As a writer, there have been periods in my life when I was immensely productive. This year has been one of them. We have this writing bot on the Just Write Discord server that I’ve been using to keep track of my writing and word count for the year. I set some goals for myself for the purpose of record-keeping. I tried to keep them small so as not to create a burden or add undue stress. At any rate, last year, I wrote over 500k words, but I’m unsure of the exact number. I figured setting a goal of 350k words for this year would be reasonable based on last year’s productivity. As of yesterday, my word count for the year is 381k. However, it is important to note a difference between my written word count and my published word count.
I’m not sharing these numbers to brag. I posted out of lot of work over the last three years, so I think these numbers would be a surprise no one who reads on my site. It’s about perceptions, the actual act of writing, and what being productive means to me. I was thinking about it this afternoon and also thinking about periods of time when I wrote basically little to nothing for weeks on end. I don’t know how much I wrote during the year of 2019, but that year felt deeply unproductive to me despite the fact that I published over 300k that year.
In 2020, the stress was immense, both physically and emotionally, and there were a lot of adjustments to be made in my house since my husband was suddenly home 24/7 as his job transitioned into a telecommute situation. I’ve worked from home for over a decade. He had a hard adjustment, and for a man who doesn’t consider himself social—this motherfucker talks a lot. Yeah, that became a thing. I went from calling my husband “babe” to calling him “motherfucker” as a term of endearment. He laughs his ass off every single time I do it.
Largely, I retreated into my writing and hid in my headphones in response to the pandemic. My husband’s work schedule and presence in our home all the damn time was a different kind of stress. Also, last year I went through a shift in what sort of ideas appeal to me as a writer. I’ve gone through this kind of transition before, moving from historical to suspense to science fiction and back again all within the realm of romance. I do think the stress of last year made some ideas more appealing than others.
But, I digress.
The thing about any creative process is that there are highs and lows. There are moments of amazing inspiration, and there are times when it can feel like you’ll never write again. Sometimes I love my work, and sometimes I hate it. It’s easy to fall into the mythos of writer’s block or, worse, the belief in a muse. It’s easier to say that you have writer’s block or to blame your so-called muse for abandoning you than acknowledging a very simple truth—writing isn’t always possible.
Let’s break down some of the reasons you might not be able to write:
Stress is the number one culprit in my mind. Negative physical or mental stress is detrimental to your health and creativity. Pressuring yourself to be creative when you’re stressed out and exhausted is simply not good creative hygiene.
Illness could’ve been slotted under “stress” as it most certainly can be taxing both mentally and physically, but it’s not so simple to call being ill a stressor. Long-term or chronic conditions are deeply detrimental to your standard of life, which can impact your creativity, your mental facilities, and your physical ability to express yourself. If you’re too tired to keep your eyes open, you aren’t going to be writing.
Pressure. You probably just paused over that word, but let’s unpack it a little. One of the most damaging things I ever did to myself as a writer is put pressure on myself to perform. It came in the form of deadlines, outside expectations, and the crippling fear of failing as a professional writer. It was honestly, at times agonizing emotionally, and I lost the desire to write.
Desire is a heady thing. It can cause you to act on urges that you never expected you would. When most people think of the word desire, it is nearly always about some sort of sexual experience. But the need to write can make the creative process one of the most passionate experiences of your life. If the desire to write is missing, then you aren’t going to be writing at all, and calling it “writer’s block” is just disingenuous. Being honest with yourself can be liberating.
Motivation is tricky, and it can be tied to desire and pressure, but it need not be. Robert McKain said that ‘action precedes motivation’. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to sit down and start writing. Simply put, the more you do something, the more you’ll want to do it. Is that easy to do? No, of course not, but rarely do we encounter anything so immensely valuable as putting pen to paper an easy thing to do.
Inspiration is always a stumbling block for me. Before I started to really delve into my own issues with creative productivity, I often struggled to identify the source. The spark of an idea can be hard to capture if other things are bogging you down (like everything listed above). Sometimes none of the ideas I’m currently working on appeal to me; sometimes, they all intrigue me, and I can’t settle down at all. There is such a thing as too much inspiration. Feast or famine is often my mindset when it comes to being inspired.
