Writer’s Block – and One Trick to Beat It

Writer's Block - and One Trick to Beat It

Some time ago, I had a problem. Not just any problem – a wicked, vicious bastard of a problem that plagued my waking moments and kept me from sleeping at night.

I couldn’t write.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I could write. I wrote web copy and ebooks and taglines and fiction and all kinds of writerly stuff. Not blog posts, though. No sir. I had great ideas for posts, I’d sit down with full intentions of banging out the best blog post ever, get through a title and maybe a paragraph or two, and then…

That was it.

It wasn’t very good. My language was stiff, my intros sucked, and my thoughts were scattered. I tried writing the mid-sections first, thinking I’d work on the intro after, but that didn’t help. Those blog posts came hard. Real hard. I agonized. I sweated. I stared at the page until my eyes were hollows in my head. (That theory about tortured writers? Yeah.)

I couldn’t write easily, and it felt like a dirty little secret. I suppose in some ways, it was. When you’re a problogger who owns a top ten blog for writers that’s all about writing and you write for a living to boot, the last thing you want to admit is that you can’t hack it. So I kept my problem to myself and pretended everything was fine.

Except that it wasn’t.

I’d gone from wizard to withering in no time flat. Had I lost my creativity? Did I need a writer’s recovery program Was I tapped out on blogging? Maybe that was the answer. I’d been blogging heavily for four years or so and surely I was just burnt out from writing so much on the same subject. Maybe I should write something different, and that would bring it all back.

That didn’t help. Those wildly irrelevant posts hit the trashcan quickly.

Maybe I was tired. That must be it! My sleep patterns were off, I wasn’t taking enough breaks, and I wasn’t feeding my muse either – I tend to forget that eating is a daily requirement. Some rest and healthy, scheduled meals would surely set me back on track!

Nope. And the stress of losing my muse was starting to get to me. The more I worried about being able to write, the less I could write. The less I could write, the more I worried about how long this would last. Not… not forever, surely?

I tried forcing myself to write. Every day. I worked hard at it, too. I put hours into blog posts that used to take me about 15 minutes. I agonized over words and impact, I had to think and edit and rewrite and overhaul and try again. Over and over and over.

I showed up for the job. Muse be damned.

No juice, no gas. So I blamed performance anxiety. I certainly had a good dose of it by now, knowing my blog posts weren’t up to snuff. Readers are frequently demanding, too. They often tell me – shamelessly and boldly, I might add – that my blog posts had better rock their socks off.

So I complained. “No wonder I can’t write! People have unrealistic expectations!” I felt readers wanted awesomesauce posts every day and stories that made kittens cry and how-tos of geniusly scientific proportions. Just James wasn’t what they wanted, and less-than-stunning wasn’t an option.

“This is stupid,” I muttered darkly to myself. “Why should I blog anyways? What’s this getting me? Nothing but stress!” I should close the blog, give up my career and walk away from it all.

Yeah. No. That was a stupid idea. That was just frustration talking. I knew I loved my blog, and I loved writing. Not being able to write blog posts without nearly making my skin bleed wasn’t anyone’s fault. The only expectations I have to meet in life are my own.

So I gave up. I’d had it with the internal struggle. I was done fighting with myself and forcing myself to do something that clearly wasn’t working. And truthfully, I didn’t really care anymore – I had enough blog posts banked up to cover my ass for a while. Screw it.

Then one day…

It started off slowly, cautiously, and quite by accident. I felt like writing something quirky, something fun. Something that wasn’t how-to or rocket science. Just… something simple. No pressure. Just James. 100 words. 174. 253. 376… say, this wasn’t so bad. Not bad at all. 522, 680… 768 words. And it wasn’t rocket science, but it was just fine.

Just James.

The next morning I looked at the blog post again with fresh eyes… and that’s when magic hit me. I could see what needed to be changed. I knew what to fix, how to word it, and where a sentence could be more concise or snappy. It was all there in front of me – because the truth was that I’d never forgotten how to write. That would always be with me.

I’d just forgotten that I could write, and write well, and write for myself, and that the only person preventing that from happening doing so was me.

