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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Writer’s Block and Depression: Why You Shouldn’t Bully Your Muse

Some professional writers claim writer’s block doesn’t exist. They’ll tell you they never have any trouble banging out their daily pages—and laugh at people who do.

William Faulkner said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning.”

Terry Pratchett—not earning himself any fans in my home state—said, “there's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.”

And Steve Martin was even harsher. He said, “writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.”

But, um, dudes—if there’s no such thing as writers block, what is that thing that happens when you sit down to write and your body gets the fidgets, your brain grows fuzz, or you suddenly develop a bad case of narcolepsy?

It’s an experience a lot of us have been through.

We have days when the never-used wedding silver screams to be polished, books and DVDs must be alphabetized immediately, and we’re seized by an uncontrollable desire to make hand-dipped truffles instead of mix brownies for the meeting on Friday.

Or we bravely apply derrière to chair, fingers to keyboard, and force ourselves to work through the prescribed hours—only to produce pages of literary manure.

Clarissa Draper had a great blogpost on the subject recently. She said it’s not “writer’s block,” but “writer’s boredom.” If you’re bored with your own work, she points out, your audience will be too. Excellent point. She suggests some great fixes, so do check out her post.

But boredom can also be a sign of something else: depression. Because of the prevalence of depression in writers, I think it’s important to pay attention to episodes of writer’s block/boredom that can’t be fixed by cutting a few scenes, upping the plot stakes, or changing point of view as Clarissa suggests.

In a famous study of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Nancy Andreasen, 80% of writers surveyed met the formal diagnostic criteria for depression. And recent research shows the part of the brain used for complex thought is also active in the brains of the clinically depressed. Researchers found evidence that if you spend too much time engaged in intense thinking, your brain can get stuck in thinking/depression mode.

So it's quite possible that  “writer’s block” is the brain’s way of protecting itself from a depressive episode.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that increasingly expects us to push ourselves to the point of exhaustion. More and more is expected of fewer and fewer workers. Many of us are forced to take several jobs, work ridiculously long hours, and tough out illnesses without a break (ignoring the fact we’re infecting everybody around us.)

A quick Google will turn up a “boot camp” for everything from food bloggers to hip-hop street dancers. Everybody’s expected to blog, tweet, and facebook as well as work on our creative projects. We live in a 24/7 age of more-is-better, feel-the-burn, and sleep-when-you’re-dead. We’re all bullying ourselves with starvation diets, daily gym workouts, and endless pressure to be Martha Stewart/Mary Poppins at home, Bill Gates at work, and Stephen King when we hit the keyboard.

But can you bully your muse? 

In my experience, no. 

You can't bully the creative process. Your muse will simply disappear. And—whether you call that disappearance writer’s block, boredom, or being an untalented, drunken Californian—if those researchers are right, it’s not such a bad thing.

So instead of worrying about being “blocked,” why not embrace the experience? Send your muse on vacation. Decide not to write for a week. Writing uninspired dreck is not going to help you meet that deadline, so unless you’ve got an editor who needs that piece last week, why not forget about writing for a few days?

I remember a great expression from Plato—“eu a-mousoi” literally “happily without muses.” Socrates used it as derogatory term to mean an unphilosophical lout who lives only in the here and now.

But I think a visit to the here and now can be pretty healthy for those of us who spend most of our time in imaginary worlds.  

Allowing yourself to be muse-free for a few days might be what your brain needs to fight off that looming depression. Let your creativity re-charge its batteries. Creativity guru Julia Cameron called it "filling the well."

Here are some things to do when your muse needs to take a break:

  • Take your characters out for some retail therapy. I love to shop for my characters. Sometimes I look for stuff in real stores. Or I use magazines, catalogues, or surf around online. And it doesn’t cost a thing. Choosing my characters’ cars is one of my most important rituals when I’m working on a new novel. I usually find a photo and keep it in a folder.
  • Read, read, read. Stephen King says writers should spend as much time reading as writing. If the book is great, maybe you’ll get inspired, and if it’s bad, you’ll love that “I can do better” feeling.
  • Go ahead—polish the silverware and dip those truffles. Repetitive, mindless tasks can be good for the soul. At least all those monks seem to think so.
  • Garden. Play in the dirt. Literally get yourself grounded.
  • Get a massage. Aromatherapize your mind and get in touch with your body.
  • Try another medium. I had a “blocked writer” friend who got so frustrated, she went out and took a painting class. She turned out to be a much better painter than writer—and started selling her work after only a year. Try to do that after taking one writing class!
  • Change the scenery. Go for a walk, sit in a café—or hop on a bus. Busses are packed with fiction-fuel.
  • Music. Go listen to some. Preferably live. Not as background for chatter, but really listen. Or make some yourself.
  • Move. Walk, run, dance, bike. Do the hokey-pokey.
  • Or the hanky-panky—sex is good too.
  • Lie on a beach—or climb a mountain, sail, ski, or whatever. Literally take a vacation. If your muse can do it, you can too.