Discipline is probably one of the most demotivational words I’ve never attached to the art of writing. But it goes hand in hand with both inspiration and motivation. In fandom, I tend to see people stall out on a single project and refuse to move on because they’ve bought into the idea that they can only work on one idea at the time. The darker side of that coin are the people that have 200 works in progress and never finish a damn thing. You have to find a middle ground and make it work for you.
Environment plays a bigger role than you might think or want to acknowledge. Some environments are just not conducive to creativity, whether it be about physical comfort, noise level, or the number of people moving around you. I don’t normally have a problem writing around people, though I did have to work myself into that. Being able to write outside of my house with a laptop at a café table is helpful sometimes. A change of scenery could make all the difference, or it could be a complete shit show. You won’t know until you try.
As a writer, I eventually came to a place in my journey where I learned to own my words and decisions. I also started to unpack my process, sift through my personal motivations, acknowledge and mitigate my physical issues, and make the choices that make writing a joy.
I asked a few people what prevents them from writing:
“I can easily feel stalled out when I’m forcing myself to work on a project I don’t find engaging. Whether it’s the subject matter or the fandom, at times a story isn’t working for me and, if I force it, I’ll find reasons to avoid. This became an issue for me when I was really struggling with reading or writing in any law-enforcement based fandoms, yet most of my WIPs or plotted projects, including in a challenge I was signed up for, were in law-enforcement fandoms. Forcing it takes the joy out of it, assuming I can make myself write at all, so I had to find something else to work on.
“Another thing that can be hard to pin down that makes me feel ‘blocked’ is when something isn’t working in a story. As if the creative brain and rational brain are clashing. Creative brain has made decisions that rational brain has an issue with and blocks are being thrown up in my mind. It’s actually a good thing because this usually happens close to when I’ve misstepped in a story. I’d rather stall out a bit, back off, get some help, and fix the issue right away. Figuring it out after the story draft is finished is usually 10x the work trying to unpick the mistake and often results in rewrites. However, regardless of how helpful I find these little ‘blocks’ my brain throws up (usually it’s a bad ripple I hadn’t considered carefully), they’re frustrating in the moment.
“Definitely stress, illness, and environment also play big roles for me, but those are more easy to identify. They’re more clear cut. ‘I’m coughing up a lung, and I don’t feel like writing.’ It’s not a mystery…”
“I had a period of about ten years where I found myself unable to write anything other than short poems when it came to creative writing. I had been writing short fiction, mostly fanfiction, for several years, and then I just hit a massive wall. The initial “block” was caused by illness. I got fairly sick and it became harder and harder to find the energy and ambition to work on my one work in progress.
“The bigger “block”, however, was because of the work in progress itself. I moved away from the fandoms that the work was based in and lost interest in completing the story. The guilt of not finishing it ate at me and I felt like I couldn’t write anything else until I finished that story. That went on for a very long time and resulted in me not writing any fiction for nearly a decade. I wrote poetry and academic stuff in that time period, but that was it. Then at the end of 2019, I rediscovered some fandom writing communities and found myself with ideas for new stories and I had to finally come to terms with the guilt and grief I had over not finishing my own work in progress.
“It’s incredibly hard to let go of something that you loved dearly at one point. But sometimes it is very necessary. I still feel guilty at times that it is never going to get finished, but I’m glad I stopped letting that guilt prevent me from writing and sharing other things with the world. Getting back into writing has been a joy and a huge help for my mental health. I hadn’t realized how much I missed the act of creating. Learning how to let go of things that aren’t working or that you no longer have any desire to work on was one of the hardest but most valuable lessons I’ve dealt with when it comes to my craft.”
“Illness and environment are my main things. Stress is only when it’s extreme. I actually sometimes write better under some stresses but not others. The only time I have no desire to write is when I feel like shit, so I lump that into illness.”
I asked the same three writers about their observations in writing groups/environments when it comes to productivity and they had this to say:
“Toxic alpha/beta relationship and too many cooks in the kitchen. I see people talk about ‘my beta said this’ or ‘my friend said blah’ and then other people’s vision doesn’t fit with their vision, but they feel they can’t disregard the advice they solicited, and then they get stuck.