Looking over that post was a little like revisiting the past. It reminded me of the usual style and tone I like to write with. The flair. The fast and snappy, the confidence and cockiness. I remembered what I loved about words. I remembered that I liked quipping little jokes and being casual. I remembered that when I was just writing, when I didn’t try to fit myself into a style that wasn’t me, everything came out easy.

And it came out good.

Rocket science? Award-winning material? The best in the world? Come on, no. There are much better writers out there. But I’m not here to write rocket science blog posts or win awards. If I do, great. If I don’t, that’s fine too. I’m here for me.

Is there some big lesson or how-to in this post? Nope, sorry. I haven’t quite figured out what happened that made me start to struggle with blogging, and I’m not entirely sure I understand why it all came back so quickly.

But what I do know is that everyone gets jammed sometimes – even the pro writers you look up to. And when that jam happens, it’s important to remember that no one forgets how to write well. It doesn’t disappear. It’ll always be there.

And maybe… Maybe you just have to say screw it and stop looking for it so hard.

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Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. I’m gonna step in here and make a comment about what I think happened. You can let me know if I’m way off or close-ish ;)

    I think the source of the “breakthrough” happened right at the moment where you realised that you COULD write, if you were writing for yourself:

    You said: “I’d just forgotten that I could write, and write well, and write for myself.”

    To me, this reeks of what psychologists call “internal validation” … and previous descriptions (earlier in the post) revolve more around EXTERNAL validation (seeking approval from others).

    My theory is that you got jammed trying to impress the audience you were imagining in your head – regardless of whether or not that audience actually exists!

    When you started writing “for you”, the words flowed. Ironically, you ended up writing BETTER stuff when you were just writing for you… and you were able to tweak it into something your audience would love too.

    People validate themselves and their work in different ways. It’s about knowing how you’ve “done a good job” on something. A strong preference for internal validation is actually pretty common among artists and creative types.

    Its good to have a balance of internal and external validation across life… but for you, personally, when it comes to writing, I’d make damn sure you write for YOU first and foremost.

    That way all of us (your loyal readers) can keep benefiting for awesome posts ;)

  2. I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I think you need to step away for a while to refresh your thoughts and avoid being plagued by self-doubt. Maybe it’s a form of burnout? I know that every couple of years I go through these slumps – I usually gut it out, but it’s even better when you can take a break.
    .-= Sharon Hurley Hall´s last blog ..What Should Online Professionals Do When Someone Ticks Them Off? =-.

  3. Isn’t if funny how when we get back to what got us into doing whatever it is that we do – fun, love, passion – it’s like being rejuvenated. Admittedly, that wasn’t what started me in writing, but it certainly is what keeps me doing it.
    .-= Todd´s last blog ..Power Friday – Week 13 =-.

  4. My ‘voice’ is the one that brings me to tears when I’m about to hit the publish button. It’s the voice that says, “you nailed it on that one.” It’s the voice that knows I can’t add or take away one more thing. It’s my version of good and I can’t wait to get out of bed to write more of my version of good.

    But, oh how I love to read and lurk around other blogs. There’s some fascinating, popular stuff out there. And suddenly, ‘my’ words aren’t flowing from my fingers. I’m reading more than writing. The process feels herky jerky, and I don’t get that surge of feeling right before I hit publish.

    So I had a little talk with myself that sounded a lot like this… “Read the others. Enjoy their styles. Be you. There’s already enough of them. Even if you never approach their popularity, it feels better -it’s truer – when you are using your own voice.”

  5. James:

    I have a business writing blog because that’s what I do. I found my posts stiff & formal until I realized I could write about business writing,inject it with me and still stay professional. My tagline is to: Keep it simple, clear & uniquely yours. I was forgetting the “uniquely yours” part.

    One of the greatest help to me in breaking through my stiff, “this is business’ muse was participating over at Creative Copy Challenge. I never really tried writing for fun (that I posted somewhere) and CCC showed me I could. It’s like learning to play like a little kid again. And we all need that. I know you understand what I mean about CCC as your James the Assassin is a killer series (okay, so maybe kid humor ain’t all it’s cracked up to be).

    Thanks for reminding us why we got into this writing in the 1st place.
    .-= Cathy Miller´s last blog ..5 Things That Make a Case Study a Good Story =-.

