Overcoming Writer’s Block

Yesterday I listened to another Optimal Living Daily podcast reading of writer Kristin Wong’s blog. In her post “My Favorite Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block” Wong talks about the importance of pushing past perfectionism in order to start writing. She says that the difference between amateur and professional writers is that the latter don’t just stare at a blank page and wait for inspiration to strike; they actually just allow themselves to write bad first drafts. She says that “so much of writer’s block is actually the emotional block of how other people are going to react to our writing” and that we should let ourselves write bad drafts because no one is actually going to read them. Unless, of course, that person is your thesis adviser. I had to submit weekly drafts to my thesis adviser, but I often suffered from writer’s block because the perfectionist inner critic told me that I couldn’t write anything worth reading and that I should just give up the thesis. So because I listened to this negative voice too much and didn’t allow myself to write a bad draft and then edit it myself later, I often turned the drafts in at the last minute. Honestly if I wanted to make things run more smoothly with meeting my adviser, I would have just decided to just write whatever came to my mind and polish it later instead of waiting until I had read an article 20 times and hoping that suddenly, bam! I could write something perfectly cohesive.

Wong includes a really great quote from writer Ann Lamott that summarizes why it’s okay to allow yourself to write a bad first draft


There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

Ann Lamott

I completely agree because I think that there are little golden nuggets even in drafts we think are just terrible that might end up being whole papers or books in and of themselves.

Another tip Wong uses is rearranging one’s office or writing in a different place other than your office, such as a coffee shop or another place. She says that researchers have shown that even just by writing in a new place or rearranging our space (or even just moving our laptop to a different part of the room), our midbrain region is activated and the chemical dopamine is released. Dopamine plays a key role in getting us motivated, so even just by moving to a different part of the room to write, you feel a rush of dopamine. Of course it is best to not work places that are too noisy or you can easily get distracted, but this is a good idea. It probably explains why I was able to get so much done typing up my post on The Lobster while sipping tea at a nice little cafe on a rainy day.

The final tip Wong uses is relying on routine and intention rather than motivation or inspiration. It’s like going to the gym; if you only go to the gym when you feel like it, you probably won’t go as consistently. But if you make a plan to go to the gym for 30 minutes a day, three times a week, and you track the calories you burn and the miles you did on the elliptical, then you feel more motivated to go. I have noticed that when I just wait for inspiration to strike, I never get anything done (I also think working out and writing go hand in hand, because when I work out I feel my creative juices flowing more). Sure, many of these blog posts aren’t Pulitzer Prize winners and frankly, I could have brushed up on them instead of posting on the spot. But the purpose of my blog is to help myself get more comfortable with writing and overcoming my perfectionism. I delayed starting this blog for many years because I didn’t feel I was capable enough to write. I often compared myself to other bloggers. But I have come to understand that everyone has a different definition of success, and that for some people they start off writing successfully, but for the most part people have to allow themselves to just write everyday even if it’s not a super long, SEO-friendly post.

I am also really just doing this for fun and because I love to write. I just decided to write about anything, every day without worrying about whether people would think it was cool or not. And I have slipped up some days and let my writer’s block take over, but then I remind myself to just appreciate that I can write this blog in the first place. There were no blogs back in the old days, you just wrote with pen and paper. But now we’ve got Medium, WordPress and other mediums that let us speak our minds through writing. And I have also found that writing for 20-30 minutes, then taking a break helps me too. Timing myself lets me just get the ideas on the page so that I’m not staring at the screen blankly. In fact, after practicing the Pomodoro method I find it hard to get away from the keyboard because I just keep writing and never stop.

There is this really great quote that I saw on a music professor’s door that really inspired me to keep on playing my music and writing this blog (I keep it on my desk at work when I need inspiration):

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting our or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal adn that the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one piece. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just gotta fight your way through.

Ira Glass

Got tips for overcoming writer’s block? Write in the comments! 🙂

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