The Real Source of Writer’s Block

Years ago I read the Goethe quote, “The worst thing one can do is to think ill of oneself.” It seemed true enough to me at the time – I certainly thought ill of myself now and again and it never led to any good. But Goethe didn’t say thinking ill of oneself was one of the worst things you could do; he said it was the worst thing you could do. I was much younger when I read this quote, and I was inclined to question a rule when I ran into it. “What about murder?” I thought. “Certainly murdering someone is worse than thinking ill of yourself.”

I thought of Goethe’s quote again yesterday when I was talking to my wife Jen about our high school experiences. I met Jen when we were both seniors attending separate schools in the same city. She was explaining that if I had met her when we were freshman, we might not have become friends. “I spent most of my first three years in high school feeling bad about myself. That had just started changing by the time I met you.”

Interestingly, I met her because I saw her in a play, and thought, “I’ve got to get to know that person.” She was in that play because she had decided to enjoy herself her senior year. So she took a creative writing class and a theater class and auditioned for a play. Not only did this decision lead to meeting me, but it also introduced her to what would be her career. Jen went on to become a writer and artist. Until her senior year in high school, she did not even perceive herself as a creative person.

Hearing her story, I thought, “Old Goethe was right.” The worst thing I can do when I sit down to write is to think ill of myself. I will not write one word I want to share with another person if I think, “I’m not smart enough,” or, “No one cares what I have to say,” or, “I don’t have what it takes.” These simple thoughts, sometimes arriving in my mind dressed as false humility, sever my connection to creative thought, to my muse, to my imagination, and ultimately to myself. To think ill of myself is a form of instant suicide, suggesting somehow that nothing I do will be worth doing, nothing I say will be worth saying, nothing I write will be worth writing.

Fortunately, everything I most want to do, say, or write waits patiently while I’m thinking, “Why bother?” Life can seem cruel and complicated while I am asking, “Why bother?” or, “What is wrong with me?” The moment I stop asking those questions, and start asking, “What do I most want to do?” life becomes much simpler and much kinder. But I can only ask one question at a time. It is up to me to decide which question I will ask.

I cannot prove it, but I believe every murderer that has ever lived thought ill of himself long before he pulled the trigger or struck the blow. When I am thinking ill of myself, I am very likely to start blaming other people for how bad I feel. I blame the people who have rejected me, or ignored me, or disagreed with me. But when I am connected to what my self-criticism blocks, other people are no longer a problem. How could they be? No one else can answer, “What do I most want to do?” for me, nor can they prevent me from hearing that answer. Nothing can possibly come between me and my muse and my imagination other than the idea that my creative thoughts are not worth listening to.


Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

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There is no such thing as writer’s block. There is an experience we call writer’s block, but if you were to pry open a blocked writer’s head you would not find an actual block between their writing brain and their imagination. Nothing can happen to you to cause a block. There is no writer’s block virus. Writer’s block, as Christopher Moore said, is us giving fear a name.

To give fear a name is to make real what is unreal. Sometimes it seems as if the only thing real in our life is what we fear – the collapsing career, the loneliness, the illness, death. We live as if making our way through an endless rainstorm of fear where we can but duck from awning to awning for damp and temporary relief. What’s more, the writer spends his days giving what is not “real” a name. The writer’s entire livelihood is derived from a belief and trust in that which cannot be seen, tasted, touched, or even known until he chooses to share it.

But the writer is no different from anyone. The writer must learn to differentiate between the reality of love and the unreality of fear. Both speak to him through his imagination. Both call for his attention. The unreality of fear would ask him to invent dangers that do not yet exist so that he might protect himself from them. The reality of love invites him to return to himself, to the moment in which he is actually living, where fear has no grip, requiring as it does those illusions called the past and the future to flower in darkness.

When we enter that darkness as writers we call ourselves blocked. Now we cannot see, and if we cannot see, we cannot write unless we choose to write only blackness. When you find the light again there will be shadow, but only as a necessary reminder of the difference between things, between the fears you once invented, and the self that you forgot.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at:
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The Block

I have now had three writers who worked in the newspaper or advertising industry prior to becoming fulltime novelists say virtually the same thing about writing as a daily discipline: you can’t tell an editor or a creative director you’ve got writer’s block. And yet in his book Adventures in The Screen Trade William Goldman, one of the most successful screenwriters Hollywood has ever produced, describes suffering with a long and agonizing bout of writer’s block. Apparently this bugbear can visit the best of them.

I’ve certainly never had writer’s block the way Goldman described it. From him, chemotherapy would be preferable to a prolonged case of writer’s block. But who can say that they have never been blocked on anything?  Unfortunately, being blocked is virtually a human condition. That is, questioning yourself; that is, believing you can get it wrong.

So here then are a few quick tips if you are feeling blocked, which I have culled from my own experiences and my conversations with other writers:

  • Free write. Write anything and everything that comes to your mind as quickly as possible without judging it. This gets you back into the flow.
  • Keep a journal. Write down everything you’re afraid of in it. Get it out of you. Look at it and see how silly it is.
  • Write something different.  Move to a different part of your story that you are interested in.
  • Step away. I’ve learned that if it’s not coming this day, it might come the next.
  • Write on a different project. Move to poetry, blog, write a letter.
  • Talk to someone. Find a friend and unload.

Finally, and most importantly, be kind. Be as kind as you can possibly be. Even if you can’t write anything, be kind. The whip will get you nowhere. It’s only fear that’s ever blocking your way, after all, and fear is always an illusion, a nightmare we’ve chosen to believe.

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