What about you, scriveners? Do you think writer’s block is a myth? Or does your muse sometimes take a holiday? How do you deal with it?

Coming soon: Elizabeth S. Craig,  social media guru and author of the Riley Adams mysteries is going to guest here on June 12th. Her blog “Mystery Writing is Murder” has been voted one of Writer’s Digest’s top 101 sites for two years. She’ll give a lot of really great tips on how to have a successful blog. 

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Blogger Rebecca Kiel said...

The times I find myself staring at my writing long enough, I know to walk away. It has taken a while for me to learn this, but when I return from a break, my writing comes more naturally. Sometimes I'll take a true break and get outside. Other times, I will do another type of work for my writing such as research.

May 29, 2011 at 10:34 AM  
Blogger Mary Ann said...

I needed this blog post today the way a fish needs water.

You might just have saved my staggering sanity. Sadly, I am neither kidding nor exaggerating.

May 29, 2011 at 10:58 AM  
Blogger Kate Kyle said...

Hm, I'm not sure if my recent period of 'writing drought' was in fact writer's block, 'coz my muse was turning up with new ideas every day (and I dopn't live in CA ;-), but I just couldn't 'apply my derrier to the chair' and my brain felt woolly.
I've still no idea what it was, but sending the muse on holidays and allowing myself to have that (6 weeks! long) break seemed to help anyway.

next time it happens I trty some stuff from your list - it's great!

May 29, 2011 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Searcher said...

I know it. It's the most horrible, debilitating feeling ever. Went through it a couple of days ago - with garbage coming out from the ends of my fingers and a deadline looming over me like Goliath, I was stuck. That's when I tweeted my muse. It went like this: "To Words on the Page, the days you just lie there dead, mocking my resuscitative efforts, I think you're just mean. Love, your creator." And then I wrote a note on Facebook, wrote a blog post, responded to all the comments on my posts, read a fantasy fiction novel, and finally went to sleep. Writer's block isn't about the inability to write, just the inability to write what you need to. And sometimes, that sucks :)

May 29, 2011 at 11:01 AM  
Blogger Gwen@ChewDigestBooks.com said...

The retail therapy idea is brilliant! You could create a sort of "vision board" for your character.

I also like what Searcher said, "Writer's block isn't about the inability to write, just the inability to write what you need to. And sometimes, that sucks :)"

May 29, 2011 at 11:21 AM  
OpenID markwilliamsinternational.com said...

Mental health is an all too serious issue, Anne, and one both Meghan Ward and myself have blogged on recently.

Clinical depression is no laughing matter, of course, but perhaps Terry Pratchett has a point, Californians aside. I’m sure “writers’ block” is a term that is eagerly seized upon by wannabe writers looking for an excuse to justify lack of output.

Clarissa’s comparison of writer’s block to writers’ boredom is an interesting one, and no doubt exactly what Pratchett had in mind.

Obviously the role-call of great writers depressed enough to commit suicide needs no rehearsal here. And perhaps the traditional view of being a writer as the loneliest occupation was both true and relevant. But note the past tense.

For all but a handful of staid old traditionalist still hammering away on a typewriter in a shed, and certainly for any new authors taking the social media route to publication, there’s very little chance of being "lonely".

But writers’ block is a great excuse to spend “just one more hour” surfing, tweeting or (don’t quote me on this) commenting on other people’s blogs.

The thing with real depression is that it isn’t media specific.

If you have writers’ block but can still find time to enthusiastically write a blog, enjoy a film or play tennis then you are suffering from Clarissa’s writers’ boredom.

Change tack. Work on a different project for a while. Get out of the rut.

But if you’re still feeling down, and about most things, not just your WIP, then get yourself to a doctor. Clinical depression is real and serious.

May 29, 2011 at 11:31 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Ann, all very interesting & helpful points.

