DRMacIver's Notebook

On feeling blocked, redux

On feeling blocked, redux

Ages ago, when struggling to write, I wrote On feeling blocked, in which I describe the phenomenology of writer’s block.

I’ve been really struggling with writing my newsletter recently, so I’ve decided to solve this with resuming daily writing, and it seemed natural to start by returning to the subject. A year and a half on I have a very different perspective on writer’s block.

It’s this: Writer’s block is not wanting to write, or wanting not to write.

This may seem overly simple, but it’s not. It just moves the complexity. Wanting is complicated.

In particular, often some parts of you will want to write, and some parts of you will want not to write, and the resulting inner conflict leads to writer’s block.

In “On feeling blocked”:

Being blocked feels like this. It’s not that there’s an actual block, it’s that you reach for a part of your brain where the words come from and it’s not there. You can’t run out of ideas and you know this, but you try to follow the steps of the idea generating process and the world glitches and you realise you cut off mid-sentence and have been reading Twitter for the last half hour.

That sort of distraction is exactly what (at least one type of) an inner conflict feels like. A part of you drives you to write, a part of you resists with some emotional judo and redirects you somewhere else.

On Writer’s Block by Victoria Nelson is a good book about the emotional dynamics of writer’s block which, ultimately, boils down to a long discussion of reasons why you might want not to write. Typically they’re some variation on wanting to write something that you don’t feel able to, or that you feel scared about in some way.

In particular they often come down to trying to adhere to a standard that you don’t feel you can be good enough for, or feeling that you should write in a way that isn’t actually very good. e.g. a lot of people get blocked because they’re trying to write like they learned to in school and everything comes out boring.

I’m blocked on my newsletter at the moment. I don’t entirely know why, but the symptom is that I have lots of unfinished posts. The solution is probably to write the newsletter more like I do the notebook. I don’t feel able to do that, I don’t know why yet.

In the meantime, I’m going to get back to writing even if I can’t write the newsletter. Life is much better when I write.

The fundamental principles are the same as they always are. Make success trivial then apply the fully general system. The fact that in this case the hard thing is something that I already in theory know how to do doesn’t matter, things can be hard for lots of reasons.