Recently, I watched an interview with Roxane Gay where she was asked if she’s experienced writer’s block. She responded, “Yes, I’ve been having writer’s block for two years now. I can write through it, but it’s shitty writing. It’s hard.”
This incredible writer, who has inspired millions, writes through writer's block, and has produced a lot in the last two years, including her best selling memoir, Hunger.
This struck me. I was astounded at her devotion to the craft, and it speaks to her prolific body of work. She has what researchers say is more important to success than skill and intelligence: grit, the ability to persevere under difficult circumstances.
But “writing through it” is not easy. It is swimming across a cold and raging channel and never getting warm. It is repeatedly jumping from a cliff and hoping your wings will grow before you’re splattered on the rocks like an autumn tomato.
For me, writer’s block is a symptom of burnout.
It comes when I’ve pushed too hard, I’ve asked too much of my creative spirit. Julia Cameron says the inner artist is a “creative child,” and if you push that kid too hard, she’ll rebel.
My burnout block is when nothing inspires. All the color is sucked from the world and replaced with gray. My face feels tired, and the space behind my eyes aches. The buzz and flicker of creativity, that tingling in the fingertips to write… Gone. Gone with the artist child who is off taking a nap.
To be honest, this is where I am this week. My creative flame is an ember about to hush out. I’ve been pushing hard and struggling to find time to recover. The ideas I want to write about seem dull and droll and hackneyed, and I just don’t care.
I’m also a slow writer. Even in seasons when I write every day, it can take me weeks to write a blog post and months to years to write a full essay. Working a nine-to-five job plus finding time to write, taking care of my body, maintaining relationships, and managing the doldrums of modern life like budgeting, getting the dog groomed, making a dentist appointment… is enough to capsize me.
Block. Burnout. Drying up. Inspiration fatigue. It gets all of us at some point. We are artists. The artist child is not perpetually on and ready to perform. Sometimes she needs long naps. She needs to play in the sand. She needs to daydream. She needs a frickin’ chocolate Popsicle, STAT!
My pride wants to keep pushing. And I guess I am; I’m sitting here writing this. But I also trust Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg, who both champion “filling the well,” or as Sophfronia Scott calls it, “Non-Writing Writing.”
Filling the Well means returning to the present.
The physical. We must return to the world that fascinates us so, that at one point in our lives, we thought, I must write this down.
For me, burnout requires a shift in attention from the page to the concrete world. This means tending to the artist child and the whole spirit by practicing mindful attention. Walking slowly through a botanical garden. Sitting quietly and watching how 3 P.M. light moves in the kitchen. Snuggling the dog.
“The deepest secret in our heart of hearts is that we are writing because we love the world, and why not finally carry that secret out with our bodies into the living rooms and porches, backyards and grocery stores?” – Natalie Goldberg
It’s also important to create novelty, which sociologists say is essential for intrinsic motivation. This is why Cameron emphasizes Artist Dates, and encourages creatives to carve out time to shake up their routine and experience new places. We must let ourselves fall in love with the world again.
In non-writing times, it helps me to use mental cues: What do I notice right now? How do I feel emotionally? How do I feel physically?
I sometimes suppress the urge to rush to my journal and get it all down. I remember: this moment has value in its immediacy. I don’t have to live it a second time on the page. It is food for the inner creative compost.
Natalie Goldberg says, “Writers get confused. We think writing gives us an excuse for being alive. We forget that being alive is unconditional and that life and writing are two separate entities.”
Or, like Gay, we can write through writer’s block.
Only we can know ourselves if “writing through” is the right way to approach the block and burnout. After completing my MFA in 2013, I stopped writing for a year. That was the right decision for me. I’d spent three years working on my craft and birthing a novella. My artist child needed a long vacation.
But in this season, I must (gently) write through burnout. At the same time, I need to give the artist child what she needs: restorative breaks, a swim in the sea, silly jokes, coloring books… and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.
(Side note: if you read Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, you’ll never feel guilty about a chocolate addiction again.)
