Hey everybody. Welcome to October. We’re back to the time when it takes me a whole month to write a blog post. Sorry.
The first month of the semester has been a bit of a mixed bag. I’m enjoying some of my classes. Some classes less so. There’s so much reading, and I also got pretty sick the first week of school, which threw everything out of whack for a while. I’m having a hard time juggling all my reading, my now part-time internship at Analytical Space, my post-graduate job search, and all the things I want to do for fun. I’m definitely missing the summer, when I went to work full time, came home, and didn’t have homework. And I’m not going to lie, a huge part of my motivation right now is that by this time next year, I won’t have four hundred pages of legal reading a week to do at home. It’s such a glorious prospect.
In the last couple of weeks of the summer, I posted about the two halves of my summer and the two different internships I had. Now, I’m going to talk about a third half of my summer, which is how I finally kicked my writer’s block out the door. This is still an ongoing struggle for me, what with trying to balance writing with everything else I’m doing, but it mostly happened over the summer.
Last spring, I wrote about how I was struggling with writer’s block and balancing law school and writing. I’d never experienced writer’s block like this before, and I was pretty miserable about it. I tried all the standard advice for handling writer’s block—changing things up with the project you’re working on, starting a new project, taking walks to think about where I might be stuck, just sitting my butt in the chair and forcing myself to write one. word. at. a. time. None of it worked. A lot of it actually made me more miserable. All I could think of was that person who said writer’s block isn’t a real thing, just an excuse for being lazy. A plumber can’t say they have plumber’s block, or whatever, so the fact that I really did feel blocked made me feel like I was some kind of failure and would never have any kind of writing career. Which of course made everything worse. And round and round the drain I circled, rapidly on my way to becoming plumber’s block myself.
At the time, I was worried that it wouldn’t get better. I wrote my post from the middle of all these miserable feelings, and while I didn’t see how it could possibly get better, it did. I got through it. And I want to tell you how. If you’re struggling with something like this, know that this might not help you, because everybody’s struggle and process is different. There is no one magical solution, unfortunately. But it might help you, and if this process will help even one person, it’s worth sharing to me. So here’s what I did to overcome my writer’s block, broken down into eight steps that makes me look a lot more put together than I really am.
- Figure out why you’re blocked.
There are a few reasons why you might be blocked. You might be stuck on how a particular scene works, or how a character should function in a story. There might be something deep down in the project that isn’t working and your subconscious is screaming at you, but it’s your subconscious so you don’t realize it for a while. You could have just lost interest in the project. These are the sorts of blocks that changing things up, taking long walks or hot showers or whatever, or trying something new will solve.
Then there’s the kind of writer’s block you get when you’re just creatively drained, exhausted, stressed, and generally burnt-out. This is what I think was going on with me.
Figuring out why you’re blocked is key to solving the problem. As I discovered, starting new projects, changing points of view, working through snarly plot points, none of that will help if you’re drained. In fact, they’ll just make you more frustrated.
So do some self-exploration and figure out why you’re blocked. Then set out to solve it.
- Talk about being blocked.
I addressed this in my original post on writer’s block, but there’s this feeling in the writing community that everything has to be sunshine and rainbows. Writing is what we were built to do, and simply by writing, we’re living the dream, right? But there are struggles in the writing life, and it’s unhealthy to ignore them. More and more, I’m seeing writers and professionals in the writing industry speaking up on Twitter about what they are struggling with and what is challenging about the industry, and the support that comes out of the woodwork for them is incredible.
I’d say one of the single most helpful things I did to unblock myself was to start talking about it. I’m not saying complain about it publicly. Don’t become a whiny, miserable, bitter person. There is still something to be said about acting professionally and positively on public social media. But it’s okay to admit that you’re having trouble.
When I started talking about struggling with writer’s block, I realized that I was not the only one. That really helped me realize that I was not a failure. Friends and writers I admire have struggled with this too. Also, it was kind of freeing to talk about it. I was no longer holding how miserable I felt inside myself. And talking about it helped me move from wallowing in my misery to accepting that I was struggling and trying to figure out how to fix it.
- Allow yourself to take a break.
Self care is really important, guys. If you’re struggling with writer’s block because you’re exhausted and stressed, it’s okay to take a break. Writing every day won’t get you anywhere if it’s just making you unhappy.
Once I figured out that the reason I was struggling to write because I was creatively drained and stressed out, I also realized that forcing myself to write was adding to my stress. At the time, I had a full course load. I was trying to get a second internship for the summer, and I couldn’t find housing for my first internship, and a bunch of other little things. Trying to force myself was just not helping with any of that. So I said to myself, “Self, it’s okay to not write for a while. If the problem is that I’m burnt-out, then the solution is to recharge. And right now this is the only thing I can take off my plate.”
- Find what has inspired you in the past and immerse yourself in that.
So I took a break. But that isn’t to say that I just stopped trying to solve the problem. While I wasn’t writing, I was still participating in my biweekly writing skype calls with my friends from Kenyon. I was thinking about my stories and where I wanted to go with them. And I delved back into some books and TV shows that have inspired me to write in the past. For me, that meant rereading The Hunger Games and the Giver series and rewatching Anne with an E on Netflix (sidenote, if you haven’t watched that yet you need to).
We all have those books and movies that have inspired us to write. They might inspire us to work on specific projects or just in general inspire us to write something. So while I wasn’t actively writing, I was immersing myself in what, in the past, had driven me to write. And little by little, I started wanting to write again.
