how to overcome writer's block

There's no such thing as writer's block, says a woman in Driftways. It's only the space between you and story. 

I believe that, or I wouldn't have written it. I believe it because I see story and teller as two spirits who create a relationship between themselves. So all the ordinary advice about breaking down blocks in your own mind in order to get writing again - well, it comes from a paradigm so completely different from mine, I can't relate to it. When I have writer's block, I don't treat the problem as being an intellectual one requiring mental exercises or physical actions. I treat it as an issue in my relationship with story.

Here is some advice I would give to a struggling writer, based on my own paradigm.

1. Honour the rhythm of your creative ways.

I tend to be a seasonal writer. My muse leaves me in winter and spring, the seasons I love best, so I may soak in the beauty and wild gentleness of the world. I seldom write effectively at this time. Every time I try, it is like scratching against a dry surface. It hurts, it makes ugly marks. I absolutely must have the long weeks of marinating in subconscious inspiration. I must get plumped-up, enriched, mineralised. Only when I am full to overflowing can I open a channel and let it pour, guided, into words.

Other people may need less soaking-up time. They may need only a few days. They may find instant inspiration from conversations, or reading, or sudden thoughts. Everyone is different. But no one can write well from an inner space that is dried-up, empty. If you feel blocked, perhaps it is only that you have not honoured the time necessary to marinate in inspiration.

Over and over I read the advice that writers should write every day, whether they want to or not, and regardless of inspiration. I think that's often unhelpful. Forcing writing when the soul is dry, or the muse is absent, or simply from a sense of duty, does nothing real, and may even create bad habits. It also suggests that writing and creative storytelling are one thing, and I don't believe they necessarily are. We often use words, written or spoken or sung, to tell stories - but that is not the only method available.

By separating the mechanics of telling from the story itself, we open our selves to the entire process of storytelling, and realise just how many channels we have within us for creativity. Can't find the time, energy, or resources to write your story? So sing it. So walk it through a wooded glade. So wash it off the dinner plates, or dance it in the quiet dark after the children have gone to bed, or talk it out with your beloved, or draw pictures of it.

Eventually, the words will come. In the meanwhile, grow your relationship with story. Get under its skin, into its heart, and fall in love with it.

2. Call upon story.

I say that I'm a writer, but that term worries me slightly. It suggests I am in charge of the whole thing. But the truth is that I am a teller. I listen to story and write it down. The words are mine, but the story belongs to itself. 

Every time I come up with a great idea and try to make it happen, I discover all over again that I am a teller, not story myself. I may end up with some good words, good thoughts, on the page - but the subtelties and depths that come from relationship are always missing.

I suspect that writer's block often arises from writers shutting out story and doing all the work themselves. (Infact, whenever I read awful books I see clearly that the author has just written, rather than listened to story and shared that relationship.)

I urge writers to open their hearts to story, inviting in the muse. Let go of all ego, and offer up your skills, your love, your heart, to a relationship with something wonderful.

3. Go out and get story.

I don't mean you should hunt story down, trap it, pull it apart. I mean that it's hard to write with any complexity if you haven't visited the places where story is born - haven't seen a sunset over meadows, read history, dug up weeds, talked to strange people, wept rain from your soul. Thinking alone won't get you inspiration, because - and listen, this is truth people won't often tell you - writing is not a cerebral exercise.  Done honestly, writing is sensuous and far-ranging and wild. It is in your mind, and your blood, and the air you breathe. Writing is seduction, the touch of story against your tingling spine and very gently behind your knee or beneath your foot. It is the rich inward breath, and all the sorrowings of breathing out. It is what the sea needs to say. It is the irritable tug of the moon. Writing is not just something you do with pen on paper.

All too often, writer's block is caused quite literally by the walls surrounding you. Or by the belief that the blank page means anything. No, story is composed in a rainbow, in a man's unexpected laughter ... story is living. If it doesn't come to you, go out and look for it.

4. Stay in your comfort zone.

I've written before about my dislike of the advice that writers should step outside their comfort zone. I won't repeat that whole post here. If you're wondering why I advise people to remain in their comfort zone, in a safe place of self-nourishment and understanding, where they can write from the certainty of their true self, you can read the post here.

5. Study good books. 

The best apprenticeships are undertaken with masters of a craft. That is why I advise people to read the masters. Feel their impact on your body and spirit. Think about how they did it. Also read educated opinions and analyses of their works. Watch university literature lectures on You Tube. You'll learn more about the craft of writing, and may find new and interesting ways to express yourself which will enliven your practice - than you will ever learn from advice on how to structure paragraphs and create interesting secondary characters.