  6. Thanks for a tip. just recently made an article on that – http://flavor-of-success.com/graveyard-of-ideas-tricks/

    It was all about
    .-= Edward´s last blog ..Lisa Kudrow – Piquant Flavor Of Friends =-.

  7. James, thanks for sharing your struggle. You came through it fine.

    When I have writer’s block, it’s either because:

    1. I’m not clear on what I want to say. Making a detailed outline really helps.

    2. I’m tired, hungry, or just don’t want to sit on my ass in front of the computer. I then take a nap, or have a snack, or go for a walk with the dog.
    .-= John Soares´s last blog ..Freelance Writers — Niche Specialization is the Key to Success =-.

  8. Mark W. says:

    Thanks for sharing this experience of yours with us James.

    This paragraph above – “Nope. And the stress of losing my muse was starting to get to me. The more I worried about being able to write, the less I could write. The less I could write, the more I worried about how long this would last. Not… not forever, surely?” – reminded me of a scene in the movie “The Replacements”.
    Keanu Reeves (who plays the replacement quarterback Shane Falco) responds to a question by his coach Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) about fears. Shane describes something he characterizes as “quicksand” (… you’re playing… you think everything is going fine… but then one thing goes wrong… and then another… and another… and you try to fight back… but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink… until you can’t move… you can’t breathe.. because you’re in over your head… (shrugs) Like quicksand.” Also in this video clip – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJXYrx0kEow .
    The circumstances of getting to the “quicksand” stage are different for all of us at various times in our lives but I think they happen to all of us for various reasons to varying degrees. It’s a process that takes time to work through and eventually the hope is we’re the better for it.

  9. A lot of times my best writing comes when I just write. Quit trying to make it brilliant, edit as I type and simply write. I don’t worry about the subject or where it is going. It works every time for me.

  10. Clap clap clap!

    Sometimes you just have to sleep on it as well. Usually I let my posts come to me by serendipity and then I make sure that I carry around my Molskine so that my pathetic excuse for a memory doesn’t need to be relied upon.

    …unless of course the serendipity stork doesn’t drop a bundle of joy on my brain and instead I get a pile of bird poop. Then I like to hit the news (which is what I did today actually).

    I was having a bird poop moment today, so I allowed the latest news to push me over the cliff a little and then relayed it to something that my customers have heard me say before.

    I think that it’s ok to repeat yourself, as long as you say that thing in a new, entertaining light each time.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    .-= Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire´s last blog ..Midwest Tornado Delivers Critical Small Business Tip =-.

  11. @Joshua – I’ve been in the news, literally. Was not fun :)

    I’m glad to say that it wasn’t lack of ideas that held me back – those were pouring forth, and they were right there for me when the scribe in me came back to life.

    @Stacey – Indeed, and I’m sure that’s whe you’re enjoying yourself the most, too!

    @Mark – Like quicksand. Exactly. (Thanks for that analogy, I’m going to keep that. Just not fall in it again!)

    @John – Take a break, take a break, take a break… Yes. Yes, yes. The value of that can’t be stressed. (And food. Food is good.)

    @Edward – My ideas never make it to the graveyard. They just disappate into mist and reform into something far more cohesive and better :)

    @Cathy – Exactly. CreativeCopyChallenge.com is something fun and light and no pressure, not even personal. I really enjoy that little outlet from time to time. I’m glad it’s been useful to you too – I’m sure Shane would be pleased to hear that. Write him!

    @Jesse –

    It feels better when you use your own voice.

    That it does indeed.

    @Todd – Makes perfect sense to me. Rejuvenation is a good thing.

    @Sharon – I think maybe it’s just a question of us getting tired of fighting our own self-doubts and getting caught in that quicksand Mark mentioned, which only creates more. The best answer I can think of is to get rid of the self-doubts – they’re not useful.

    @Peter – That’s a very insightful comment (you should send me a guest post about that), and I can tell you that you hit the nail on the head. But you knew that already, didn’t you!

  12. Hey James? Never ever think that “just James” is not enough. I know you´ll say you know,knowing I won´t accept you don´t know, but I also know you´ll wonder (again). You know? ;)

    On a more serious note, (I think I´ve told you before), eat, sleep, breathe in, breathe out, live-love-laugh, and most importantly: do it for you!

    I´m echoing people, I know, but it´s a valid point.

    Knús!