Years ago, when these dry spells would hit, I’d think all was lost. That’s it! I’m not a writer! It’s over for me!
Now, I know it’s just the flow of things. I have to be gentle. The artist child will return with water and gems and seashells in her hands.
In the meantime, I have tricks for coping. Tricks to fill the well and to do as Gay does and write through it.
Are you in this dry and gray season with me? If so, there are a few strategies for moving through writer’s block and burnout. Some of these I’ve tried with success, and others are for future dry spells.
I’ve divided these tips for writer's block and burnout between “write through it” and “fill the well.” Only you can know if you need an extended break from writing. (Caveat: Don't stop completely … In my “non-writing” year, I still journaled frequently, but stopped writing with an intention to publish.)
Fill the Well
• Go on an Artist Date
• Learn or play a musical instrument
• Travel somewhere interesting – Don’t stay in a resort; get out into a new culture
• Journal, journal, journal – Try morning pages
• Learn a new language
• Start a letter writing practice, and write a letter to a loved one once or twice a week
• Start a book club
• Start or grow a meditation practice – InsightTimer is my favorite guided meditation app
• Read ravenously – Re-read your favorites, especially from childhood. Remember, we’re refilling the well for our artist child!
• Start a gratitude practice – Every night, write down ONE thing you’re grateful for. It doesn’t have to be a big, deep thing. “I’m grateful I have toothpaste” or “I’m grateful to have a bed” are fine.
• Start a daily affirmation practice
• Take a media fast — No books, TV, radio, social media, podcasts, audiobooks, etc. for a few days. Music and fine art are okay and will fertilize your inner artistic compost. This quieting practice can revive the inner voice.
Write Through It
• Do any of the above in “Fill the Well”
• Start small – Set a timer for 25 minutes, turn off your WiFi, and as Natalie says, “GO!” For longer writing periods, do two to five rounds of 25-minute timed writings, plus five-10 minute breaks in between. The breaks are KEY. Be mindful of the artist child.
• Embrace shitty first drafts
• Write in new and strange places – On the subway, at the beach (where I am currently “writing through” this blog post), in the car, at a wine bar, in the bathroom, on the roof. There’s ample evidence to suggest motivation is driven by novelty, so shake it up.
• Change up your writing tool – If you write on your laptop, switch to pen and paper or a typewriter. Or, if that sounds too daunting, use Google Docs instead of MS Word or vice versa.
• Change up your form – If you’re an essayist, write a short story or poem. If you’re a poet, write a short screenplay.
• Use a writing prompt – The book, Naming the World is a lovely collection of prompts and exercises. When you’re really stuck, Natalie Goldberg recommends writing about your favorite meal. Use the sticky details in your memory.
• Practice grace – Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself again. You are not less of an artist in this desert season. When that trembling, aching, frantic frustration enters your fingers and eyes and whole body. When you’re gripping the laptop with 10,000 pounds of of anger. Forgive yourself.
The last bullet is the most important. The only way to begin again is through grace.
When I'm in the season of gray, I speak quietly to myself, “I accept this season,” and “I forgive you.” And for each sensation of pain or sadness or apathy that creeps into my chest and throat, I say, “This too. This too. This too.”
SOURCES & RESOURCES
Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way. TarcherPerigree. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/615570.The_Artist_s_Way
Desus & Mero. (2018). Author and Professor Roxane Gay [Interview]. Viceland. https://www.viceland.com/en_us/video/author-and-professor-roxane-gay/5b1f08ebf1cdb317bc2e4ad1
Gay, R. (2018). Writing. http://www.roxanegay.com/writing/
Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing Down the Bones. Shambhala Publications. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/44905.Writing_Down_the_Bones
Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by Bird. Anchor Books. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12543.Bird_by_Bird
Johnston, B. (ed.) (2008). Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. Random House. https://www.amazon.com/Naming-World-Exercises-Creative-Writer/dp/0812975480
Pink, DJ. (2009). Drive. Riverhead Books. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6452796-drive