6. Don't write.

I'll say it again. There's no benefit in just writing. Directed practice is the way to advance your skills. Developing a relationship with the wild story in the world is the way to fill yourself with magic and creativity. From my perspective, a whole bunch of morning pages or prompted writings are just, in the end, navel-gazing. If you get away from the idea that writing is a solitary task performed by your brain and your fingers, and instead perceive it as a relationship, you may find your heart swelling with creativity and with the desire to engage with story, to love story, to dance with it into words.

This is all of course just my opinion, based on my way of seeing the world and the craft of writing. I am always nervous about sharing my advice since I inevitably sound stuck-up, bossy, and egotistical. Please know that I am not telling you what you should do as a matter of right practice, only telling you what may help from the paradigm of storytelling as a relationship. You may have a whole different perspective. But isn't that what's lovely about the internet? We can share our viewpoints with each other and hopefully come to see the world through many different lenses, making it even more beautiful and wondrous.


  1. God, I love you. I nodded my head all the way down this page. Yes, yes, yes. Just this very morning, I told someone I was terrible with ideas, that I just waited and let the day bring its ideas to me. I said it was my secret lazy writing tool. I was serious.

    And yes to the teller. I realized I was a storyteller, not a writer,a while back. Same thing - the day brings me stories, or I stumble across them, but I can only claim the telling of them.

    While reading this, I thought of the old days, back when I actually worked out, and everyone and all the books said you have to do it the morning, it's better, more consistent, you may too tired in the evening, and I tried, but not being much of a morning person, I tripped over my own feet and became frustrated and awful. It was not my time. It made ugly marks.

    I love this. You are right - it may not be the way someone else works, but it's the way I work. I could go on and on - I just love so much you say here.


  2. Ha! Thank you. I've never been able to come to terms with morning pages or "flow of consciousness" writing. It all feels like bullocks and a chore and everything in me rebels against it. But you know, sometimes you're wrong, so you try what the people suggest anyway and then you just feel like a failure because you can't make yourself follow through. Also, it's so bloody boring. ;-) From now on, if words don't happen, I'll just leave them alone and go do something else.

  3. they all make sense and it's really a matter of opinion whether to follow your advices or others. for me, every day seems like there is something stopping/blocking me from writing but that's part of writing, but these are very good advices especially the last one - don't write. I think we have to sometimes stop writing just for our minds to relax and then return to the writing, maybe a little refresh. it's just what I think.

    anyway, hope you have a wonderful day.

  4. I love your thoughts on this topic. It's funny, but I never think of my fallow periods as writer's block. I just go through stretches where I don't much feel like writing fiction, that's all. : ) But it's not like I can't put two words together on a page during those times; I am still always writing: letters and journal entries and blog posts and descriptions of places and people and whatnot.

    I think you are right about the intimate relationship between story and teller. In a way, it is like what exists between lovers. It requires patience, gentle respect, and tender wooing on both sides. Story comes to me at the least expected times: while I'm walking through woods or visiting the site of an abandoned house or sitting in an old cemetery. Suddenly, it's there, wrapped around my soul like an embrace. Sometimes I will live in that embrace for days and days. When I sit down to write, it is usually with a certainty that a story is ready to be told, even if I don't yet fully understand it. But, the majority of stories that come to me are not meant to be written at all. They are meant to live silently in my heart, or sung quietly in my child's ear, or told to a friend over cups of tea.

    1. I think it is one of the shames of modern consumerism that writers/storytellers feel they have to write stories down in order to sell them, and they have to make money from writing, and that it's all about getting books on shelves. My best stories, and the ones I take greatest pride in, are the ones I've told to my daughter as bedtime or birthday stories. Infact, if I'm going to be fully honest, I believe stories are sacred, they are a means of communication between heaven and human, and so the ones which live silently in the heart are just as important as the ones on the New York Times bestseller list.

    2. "...stories are sacred, they are a means of communication between heaven and human..."

      Thank you; this is the loveliest thought to ponder. I'm so glad you shared your opinion in this blog post. :)

  5. Wonderful words of wisdom and magical pictures too.

  6. Stories are sacred. I agree with what you say here, I've never believed in writer's block, it is just a matter of waiting. And this made me think of an ongoing conversation my son and I have, about great writing vs. great storytelling, in our case we always come back to David Foster Wallace and Stephen King... a genius who, in my opinion cannot tell a story, and a fabulous storyteller who is underrated because of his genre.

    Stories are the treasure of generations. They must be cared for, and cherished.