    Þórey
    .-= Þórey Ómars´s last blog ..Top 5 Things for (extremely) Shy Writers to Think About When Introducing Themselves and Their Work to Strangers. =-.

  13. The best way to break a block is to step away from it. I often take a break and go for a run. I can often come up with solutions or things I hadn’t thought of while I was trying to write. The best ideas always seem to come when I doing something else.
    .-= Chase March´s last blog ..The Illusion of Permanence Online =-.

  14. I’ve learned to trust my subconscious mind. If I’m stuck, I “instruct” my subconscious to find a solution for whatever is holding me up and I move on to something else. In a little while, I magically find myself in possession of exactly what I needed.

    The key is to get your conscious mind out of the way sometimes!
    .-= Jon Bard – Children’s Book Insider´s last blog ..Try this Picture Book Editing Checklist =-.

  15. Hi James, Great post – found you via @writesmartpam on Twitter. I had this problem not so long ago – a combination of just too much writing to do and not a lot of interest in most of it. Procrastination was my middle name. The ideas were there, just not a lot else. I think the only way around writer’s block is to go through it. Just like you did. Keep writing, wait til the Muse gets out of her traffic jam (or wherever she is) and hope she shows up at some point.
    .-= Allison @lifeinapinkfibro´s last blog ..A boy named Blue (or RPatz) =-.

  16. @Thorey – *grin* Just James. And that’s good enough for me – which is all that counts, at the end of the day, n’est pas?

    @Chase – Stepping away instead of beating yourself up to find the words is always the best option, I agree.

    @Jon – Hoooo sneaky, that. I’ll try it – I like giving orders, lol

    @Allison – No way. I go track her down and haul her home. (Okay, at least, NOW I do.)

  17. A concept I’ve learned to love (and love teaching) is a version of Anne Lamott’s ‘shitty first draft’ from her book Bird by Bird. I once told a group of nine year olds who were over thinking a short writing assignment to assume that they would write a shitty first draft and I swear the whole room sucked wind at the same time. But they wrote like little scribbling demons as a result because it took the anxiety out of the picture. Ann Lamott goes on to say that there is a ‘down draft’ where you get it down, and an ‘up draft’ where you fix it up.
    .-= Elly´s last blog ..Status update =-.

  18. Hi James
    Probably not a good thing to admit but its a bit of a relief to hear that professional writers can occasionally face the same problems as someone starting out.
    Glad to hear that you came through the other end and are producing great blog posts again. I totally agree with the make sure you eat comment made earlier. I have certainly skipped a few meals lately. Not the best for concentration!
    Thanks for the honest post.
    Cheers
    Thea

  19. Hmmm… perhaps a meteor of inspiration hit you on the head? Yes, there can be so much pressure in writing, specially when you have demanding readers. Sometimes, just hitting the shutdown button of your pc can help. Stay away from it and simply take a break ( do yoga and stuff ).. or just take a power nap to recharge. When a writer’s block hits me and I really need to write, I randomly select a word online.. giving me that word that will become a sentence, turning into paragraphs, into a page…and so on. I love the way you tell your story, a natural I’d say.
    .-= Issa´s last blog ..5 Keys in Choosing the Right Freelancer =-.

  20. James,

    I’ve gone through phases where I experienced writers block. But somehow every week I get a period of about 2-3 hours where I can just churn out blog posts maybe 5 at a time and it’s my best work. Usually it’s right after I get out of the ocean and have surfed for about 4 hours so my mind is really clear and fresh with new ideas for blog posts.

    Part of what you are talking about here I think is attachment to an outcome. When we become too focused on a result and trying to produce a masterpiece we often get in our own way. When we write in almost a free form and just let it flow, I find that some of our best work is produced.

  21. Deadlines! Family! Life! It all happens at once and adding the pressure to get a blog post up just makes things that much harder.

    Writing is not always easy, but it’s just like working out. You lift weights to tone up or build muscle. If you don’t let the muscles rest, they will just stay torn down and not recover. If you don’t give your mind a break, nothing will grow into great ideas for your writing.

    Thanks for another great post James.
    .-= George Passwater´s last blog ..Helpful and Interesting Links Around the Blogosphere – June 4, 2010 =-.

