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Why I’m (Probably) Not Going To Be Able To Give You Useful Advice Regarding Writer’s Block

John Scalzi

I’ve had a couple of folks I don’t know well (or at all) recently ask me if I could give them advice about getting over writer’s block. The answer is “probably not,” and here’s why:

1. I have no idea what the root of your block is, and also, the chances are reasonably good that you may not understand it either, even if you think you do (people are like that). I am not a trained therapist who can dig around in your brain to figure this stuff out, and you’re not paying me to do that anyway;

2. Even if I did have an idea of the cause of your blockage, since (again) I don’t actually know you, I have no idea of how well you take advice, even if you are asking for it, or whether once you are offered advice if your next step will be to try to execute on it, or to offer another reason why that advice won’t work for you;

3. I rarely experience writer’s block myself to any significant degree. I’ve had stretches where the writing is difficult, but that’s usually to do with me hacking my way through the thicket of story; I’m writing, just not particularly linearly. Recently I’ve had to deal with the sequelae of COVID turning my brain’s plotting engine into goo, but again, it’s not that I’m not writing. It’s that I’m rewriting more right now than I usually do. So, not blockage, just a lot of meandering. Without a huge amount of personal experience with writer’s block, I can’t really give advice that is too useful on how to get through it.

These days, most of the advice I give about writing is really quite simple: Put your ass in a chair and write on as regular a schedule as you can to let your brain develop “muscle memory.” That should help you power through episodes of mental resistance, whether that’s a writing block, or lack of direction, or deficit of inspiration or whatever. I give this particular advice because a) it works for me, b) I have to remind myself of it all the fucking time, because I am so easily distractible, especially these days.

Whether that is useful for your own particular blockage, is, of course, a matter for you to decide. I could offer other tips and tricks (“Write in a different place!” “Do writing sprints!” “Eat more leafy greens!”) but generally speaking I don’t do any of those things, so I can’t speak to their efficacy (I mean, I do try to eat more leafy greens, but not specifically to get over a writing block). As I get older I’ve learned that offering definitive advice without regard to the actual person involved is often the opposite of useful. This is why, these days, I’m far more likely to say “this is been what’s worked for me” rather more than “this is what you should do” when people come advice-seeking. Not always — I can still be garrulous and fatuous and certain in my opinions when the mood strikes — but more often now than when I was younger.

So: ass in chair, write as regularly as you can, and build up that “muscle memory,” which again is good writing advice generally. If that doesn’t work, then… well, actually, a bit of therapy/and or medical diagnosis (if you can swing it, sorry Americans that our health care sucks so badly) probably isn’t a bad idea, because maybe there’s more there going on that may not be specifically about writing but affects your writing too, and I’m a big believer in improving one’s mental health in general.

But that’s kind of where I beg off giving further writing block advice to strangers. I don’t know you, sorry, and I can’t know everyone, especially when I’m on a book deadline. But I wish you luck, and an end to your block, and happy writing afterward.

— JS

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

22 replies on “Why I’m (Probably) Not Going To Be Able To Give You Useful Advice Regarding Writer’s Block”

I’ve built my career specifically around helping people overcome writer’s and other blocks for 20 years, so I hope it’s okay to post this.

Unlike many experts in the field, I have a background in social justice (my first book was for activists), and that helped me realize that the core problem underlying procrastination, blocks, etc., is disempowerment. Disempowerment means you’re not missing anything – e.g., discipline or willpower – but have lost access or are constrained from using that which you have. The solution is to identify and neutralize the disempowering forces in our lives and work, replacing them with the conditions and context that support your creativity.

Also, perfectionism is a much broader and more pervasive problem than most people realize, and it is a primary cause of blocks, both because of its pervasiveness and because it impairs our ability to see and solve the other barriers. Perfectionists are convinced that they themselves are lacking and deficient, but they aren’t – it’s all about context, disempowerment, etc.

When I teach at Grub Street Writers and elsewhere, I create an environment / context that can get a whole class of self-described blocked people writing prolifically within the first two minutes of class.

Lots of free info on my Website http://www.hillaryrettig.com and please also check out (and review!) my books. I’m also happy to answer questions either in email or here, if that’s ok.

I’ll add one tip that I use regularly: Accept that your work will not be as good as Shakespeare’s and Joan Didion, but to the extent that your first, deeply flawed effort at the sentence/paragraph/story/novel isn’t the best you’re capable of, you can fix it in rewrite.

I find that playing lots of Klondike Forever solitaire on my computer helps for whatever reason. Also, if you’re the kind of writer who does a lot of sitting around thinking about the books and taking notes before writing them, ignore people who consider that laziness.

