becomes a habit. A bad one. I think this is what happened to me last year, and though I also made a decision to drop out of some projects recently, I think in that case, I did it for the right reasons. Not because I didn’t think the end result would be good enough but because I realized I’d seriously over-committed myself at a time when the demands on my writing time and creative energy are already very high. Saying no to some projects–including ones I really wanted to do–took the pressure off me enough so I could get back to work on the most important ones. It sucked to have to disappoint people, but at the same time, I hope that will serve as a reminder to me in the future not to take on more than I can manage.

Things that sap your creative energy–like an exhausting job, or family pressures, or depression–aren’t likely to go away. You have to learn how to work around them if you want to be a writer. The lovely thing about doing this is that when things are going better, you have the skills to write like a fiend. And if you can turn out decent work when things are crap, think how much better you can do when things are great?

For many reasons, I’ve been debating if I should continue writing, and if I do, what genre I should be writing in. Part of my problem as a storyteller is I don’t have a recognizable format–I like a little of everything! I’m not sure I’d do better in other genres, but other genres are calling to me. The hard part is knowing what is a valid reason for changing and what is self-doubt. Knowing the difference between truly wanting to head in a new direction versus letting the fact that the path has become difficult make you think it’s time to turn around.

So if you’re struggling to write just now, I feel your pain. If you’re thinking about quitting–either on a specific story or the whole writing gig altogether, be honest with yourself as to why you’re thinking about quitting. Figure out if the problem is THIS story versus your writing in general. The action you take will depend on knowing the difference.

In the meantime, I’ve got a bloody story to finish. Catch you on the flip side.