“Also, writing by committee is about the worst thing I see new writers do that eventually leads to them getting stuck. They seek to get their decisions ‘approved’ or get people’s opinions on almost every choice ahead of time. That can be a terrible crutch. When they eventually need to make decisions on their own, they stall out and perceive they have ‘writer’s block.’ When they don’t have a writers’ group they can run everything by, they get reader feedback about what’s coming next in their comment section. It’s a terribly unhealthy writing dynamic in many ways. In these situations, I think the most important thing to getting unstuck is understanding your own vision and going after it.”
“One of the biggest issues I notice, both in myself and in others within writers groups, is perfectionism. Many of us get caught up in having a work be perfect from the get go and the anxiety and pressure this puts on us leaves us staring at a page watching a blinking cursor. It can be hard to get around this, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. That getting the words on paper is the first step and editing will take care of many things.
“In some groups, especially with a lot of folks who are relatively new to writing, I see a lot of emphasis put on the popularity of a work and see how lack of validation from readers can kill desire or motivation. I remember paying way more attention to hits and reviews when I first started writing because the validation was so intoxicating. But I also found that can be a dangerous thing to rely on when it comes to motivation. Audiences can be fickle and reader entitlement can turn ugly and kill any desire to work on a story.
“The third thing I notice people struggling with is figuring out a writing schedule that works for them. Some people do best writing every day, others writing mostly on their free days, etc. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, but people will try to find one and then get frustrated when it doesn’t work for them. Discipline is needed when it comes to writing, but figuring out what that means for you as a writer is a personal journey that requires a good bit of trial and error.
“This leads to the final big issue I see, comparisons. Nothing will kill your desire to write faster than comparing yourself to others. Thinking things like “This person manages how many words a day? I could never do that.” leads to “I’m not a real writer because…” which leads to no writing getting done because you feel like shit about yourself and your craft. It’s really hard not to compare yourself to others, but it’s a vital thing.”
“Perfectionism. I have seen many who feel like they have to get everything “just right” the first time. they spend so much time editing while writing that it kills any love of what they are writing and they leave it behind and never pick it up again.”
If you’re experiencing difficulty writing, you owe it to yourself to really unpack what’s going on with you and make the changes you need to make to get into a happy writing place, if that is at all possible. Don’t fall into the trap of using an umbrella term like “writer’s block” which essentially means nothing.
“Writing by committee is about the worst thing I see new writers do that eventually leads to them getting stuck.”
This is an interesting opinion because using an alpha/beta is so heavily encouraged in fandom, especially for new writers. I’m not a new writer–I’ve been writing forever–and I’m a journalist, so I value collaboration. But fanfic is a hobby for fun and I’d rather bicker with myself than deal with somebody else. I’m sure objectively my stories would be stronger with an alpha/beta, but I’d rather compromise on quality to make them totally mine.
I read an article once about a writer who said she once made a pot of chili and people kept tasting it and saying it wasn’t quite right: not enough garlic, too much cumin, try some brown sugar, etc. She followed all the advice and in the end, she said, it was the worst pot of chili she’d ever made.
Having a beta, alpha, or even an editor isn’t writing in a “committee”.
By committee, I mean, writers post works in progress and take feedback from their readers during the process and even asking their readers to given them suggestions in the comments on the fic. It’s an awful dynamic and it leads, most often, to an immense hot mess.
For me, physical-world relationships affect my ability and desire to write. Whether it’s because of poor boundaries leading to toxicity or something more overtly destructive, there are times I’ve been overwhelmed and had to pull back from writing entirely for weeks, months, or even over a year this last time (because fuck 2020). While I can still escape into plotting out scenes or story lines in my head, the ability to translate that onto a page dies like the dodo.
I suppose this falls under your general category of stress. It is intensely stressful to deal with redefining one’s physical and mental space. In the aftermath, often there is nothing left to regulate the good stress that writing should be.
I realize everyone has stressful and toxic people in their lives. (I’m sure we all know a few people who would benefit from a swift trip through a wood chipper.) I’m referring to family and close friends who have good intentions but require vigilant boundary policing to keep the relationship healthy.