10 Causes of Writer’s Block | Part 1

Aug 01, 2022

By Christine Carron

A couple of years ago, when I was struggling to make progress with my writing, I read an article about creativity (that shall remain nameless) and got a bit peeved by something the author wrote. Basically, the author asserted that if you were blocked as a writer you were lazy, playing the victim, and just needed to get over yourself and write. 

That passage struck me as one of the most tone-deaf commentaries on writer’s block that I had ever read. I knew I wasn’t lazy. If I were playing the victim, I would not have been searching for an insight, a process, or something—anything—that might help me by reading that article. And, seriously, “just get over myself and write?” 

Geez, why didn’t I think of that? 

There were two problems with the author’s argument from my perspective as a process improvement consultant. First, the assumption that there are only two (very judgmental) causes to writers’ block: laziness or playing the victim. Second, that there is only one solution: get over yourself and write.

Whenever I work with a writer (or corporate team) who is struggling, I expect to find a logical and valid reason, or reasons, for the struggle. I never start with the assumption that there is some kind of character flaw involved, i.e., laziness or victimhood. Furthermore, I have to get clear the true cause(s) of what is going awry in order to help the writer/team find a solution that will be implementable and successful. 

The one upside to that passage was that it spurred me to stop looking outside myself for a solution to my struggle. I figured I could use my own process chops to get me out of the writer’s block pickle I was in, no matter how profound and big it felt. To do so, the first step would be to come up with my own (hopefully more generous and comprehensive) list of the potential causes of writer’s block. 

I ended up with ten possible causes, based both on my personal experience as a writer and on my experience coaching other writers around their writing process. Here are the first five. 

Cause #1: Clutter 

Clutter can drag on a writer’s ability to focus and to get their writing done. Why? Because clutter contributes to procrastination. In a New York Times article, The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter, journalist Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi shares that a study done by researchers at DePaul University in Chicago “found a substantial link between procrastination and clutter problems.”

I use a very broad definition of writerly work when I coach writers around their writing process: Writerly work is anything that helps a writer get their writerly work done. So if a writer is not getting their writerly work done because their environment (and mind) is cluttered, then until that is sorted, I would invite that writer to consider decluttering part of their writerly work. 

Otherwise, the clutter will continue to drag on their progress, or block it outright. 

Solutions for clutter depend on if a writer has a significant clutter situation or simply needs a solid plan to keep clutter in check. I love decluttering techniques, as they are generally process oriented. Some of my favorite experts on decluttering: Karen Kingston, Marie Kondo, and the Flylady.

If you are clutter blocked, see if any of the preceding resources appeal to you. If so, test them out. If not, ask yourself: How can I make it easy to get a handle on my clutter situation? And see what ideas come to mind. 

Cause #2: Exhaustion

Let’s say you are a writer and are working a full time job and/or have a family. With all those responsibilities in play, your writer’s block may simply be exhaustion. When I was on intensive consulting assignments, working 60-80 hour weeks, I was not a font of creative output. 

This is a situation that inevitably comes up in The Jam Experience. A writer will be going full tilt in their outside (non-writing) work life, and/or with their home responsibilities, and still be trying to maintain a writerly output that would be tough to maintain even if they were a full-time writer with a personal assistant, a private chef, a housekeeper, live-in childcare, etc. 

Unrealistic expectations of ourselves and our writing when we are exhausted and not producing will not help us course-correct an exhaustion block. 

Instead, courageous self-care and self-management are needed. Stop beating yourself up. Prioritize rest over writing. Take some time to strategize on ways you might create a more balanced schedule over time. Be kind, compassionate, and curious in this exploration. 

Especially as there can be financial considerations, family considerations, etc. that make each writer’s navigation of these types of situations unique. It is important for you to honor all the variables that are contributing to the exhaustion so that you can find a realistic path to minimize the exhaustion and find more time for your writing. 

Cause #3: Health Conditions

Our health can impact our ability to focus and our energy level, which can then impact our ability to churn out writerly work. Health-caused writing blocks can stem from acute but temporary health challenges, like a cold, and by more chronic conditions. 

Like with an exhaustion block, working with health blocks takes kindness, self-empathy, and a little badassery, too. Managing through a health block requires a writer to design their writerly process and expectations in a way that takes their health realities into account. 

Just like attempting to ignore an exhaustion block, ignoring a health block and trying to push through is not a smart or generally effective strategy. Pay attention to your body’s cues rather than adopting the common cultural mindset noted by Eric Shattuck, a lecturer in evolutionary medicine and anthropology at the University of Texas, San Antonio, where “people try to ignore the cues of sickness . . . unless they are so sick they can't get out of bed.”

Go against the cultural grain: Take care of yourself, get back to your health equilibrium, and then get back to your writing in a way that supports your continued health equilibrium. 

Cause #4: Boundary Issues

Poor boundaries are another cause of writer’s block. When we don’t hold good boundaries we can get interrupted and lose focus. Sometimes other people violate our boundaries around our writing, but I suspect we all know that sometimes we violate our own boundaries. For example, checking email or social media during writing sessions after we specifically decided we weren’t going to do that. 

I will be writing about boundaries specifically related to writerly work in an upcoming series of posts. In the interim, one of the best resources I have found of late on boundaries is the work of therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab. Her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace is great, and her Instagram feed is chock full of wisdom. This is Ms. Tawab’s zone of genius. Can’t recommend her enough.

Cause #5: Perfectionism 

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown writes, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

Perfectionism is not helpful on the writing adventure. It can manifest in different ways: perfectionistic researching, perfectionistic planning, perfectionistic character analysis, perfectionistic world-building, etc. When we are caught up in perfectionism it can be hard to spot, and we may go to the mat to defend the behavior: I have standards, thank you very much! 

Perfectionism can be a tricky knot to untie—speaking from experience here. A useful question to (compassionately) ask yourself if you have an inkling that perfectionism might be causing a writing block is: What am I trying to protect myself from?

Brené Brown, in this clip, offers another question to consider: What am I afraid of?

Like health conditions, or exhaustion, tending to the perfectionism—rather than ignoring it or railing against it—will be the most direct path back to writing. And in the case of releasing perfectionism, it will also be a path to writing with greater ease and grace. 

5 to Start; 5 to Go

Clutter, exhaustion, health conditions, boundary issues, and perfectionism are the first half of the set of possible writing block causes I identified. There, of course, may be overlap in these. For example, someone may be an exhausted perfectionist. 

The point of my exploration was not to create rigid and mutually-exclusive categories, but rather to expand my thinking around possible causes, which would then allow me to find more elegant and effective solutions for each. 

What I discovered was that none of these first five ended up being the cause of the writer’s block I was wrestling with when I came across that passage that peeved me so. So I leave you today with a small writer’s block cliffhanger. 

Next week, I will share the remaining five potential writing block causes and which of those was the cause of my intense period of writer’s block. Oh, the suspense . . . 

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Just one more step . . .