Life Upheaval and Other Causes of Writer’s Block

I’ve missed quite a few of the Journeypen Project posts this year, so many of them that I bet some of you have wondered if I would actually be continuing it. I definitely am! I’ve loved seeing your hoped-for topics in the suggestion box, and I’ve started posts on many of them. Unfortunately, none of them are ready yet; I’m still organizing my thoughts so that I give the best possible answer I can give. 

So, I am going to post about Writer’s Block, something I’m also frequently asked about, especially when speaking at schools. I once said that there were two causes for writer’s block. Then I said three. I’m currently up to four causes, but who knows what might strike me in the future? 


I believe there are four causes of writer’s block:

1) Fear of the Blank Page

This is by far the most common. Sometimes, you have this beautiful story in your head, and you know by writing it down it’ll lose some of its lushness. So, you really don’t want to write it, and by doing so, ruin it (more on this topic in this post).

I usually fix this by tricking myself: I set a timer for 15 minutes or less, and I tell myself if I write for those 15 minutes, then I don’t have to write for the rest of the day. Typically, when the timer buzzes, you’re immersed in the story and don’t want to stop.

But sometimes you do. In that case, if you’re really determined, you can take a 15 minute break and come back to it for another sprint. (Confession: I wrote most of OEAE writing 15 minutes on and off, over and over again, several times a day, until the book was finished.)

2) Problems in the Story

Journeypen Logo - v1Some writers are more bothered by problems in their story than others. Sometimes, a writer will be so annoyed at problems in a certain part of the story is that they’ll write and rewrite it again and again until they stop, discouraged, and feel “stuck.”

It is true that you have stopped, but not that you’re stuck. You are standing at a narrative-making crossroads. You have choices:

A) You can stick with this section until you get it right–or right enough that you feel confident you can fix it later.

This is the method I took when writing certain parts of the Ever Afters. For example, when writing Rory’s orientation, I first wrote this section with the Director giving the orientation, but it was too boring.

I started letting Rumplestiltskin give the same orientation, but that grew oddly formal and creepy very quickly.

Then I tried Sarah Thumb, and it was just the right amount of funny and informative.

You know, after rereading that description, I kind of want to dub this “the Goldilocks method.” Ha!

B) Write something else.

It’s okay to just move on to the next section, even when you know what you have written isn’t working. Sometimes, writing the rest of the story will help you come up with ways to fix that specific problem area.

If you don’t know what the next bit is exactly, you can jump to another part of the story, something you’re excited to write, and you can work on that for a while.

If you don’t want to do that, or you can’t because you truly have no idea what else will happen in the story, you can write something else. A freewrite to try to solve the narrative problem you’re facing. A journal entry. A blog post. Another story altogether.

The point is to keep using your creative muscles. All movement is a step in the right direction; it’s experience which will make you more capable of solving the problem at hand. You just need to trust that no work is ever wasted. Even if that text doesn’t make it into the final draft, the act of writing it gave you the tools you needed to reach that final draft.

3) A Low Creative Battery

Most writers I know are not robots (Laini Taylor has a great blog series called “Not for Robots,” btw). They have periods of high productivity, writing pages and pages a day, even multiple chapters. They also have periods of low productivity, when even writing one hundred words/a couple paragraphs is a struggle.

If you try the timer method and you’re still not writing very much despite all your dedication, then you may have a low creative battery. You’ve written your heart out, probably pretty recently, and your creative well is a bit dry.

So, to fix this, you fill the well. In other words, you take care of the writer, i.e. yourself, instead of worrying about what you’re writing.

Read books–not assigned ones, but ones you like. Watch a favorite TV show. Pursue one of your hobbies. Go on a walk. Hang out with friends.

This was something that was personally VERY difficult for me to understand when writing became less a hobby and more of an occupation, so please consider this your official head’s up: Just because writing is work you love doesn’t mean that you can’t be overworked as a writer. It’s okay to feel that way. Writing isn’t ruined forever; it won’t always feel like a chore. But you do need to take care of yourself before you take care of your writing.

4) Life Upheaval

Sometimes, you’ll have a lot going on in your life, and it will interfere with your ability to write. This is similar to the Fallow Period (see that post here). Although they’re slightly different, a Fallow Period and Life Upheaval will often coincide.

With so much happening in your life, you spend much of your time and energy dealing with the dramas of the day. You use up your strength and courage in your real life, where it is most needed. This leaves you with very little left over for writing a story, which will require a certain bravery and dedication of its own.

This is the sort of writer’s block I’m in at the moment. It feels a bit overdramatic to call it a “block,” because I AM writing: I’ve written 33 pages of my current work-in-progress since the end of March, and I’m well into the planning stages for a new middle grade series.

My progress is, however, slow, and that troubles me.

I can’t yet talk about the details of this current upheaval for various reasons. (A big one of those is the fact that I’m too deep in the thick of it to think and speak about it clearly.) But this isn’t the first time I’ve had a period of intense upheaval. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably had something similar yourself. This state is better known as “growing pains.”

That sounds flippant, and the term can be used derogatorily, but both the “growing” and the “pain” part of that phrase are absolutely true.

This happens to every writer. This happens to every PERSON. It may be happening to you right now, and it is insanely hard for you to craft a fictional narrative when you’re struggling to get a handle on the story your life is pushing you through.