  22. @Elly – Ah, that’s another great trick, and I know that Taylor recommends Lamott’s shitty first draft as well. MUCH easier to rework a bad base than to create a masterpiece from nothing!

    @Thea – I thought long and hard over writing this, knowing how some people might see it. No, it wasn’t easy to put myself out there and say, “Hey, I have the same problems you guys do.” But that was exactly WHY I needed to write this – to let everyone know that no matter who you are, you are not alone, and we are all the same. Even the big shots have their struggles.

    @Issa – No meteors. (Thank god, could you imagine the mess that’d make?) Just remembering who I was. :)

    @Srinivas – Yeah, those runs of inspiration are awesome, aren’t they. I maximize those as much as I can, and when they strike, I get myself to a keyboard. Fast!

    @George – You’ve pointed out something worth noting: if all I had to do every day was write one blog post and nothing else, then it would be child’s play, wouldn’t it?

    But as you say, we all often have far more important priorities, like family commitments and obligations, or other projects begging our attention. By the time it comes to a blog post, there sometimes isn’t much juice left to write with.

    Oy!

  23. Thanks so much for posting! As someone new to the world of blogging, I’ve been struggling with this lately and have to admit there’s some comfort in knowing that even experienced writers run into the same roadblocks. Your final comment was the one that smacked me along side the head – “Maybe you just have to say screw it and stop looking for it so hard.” Just what I needed to hear, so thank you for that!

  24. I think it’s a relief to know that everyone struggles with this, even the professionals. I think it’s a good idea to step away from the keyboard and take a break. It’s hard to do I know when you have a deadline looming and bills to pay!
    .-= Matthew´s last blog ..Side bar 1 =-.

  25. Solomon says:

    Hi James,

    Thanks for the great article! It’s great to know that great writers too suffer writer’s block :-)! It is a great advice to me to be myself while writing a blog post!

  26. Reading the experience, it seems to me that you were falling into the trap of editing yourself before you had written. Later, you had a moment where you wrote without unthinkingly editing yourself, came back later and did it right,and edited THEN.

    It’s true that we are our own worst critics. When we sit down to put something down, it’s easy to hold yourself to unrealistic standards, and judge yourself too harshly.

    You then fall into a cycle of writing and being perpetually unhappy with what your putting out as you write it, convinced it is subpar, so you trash it when you haven’t even given it a chance to come to life with proper editing.

    Rather than realize you are sabotaging yourself, you instead assume you are just having a bad week or whatever and the cycle continues until you either get lucky and have a moment of clarity which is usually what happens, or you realize what you are doing to yourself and decide to ignore it and just write.

    When I find myself without any idea what I want to write, I tend to go surfing the net. I’ll scan some news headlines, visit several blogs and forums related to my interests and 99% of the time I’ll find myself inspired to comment or reply on something and voila, a new post is born.
    .-= Paul Novak´s last blog ..Wooden Widgets, Exceptional Widgets, and Fantasmaorgasmic Widgets! =-.

  27. Nice post. I like honesty among writers as it is so easy, given our fragile egos, to lie.

    Having written professionally all my life I recognise all the symptoms you write of having suffered the same. As you identify, the answer is not to question or doubt your ability – remember you have been writing for years so you can write – but to take the walking as opposed to the talking cure. Walk away. Give yourself a break. I used to have a drink or five till I quit, not a remedy I’d now recommend but it did the trick.
    .-= David OCT´s last blog ..Some Waiters Recieve Tips. Not Me. =-.

  28. I had a recent crazy time where I didn’t have any inspiration to write and had nothing to say. I just kept reading blogs posts and doing my normal things and then one day I had a sudden burst of energy and ideas came flowing into my brain from out of no where.

    My “secret” is that when ideas hit, write them down. ALL of them. Seriously. That way when you’re stuck you always have something to refer back to. It’s worth it and I’ve used this from time to time and it’s truly helped me.

  29. Thanks James. I’m still laughing about “stories that made kittens cry…”

    When I don’t want to write, I enjoy commenting on other blogs. Then it doesn’t feel like it’s my newborn baby being judged in a beauty contest. But then again, I’ve never faced the REAL pressure of being a writer for a living.

    Joe :)

  30. Thanks for sharing this experience of yours with us James. It’s great to know that great writers too suffer writer’s block.

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