June 2024

Writer’s block is not a myth

by Suw on June 12, 2024

It might be a messy, complicated thing with a variety of causes and potential solutions, but it absolutely does exist.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks since my last newsletter. I finished the first draft of Fieldwork, my half-hour sitcom pilot script, and wrote about how much prep went into it, compared to the 8 hours and 41 minutes it took to write. And there’s been a lot going on with the day job, which is all to say that when I came to write this week’s newsletter, I really wasn’t sure what to write it about.

I eventually found myself searching for “myths about writer’s block”, as I thought that might be a good topic. Imagine my surprise when Google served up several pieces asserting that writer’s block simply doesn’t exist. Some of the people making these assertions are professors. Others are writers. All of them should know better.

Some reject the whole premise outright and say that it’s just an excuse to not write. Others reject the term but recognise the concept and prefer different words to describe the same thing. Some reject the term, reject the concept, then go on to talk about something that looks suspiciously like… writer’s block. One particularly harsh take was that anyone who has writer’s block isn’t even a writer.

Yet all these “writer’s block is a myth” posts still managed to make suggestions for how people should tackle writer’s block, usually by suggesting that the afflicted should just put their heads down and write anyway. Which, to my mind, somewhat misunderstands the whole problem. (Forcing yourself to write can be a solution, but there are many others activities that can also help.)

So I’m here to say that writer’s block, as in “the inability to begin or continue writing for reasons other than a lack of basic skill or commitment”, as writing expert Mike Rose put it, exists.

I say that it exists partly because I’ve experienced it, partly because I know lots of other people have experienced it, but mostly because academics have studied it, and it’s notoriously difficult to study something that doesn’t exist. And there’s even a test for “writer’s apprehension”, which is a slightly different way to think of and describe writer’s block.

(Before you rush off and take it, though, it’s aimed at students and not at professional writers so fairly useless outside of the academic experience. Apparently my score shows a “troublesome […] lack of apprehension” and whilst I “do not fear writing or evaluation of writing”, I “may not be adequately motivated to work on [my] writing”.  Hilarious.)

Reading these posts, which I’m not going to link to because I don’t want to give them oxygen, has made me rather cross. They display not just a lack of empathy for others but also the arrogance to think that their experience is the only valid experience. Yay, well done that you don’t experience writer’s block, but many people do, whether briefly or over the long term, and it’s a really frustrating and miserable experience.

What is true is that writer’s block is an umbrella term for a number of different issues which all result in someone not writing when they really want to or have to. These various causes, as I wrote last month, fall into four categories:

  • Physiological causes: Stress, anxiety, extreme emotional states such as grief, mental or physical health issues, and exhaustion.
  • Motivational causes: Fear of criticism, performance anxiety, and lack of enjoyment.
  • Cognitive causes: Perfectionism, problems associated with over-planning or under-planning, and rigid thinking, such as forcing a story to move in a certain direction.
  • Behavioural causes: Procrastination, interruptions to writing, and being too busy to write.

And because human beings are messy, some people may find that they experience a combination of problems that fall into more than one category. And because of this, solutions may not be as simple as just pushing through and forcing oneself to write (although that can work in some cases). Some people might need to peel back the onion layers of their block’s causes and work through multiple solutions over a period of time before they reach a place of comfort and confidence in their writing abilities.

Writer’s block is a symptom with multiple physiological, motivational, cognitive or behavioural causes, not a cause itself. If I am stressed, then that causes writer’s block. It’s not that I’ve got writer’s block therefore I can’t write.

That would be like saying runny noses cause colds. There are over 200 different viruses that can cause a cold. Those viruses inflame the mucous membranes in the nose and throat, at which point our nose turns into Niagara Falls. But if we don’t have the virus, we don’t have a cold.

The direction of causality here is important. If you think some sort of nebulous undefined ‘block’ thingie is the cause of an inability to write, then of course you’re going to look at the whole idea suspiciously, because you’re not understanding causality properly. If you don’t understand lift, flight look like magic.

No one, however, is served by these high-handed dismissals of what is actually a fairly widespread and well-studied experience. Indeed, if you come across anyone who rejects the idea of writer’s block, send them my way. I have some choice words for them.

Meanwhile, what is your experience of writer’s block? Are you suffering from it now? Have you had one or more bouts of short-term block that lasted a few weeks or days? Or have you experienced a longer term block that lasted months or years? Let me know in the poll on Substack.

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Plus some more publishing industry angst and a detailed rebuttal.

Hi there,

At the end of the last newsletter, I promised to share my excess links on Substack Notes or Bluesky. Well, that was two weeks ago, and I’m afraid I got a bit busy. That’s probably a good thing, because I was so busy that I’ve not been doing my usual reading and listening and am a bit short of stories this week. This newsletter might be a bit lighter on links than usual, but as I was the right kind of busy, I hope you won’t mind.

Suw’s News: Writing has begun on Fieldwork

One of the core things I’ve learnt over my 26 years as a self-employed person is that if I don’t track my hours, I either don’t work enough or work too much. So it’s with some significant confidence that I can tell you I have spent at least 332 hours on Fieldwork before getting to the point of actually starting to write the thing.