So, what do you do–writer’s block wise–when you’re a writer living through a phase like this?

A) You live it.

Upheaval doesn’t just change your life; it changes you. The experience of living it will push you down a new path, and you will not be the same person at the beginning as you will be at the end.

Now, this may sound insanely scary if you are young, but you got to remember: you’ve already lived through this before.

For example, once you didn’t go to school, and then you started kindergarten. That experience definitely changed you even if you don’t remember it, and there’s literally no going back to the preschool state. And most kids, if you ask hem, really wouldn’t want to go back to that time.

Other experiences make a bigger impression.

“There is before, and there is afterward,” Rapunzel says, before Rory, Chase, and Lena go up the beanstalk. “This is before. Everything will change.”

I have always not-so-secretly adored this moment in Of Giants and Ice. Because Rapunzel is right. At that moment, Rory, Chase, and Lena are just three kids; they’re not the Triumvirate yet. Rory can actually still walk away from EAS; it won’t yet have changed her life forever. If she did move away without this quest, she wouldn’t know it’s possible to return to EAS, so she would probably lose touch with Lena. She would never be friends with Chase (horrible thought). She would struggle to make true friends at her new school, and she wouldn’t stand up to her parents.

But Rory does go on this quest with Chase and Lena. It is a path of great hardship and frequent near-death experiences, but it is also a path of great friendship and growing strength. The Rory that comes down the beanstalk is not the same Rory who climbs up, and that’s true for Chase and Lena too.

After the beanstalk, everything did change, just as Rapunzel predicted, because the kids changed up there–and with them, their perspectives.

(NOTE: I really could have used an example from ALL of literature to make this point…but I chose mine for two reasons: 1)  I assume, if you’re visiting, you’ve probably read OGAI and know what I’m talking about, and 2) some life upheaval in college inspired this particular passage.)

Something like this will happen to you too someday. When it’s over, you won’t be the same, and you’ll KNOW you’re not the same.

The trick, as a writer, is to pay attention to what you’re feeling and how you’re changing so that you can write about it later. (I tried to cover this topic in my January post, but it’s possible that it didn’t 100% make sense.)

B) Keep a journal.

I always give this advice, even though (confession time) I didn’t keep one until I was sixteen. I feel like I stopped for a semester or two somewhere along the way, but I’ve kept a journal for more than a decade. (More on journal writing can be found in this post.)

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This is the journal I finished over the weekend. Each pink flag is the beginning of a new month, so I’ve actually been writing in it quite a bit.

Journal writing serves two purposes: first, it keeps your writing muscles in shape while you’re trying to sort out your life, and second, it gives you a safe place to vent and unravel your feelings so you don’t accidentally blow up at your loved ones under duress.

(Contrary to popular belief, writers should make every effort not to blow up at their loved ones. Later on, you may ask them to support you while you’re writing, either by cheering you on or cooking you dinner so you can finish that difficult chapter you’re so close to finishing. They are more likely to say yes if you don’t alienate them before hand.)

C) Expose yourself to stories, and discover what moves you, especially during this time.

Stories come in all sorts of different formats these days. TV and movies are a great example. I’ve really gotten into podcasts, because I can listen to them while exercising. And of course, there are always books, which is my preferred flavor of storytelling (obviously).

You can experience a story and simply decide whether or not you like it, but it is better to go the extra distance. Note what you love the most, and try to puzzle out why. Unravel how the storyteller created that effect, and maybe you can use that technique when you return to your own fiction. Ruminate on a passage that, when you first read it, made you swell with recognition, that had you thinking, Yes! I’ve felt exactly that. Think on it long enough, and you might be able to expand on it in your own words.

All of literature is just one long conversations, writers talking to other writers, both their living contemporaries and the long-deceased heroes. That is the most helpful thing I learned as an English major–that even the most lauded and “original” writers were madly influenced by and influencing each other.

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I don’t like underlining books, so instead, I mark the passages that strike me with little flags. I go back and type them up later. From this photo, you can see I’m obviously behind on the typing front with what I’ve read lately.)

As a bonus, reading fiction reduces stress, which can be really helpful when you’re in the midst of some growing pains. Books transport you out of yourself and into a new world, and watching characters survive their own turmoil makes you more willing to face your own.

Best of all, you’ll be filling the well—that creative battery I mentioned in Section 3 will be charged to overflowing by the time your life settles down. That will be enormously helpful. You will then be ready when things are quiet, and the story comes, and the characters return to you, demanding your attention. You may want to write for days, even weeks without stopping, and you’ll have enough creative juice to run with the inspiration.

D) Have faith in your evolving personhood.

I have told writers, looking for advice, that they need to learn how to tell the story only they can tell.

To do that, you must also be forged into the person you are meant to be. Unfortunately, that process is ignited through upheaval and distilled from the pain of growing throughout a trying time.

Have faith in the forging. Trust that, even if your life is taking you away from the act of writing, it is bringing you closer to the stories you’re meant to tell.

Good luck, and wish your fellow writers luck too–you’re not alone in this. 🙂

3 Comments

  1. Clare L.R. June 28, 2016
  2. May June 29, 2016
    • Clare L.R. June 29, 2016