- Get rid of any stressors you can.
I sort of talked about this a bit in step 3. At the time when I was most seriously blocked, I had a full course load and all the work that entailed, trying to find a second summer internship, trying to find housing for my first summer internship in Maryland (no one wanted to rent to me for only two months with a dog). There were other things too, plus the writer’s block. I thought that part of my problem with the writing was that I was so stressed about everything else. So I set out to get as much off my plate as I could. This is why I took a deliberate break from writing. It was something I could control. I couldn’t just stop doing the other things. Depending on your situation, you may or may not be able to get rid of your stressors. I recommend getting rid of as many as you can. Because when I got my second internship at Analytical Space, when I figured out housing for my internship at NIST, and then when my classes started finally winding down, there was room on my plate for me to act on that growing drive to write that was creeping up on me because of step 4.
- Accomplish one thing. I don’t care how small.
So I’d been thinking about writing and reading and watching things that were inspiring me to write. I’d gotten my Analytical Space internship, and I’d found housing for my internship at NIST. And one evening, I set our roomba to vacuum the living room. And eventually I had to study, didn’t want to study in my room and wanted to study downstairs, and the roomba was making a lot of noise. So I told the roomba to stop vacuuming and go back to its home base, and the roomba went off in the wrong direction. I was working on my final paper for my Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence course, and I jokingly said to my roommate, “Oh no! The AI apocalypse is upon us!”
And that night, I sat down and wrote a flash fiction piece about the AI apocalypse starting with a roomba insisting that it hadn’t finished cleaning. It’s short, only a thousand words (about four pages), and it’s meant to be kind of funny but also disturbing. But most importantly, it was something that I had finished. Up to this point, I’d been accumulating a vast pile of unfinished projects, so finishing something, even if it was a small, funny something, was a really big deal.
It was actually the last piece in the puzzle I’d been needing. Take a break, immerse yourself in what inspires you, reduce your stressors, and then, when you’re ready, write. And finish something. Show yourself that it’s possible. Because even if it doesn’t feel like it when you’re spiraling your way to becoming plumber’s block, it is possible.
- Get a few more wins under your belt.
At this point, I knew it was important to keep writing. Not a lot. Not enough to burn myself out again, because I was still in the middle of finals. But when I wanted to write, and I did want to write now, I did. And at this point, this was what I needed to do to keep myself writing. It also helped that right around this time, I got the acceptance letter from Andromeda Spaceways for my story “The Year of Salted Skies.” It was really lucky timing here, because it was just one more added confidence boost. And to some extent, because editors’ taste are so subjective, it’s kind of out of your control. But while I stopped writing, I didn’t stop submitting my stuff that was ready to be submitted. And getting “Salted Skies” published, and some other good news I got in June that I can’t tell you yet, really helped motivate me to keep writing.
- Look back at what happened and make a plan to do better next time.
By the time June came around, I was using all my free time to write. I finally finished revisions on my middle grade fantasy novel that I’ve been planning for a while. And I’m querying that again now. Over the rest of the summer, I started on the long path of finishing all the projects that I started and then abandoned during my months of writing block. Because I still love a lot of those ideas. I’m not writing all that fast, but I’m still writing.
Once I felt confident in my writing again, I took some time to look back at last school year to figure out what happened. I was really busy last fall because of the clinic I was in. I thought I could still do National Novel Writing Month. But the clinic project was bigger than anyone thought and quickly overwhelmed everything else. I wrote about thirty thousand words on my novel in November, and all things considered that was pretty good. But I’d pinned a lot on writing the whole novel in November, and also I’d never failed to write the full fifty thousand words in November. So here I was, totally swamped by school and work and unable to do what I wanted to do most. That, I think, was how it all started. It just got worse from there. But once I went through the steps I described here, once I figured out what the problem was, took a break and worked to inspire myself, and took baby steps back into writing, I was okay. But I don’t want this to happen again.
Ultimately, this happened because I failed to meet a goal. A crazy, unreasonable goal, but still. So what I’ve decided I need to do is to try to set more reasonable goals for myself. I’m a goal oriented person, so I’m not just going to abandon setting goals for myself altogether. But I’m not going to push myself to write a whole novel in a month while I also have a full course load and a part-time internship. Sometimes, this means I can’t do things I really want to do. For example, I really wanted to submit to PitchWars, which is a competition to get your novel mentored and then to get agents. But I accepted the fact that my third year of law school was going to be crazy, and I’d be better off waiting to submit until next year, after the bar and everything. And there’s nothing to stop me from querying agents the normal way throughout the year. I’m also not sure if I’m going to do NaNoWriMo this year. This seems, even to me, like I’m not doing that much writing, but this is actually freeing me up to write, and I’m writing more because of it.
I’m still setting goals for myself. And because I’m trying to hold myself accountable and actually meet these goals, I’m going to share with you my writing goals for the month and share my progress at the end of the month.
This month, I’d like to finish drafts of two short stories, one fantasy and one science fiction. I’m on the third draft of the fantasy story, and I want to finish the edits and send it off to beta readers for one more round of critiques before I start submitting it. I still haven’t finished the science fiction story, but I’m hoping to submit it for next year’s Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthology. Submissions close in December for that, so I’d like to have a first draft done by the end of the month.
So there you have it. How I overcame writer’s block and what I’m planning to do next. I hope what helped me helps some of you. And if you’ve struggled with writer’s block for whatever reason, please share what worked for you in the comments.