But writing has now begun! I’m a third of the way through the first draft and I’ve two days to finish the rest of it before I send it off to Dave Cohen for feedback. Next week will be spent redrafting it for a final round of feedback before it’s technically “done”, in so far as this course with Dave is concerned. It will, obviously, not be done done.

In the following weeks, I have to rework it into a 10 minute short, which was the original plan, and a 30 minute podcast script, which is the current plan. The podcast version is going to be interesting, because I don’t think in audio, I think in pictures, so I have lots to learn about writing for radio.

Opportunity: Short story competition for USians

Four Walls whiskey is offering a total prize pool of $44,444.44 for “the best bar stories”. Five writers will win $4,000 each, with another 40 finalists getting over $600 each (by my calculations, it’ll be $611.11). The competition is only open to people over 21 who are living in the USA and the deadline is 23:59 on 14 June.

Four Walls is a new whiskey brand created by writer, actor and businessman Rob McElhenney, along with Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day, co-creators of their long-running bar-based sitcom, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. McElhenney also owns a bar in Philly, Mac’s Tavern, and Four Walls sponsors another of McElhenney’s businesses, Wrexham AFC.

There’s a whole thing here about portfolio careers that’s tickling in the back of my head, but I’ll have to write about that another day.

Tip-top tip: How to take general meetings

If you’re a screenwriter, you might get lucky enough to be invited to a general meeting to discuss… things… with a producer. But what is a general meeting, and what kinds of things get discussed?

Script consultant Philip Shelley has published a very useful guide to general meetings by producer Jamie Hewitt, with some great tips for how to prepare and what to expect.

Read these: Debuts fail to launch… or do they?

Kate Dwyer, writing for Esquire, argues that debut novels are largely failing to launch, creating a crisis for publishers. She says:

For writers, the stakes are do or die: A debut sets the bar for each of their subsequent books, so their debut advance and sales performance can follow them for the rest of their career. For editors, if a writer’s first book doesn’t perform, it’s hard to make a financial case for acquiring that writer’s second book.

Dwyer puts this largely down to the collapse in promotional opportunities for book publicists, and the need for authors to develop parasocial relationships with their readers — their readers need to feel that they know you as a person, not just as an author. But it’s become harder to do that:

the social-media landscape has changed in a way that disadvantages unknown novelists specifically, more so than first-time nonfiction writers.

Solutions appear to be hobnobbing at industry events, having the money to hire your own publicist, get lots of already or soon-to-be influential friends, and build your own community. Easy!

Industry insider Kathleen Schmidt has published a fairly detailed take-down of the Esquire piece, saying:

If this were true, hardly any debuts would be published. First, it is not a given that your book will sell like crazy if it is chosen for a major book club. The sales figures for Reese’s Book Club, Oprah’s Book Club, Reading with Jenna, and GMA’s Book Club wildly fluctuate.

She also refutes a lot more Dwyer’s points, but I particularly liked this line as a positive thing to take away from this latest paroxysm of publishing angst:

Book publishing is a long game.

Indeed it is. As with many things, overnight success often takes years.

It’s well worth reading Schmidt’s piece, even if you don’t read the Esquire one first, because in amongst the rebuttals there’s some useful advice as well.

For me, Dwyer’s piece, and all the pieces that have run along the same lines recently, are a sign of a widespread anxiety about the state of our cultural industries, in America especially.

Truth is, authors are finding it harder to make a living writing, and both success and wealth are concentrated in an ever decreasing number of hands. We’re seeing a decrease in the diversity of voices able to crack a cultural career — you need to have access to money to be able to spend the time developing your craft to a point where you’re even able to try to develop a creative career.

And in America, book bans are becoming more common in schools and libraries along with aggressive illiberal campaigns against books, schools and librarians, creating an atmosphere of fear amongst professionals, parents and children. All this against the backdrop of an election that could have a catastrophic outcome for not just the country, but the world.

We have to be incredibly careful when reading these pieces here in the UK that we don’t assume our industry and situation is exactly the same as in the US. Sure, authors are still struggling to make financial ends meet, and it’s still hard to break out, but I don’t think things are as bad as Dwyer makes out.

Read these two, too: Does the maths math? Does it matter?

We already know that the maths of being a writer is pretty dire. So many surveys, analyses and think pieces tell us that it’s nigh-on impossible to earn a comfortable living as an author.

Erik Hoel does some napkin maths and figures out that what he calls ‘cultural billionaires’, ie people who earn a comfortable living as a writer, are as about as common as actual billionaires.

Monica Byrne asks whether an author can live from their royalties, and comes to the obvious conclusion that no, it’s not.

Which isn’t to try to dissuade anyone from being a writer. Indeed, quite the opposite. I internalised the lesson that I’d never earn money from writing a long time ago, so I didn’t write, and it made me incredibly miserable. If you want to write, you should absolutely write.

This is more to say that you must, absolutely must, diversify your income stream. Writing makes me happy, but it won’t make me much money, so the next few years of my life continue to be focused on searching for a way to facilitate my writing without tanking my income.

Which I guess is a great moment to suggest that you can, if you like, upgrade to a paid membership and help me along!

Obligatory cat picture

It’s too bright. It’s just far, far too bright. Copurrnicus buries his face as he takes a well-earned nap.

That’s it for this time! By my next newsletter, the Fieldwork pilot script should be complete, which is an exciting thought!!

All the best,



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