A lot of people I know are having writer’s block due to Surfeit Of Terrifying Current Events Since 2016-ish, so voting a host of competent and non-malicious people into government might help a lot with writer’s block – but each writer has only one vote to cast for one’s country, so that is of limited utility as advice, probably. But generally, to the degree to which you can make your personal world less chaotically distracting, and to the degree to which you can personally fight despair: those are probably useful things for your writing.

I’m a professional writer, but non-fiction. I suspect the inquiries coming to Mr. Scalzi are coming from writers of fiction rather than people like me.

I can’t really afford writer’s block, since my employer has output expectations of me. Regular writing hours help a lot, and sometimes if I’ve got something big I’ll research it, sleep on it. and get up at 5 am to bang it out. I’m a morning person and early morning supercharges me.

Beyond that in a pinch I rely on writing formulas, the martial art of copywriting. Just like in martial arts you learn moves to deal with specific attacks (wax on, wax off), I use formulas to get things moving. When I was a reporter, it was who, what, where, when, how, why (VERY useful when you’re on deadline with an angry editor). While that still applies sometimes (I used it yesterday) now I tend to use the five-paragraph essay (thesis, supporting evidence, expand on evidence, conclusion — fit to your needs). That’s how I was taught, and I used to teach them to my college students when I did teach.

The net effect is that you really shift to a more fill-in-the-blank approach. Can I fit this assignment into one of my formats? Yes. Okay, get going. You can rewrite it later. It breaks through inertia.

I don’t know if any of that would be applicable to fiction, though.

Heh. My last blog post was on the same subject, and said the same things less eloquently, and without the regular work ethic bit.
Seems like, as with all art, when you want to write and are doing so in addition to an everyday job, believing in the value of it is key. Setting aside time and space to write, when you and others feel that time should be spent elsewhere….

A lot of self-employed creatives forget that it’s a job, and you need to think of it as such. It may be enjoyable, the hours may be flexible, it may be from home, but it’s still a job and if you don’t do it, it won’t get done. And you will be unemployed.

Wisdom I have not quite achieved: “As I get older I’ve learned that offering definitive advice without regard to the actual person involved is often the opposite of useful.”

One of the bigger truth bombs dropped here. Thank you.

That’s probably the best advice you can give, honestly – put your butt in a chair and write for a a set period every day.

Now, if I could reliably FOLLOW it, I’d be writing more often. But that’s another story that has nothing to do with writer’s block.

Had a friend in Oregon who, back in school, was convinced he should be a writer. So, he wrote. But, he hated writing. Every part of it: Sitting down, focusing on words, putting them together with some semblance of cohesion. Hated it. Came to me for advice on his “writer’s block.”

After much conversation and examination of the process of writing, each element met with disparagement, I asked him what he truly loved… Puttering around with Harley Bobbers…

With much more conversation and examination of said Puttering, with each intricate element, met with great enthusiasm, my suggestion was to go work on motorcycles in between writing…

He did. 20 years hence, he runs a Bobber Shop creating custom bikes… in Barcelona Spain…

Moral of the story: Even if some teacher some time told you that you should be a writer, if you really hate everything about writing, it’s just possible, you don’t actually have writer’s block. Could be, you’re not a writer. And that’s okay. Go follow the passion that is truly yours… just sayin’

The bit about you don’t know if people would try your advice or offer another reason why that advice won’t work, that’s wisdom right there.
If someone tells me how I can get something done that I’m complaining about not getting done (and believe me I didn’t ask for advice) I will definitely come up with a reason why their advice won’t work. Because the real reason I’m not getting something done is [whiny-baby voice] I don’t waaanna!

And consider that we sometimes give flip labels to things that are in fact serious mental health concerns. (I can’t be the only one old enough to remember when postpartum depression was dismissed as ‘baby blues’.) It may be worth looking into whether depression, ADD, or other life-disrupting issues are the problem, since all the butt-in-seat advice won’t fix them.

Years ago, at a meeting of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the guest, who was a successful, well-known SF writer, said that for her, writer’s block was the inevitable result of trying to make her characters do things they didn’t want to do. I wish I could remember who she was but I just don’t recall. But I have never forgotten that advice.

“There’s a phrase, “sitzfleisch”, which means just plain sitting on your ass and getting it done. Just showing up for work. My uncle Raphael was a painter, and he used to say, “If the muse is late for work, start without her”. You have to be there. You have to be there, and do it, and grind it out, even when it is grinding and you know you’re probably going to rewrite all this tomorrow.”
~~ Peter Beagle

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