Three Types of Writer’s Block

One of my goals is to write a lot, every day. There are many different types of writing that I do; emailing ideas to my friends and my sister, posting on this blog, work on stories I’m drafting, scribbling out ideas I want to shape into stories, and so on. An advantage to this is that when I have a type of writing I don’t want to do, I can shift over to a type of writing I’m more into right now.

A disadvantage is that when I have a type of writing I don’t want to do, it’s really easy to ignore it in favor of a type of writing I’m more into right now.

I’m a big believer in noticing the reasons why I fail to do something I want to do. If I can take care of the root cause of my failings, it seems reasonable to assume I’ll start doing better at the thing itself. In the case of writer’s block, I’ve heard of a lot of advice, which seem to be either helpful or utterly counterproductive, and not in a friendly consistent way. Advice A on Tuesday works like a charm, and then completely falls flat on Thursday. Advice B, which wasn’t cutting it on Monday, is exactly what was needed on Wednesday. Very recently, I came up with a theory that the reason one type of advice might work one day and fail another is that there are three types of writer’s block.

Type one is when you’ve got another thought burning in your head, and when you sit down to write something else that really needs to be finished right now, it’s like trying to talk to a friend across the table in a club where the music has been turned up way too loud. You can’t catch the words that make up your “need to write now” idea. The “want to write now” idea is drowning them out.

It can sometimes help to promise yourself you can write the fun idea once you finish the other work. This is especially effective if you can set a time or word count limit. If you’re really lucky, you can combine the two. My sister used to find connections between the papers she needed to write for college and the topics she was interested in now, so she could slip the writing she wanted to do into the writing she needed to do. However, sometimes the urge to write your fun idea is too much. You might as well try to write while you need to pee. If both of those tactics fail, just indulge yourself. Get the fun words out. At least it’s still practicing your craft, and maybe the words burning in your brain will take you somewhere good.

Type two is when your internal editor won’t shut up. There is something wrong with the words that are coming out the ends of your fingers, and the part of you that knows something is wrong wants you to stop before you completely waste your time on this shit. A lot of writing teachers will tell you that you need to ignore your internal editor, and keep going until you’re ready for the editing process. This is good advice, some of the time. Other times, fixing a problem now, before it grows, will keep the writing fun in the long run.

The trouble with being a writer is that when you start working, you don’t have a clear medium to work with. A painter has a blank surface, and a palette of colors. A sculptor has a lump of clay, or piece of rock or wood. They both know that, at that blank canvas/misshapen lump stage, they don’t have what they want, but that’s okay. They have a crude form they can shape into what they want, and they know the rough parameters they have to work with; whether it’s five square feet of canvas or a whole wall in a cathedral, whether there’s already a sticky out bit of branch that can be carved into an arm or whether they have to whittle the whole thing down before they get a nice arm going. There is a shape they can project their ideas of their final idea onto.

Writers, on the other hand, have the inner idea of what their finished work could be, but nothing to project that idea onto. They won’t have anything like that until after they have hammered out either a first draft, or a very detailed outline. They can discover halfway through writing a short story that the scope of their idea demands, at minimum, a longish novella, or that they are trying to mash two short stories into a three novel trilogy. Before they can create their finished project, they must conjure up their medium from scratch.

Sometimes the internal editor is objecting to a perfectly moldable lump of clay. It sucks, but it’s supposed to suck right now. Other times, it’s trying to tell you that you’re making more work for yourself later. You’re making a little canvas when you need a big canvas. That pointy bit on the wood needs to be longer, or you won’t be able to carve it into a well proportioned arm and your Grecian goddess will look like she has phocomelia. (note to self; write about a diety with phocomelia… maybe based on Hephaestus…) The trick here is not to ignore your internal editor, but to train it. Teach it to recognize when to shut up and when to pipe up. There is no shortcut to doing this. It’s a lifelong process that is the essence of the craft of writing. It’s the reason for writer’s workshops and books on the craft, the purpose of alpha readers and writing groups. Try listening to it one day and see how it goes, try ignoring it the next and see if that works out better. If this was easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as worth doing.

Type three is nearly the inverse of type two. It’s the type that kills you before you even get started. It comes from knowing ahead of time that the gap between your lump of clay and the masterpiece in your head will be massive. It comes from knowing that the world is full of aspiring authors, and many of them are crap. Most of them, in fact, are crap, and who are you to think you’re going to be successful when so many other people are failing?

Well, when you ignore this fear, sit down and write something, you’ve become someone who practiced their craft instead of talking about doing it, so that’s pretty awesome. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you know the difference between the masters and the novices is 10,000 hours of practice, so if you’ve been working on your writing for a thousand hours, you’re a whole tenth of the way closer to that than anyone who has only been talking about writing for a thousand hours. So the way to beat this type of writer’s block is do whatever you have to do to sit down and write. Go to a place that puts you in a better writing mood. Tell yourself that after you hit 600 words, you can have cake. Get one of those standing treadmill desks and combine your writing time with your exercise time. Tell this type of writer’s block it is bad, naughty writer’s block, and it will have no fudge today.

On that note, I’m going to go watch some old How I Met Your Mother episodes, as that was my designated reward for ignoring Type Three and finishing this post. Yay me!

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