My own experience is that a block = a clue. Being blocked means that I've made a mistake somewhere in my ms—something wrong with the construction of a character, information given too soon or too late, something (a word, a para, even a chapter) needs to be added, rewritten or deleted.

Over the years I have learned to take the clue seriously. To "solve" the mystery of what I've done wrong, I go back to page 1—even if I'm on page 395 of a 400 page ms—and reread attentively. I will usually be able to figure out what the mistake is & how to fix it. I repeat this process whenever I'm "blocked" which can be several times in the course of finishing a book.

May not work for everyone, but for me going back to the beginning & patiently looking for the "mistake" is a reliable technique for getting past a block. It's labor-intensive but then again so is writing & it brings you closer in touch with your characters & plot as you get further & further into your ms.

HTH someone.

May 29, 2011 at 12:00 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Rebecca--Yes. Sometimes it's as simple as walking away.

Mary Ann--Sorry to hear you're going through this right now. Mark's right that if these fixes don't work, sometimes we need medical help

Kaye--I'm glad to hear the break helped.

Searcher--What a great comment. Yeah, sometimes it sucks.

Gwen--A character "vision board" is a great idea!

Mark--The trick is to catch yourself before you sink into serious depression. When I found out intense thinking can actually trigger a depressive episode, it helped me fight back before it hit big time. Of course, there are a lot of other triggers for depression and if you're deeply depressed, none of these quick fixes will do a bit of good. Sometimes, you just need drugs. I know they've saved my life on occasion. I wish they'd been around to save some people I've loved and lost to the disease.

May 29, 2011 at 12:14 PM  
Blogger Catherine Ryan Hyde said...

This will be a bit repetitive of Ruth Harris, above. I don't call it a "block," because I feel that gives it too much power. I just note that the work is not moving. This, to me, means one of two things. I have taken a fictional wrong turn. Or the life has gone out of the thing, and it's boring. I either identify the wrong turn (and bless the "blockage" for not letting me drive several states out of my way) or give myself permission to work on something more interesting. Or to not work for a time, as you suggest. I never force myself to work. It only demoralizes me to write stuff I have to throw away. If it's not moving, I walk the dog, take the car in for servicing...all the things I know I won't do when it moves again. I never invest it with the trappings of a serious problem. I wait, or I take the message I'm being handed. And then life goes on.

May 29, 2011 at 12:22 PM  
Blogger Cynthia Lee said...

I think if you feel depressed, blocked, preoccupied, exhausted - it's time to step away from the computer. Don't freak out. Yes, you should try to write everyday but sometimes that is just not possible.

Sometimes our brains just need breaks.

May 29, 2011 at 1:43 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth and Catherine--You're both professionals who have reached the top of the bestseller lists. We'd all do well to listen to your advice.

Cynthia--very nicely put. Step away from the computer. Just surfing around probably won't help. You need to get away.

May 29, 2011 at 2:10 PM  
Blogger E. Arroyo said...

No, you can't bully your muse. I like that mindset. Great post.

May 29, 2011 at 2:21 PM  
Blogger KarenG said...

Really informative post on something that clearly is controversial among writers! The quotes by Terry Pratchett and Steve Martin were so funny. A lot of time it simply boils down to scheduling issues, too.

May 29, 2011 at 2:26 PM  
Blogger Shallee said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. It was interesting to see that there might actually be psychological implications for writer's block.

I fully believe in writers getting stuck-- I get stuck all the time. But I think it's different when people say they have writer's block and just give up and do NOTHING but wait. It's absolutely healthy to do the things you mentioned, which were great suggestions. But I think some people send the muse on vacation and some send the muse packing. After some R&R, you have to get back to writing or it won't get done, even if you haven't had divine inspiration on your break.

Here's to taking vacations-- and to coming back from them! :)

May 29, 2011 at 2:48 PM  
Blogger Ranae Rose said...

Such a great post, Anne. I'm lucky enough to be able to produce a pretty steady stream of work, but I definately have those days where I just can't focus on writing. This used to bother me, but now I just let it go, because I know that soon I'll be back to the days where I can't NOT write. Plus, I usually write 5,000 words a day or more on my good days, so it's not going to kill my efficiency take a break. I have strong creative surges that usually push me a long way, often all the way through a story. But when I feel like trying to write is a drag I usually go outside and work with my horses and read. It's not natural to spend all of my time inside sitting still at a desk, and I think that they 'block' is my body/mind's way of making sure that I don't.

And I agree with what you said about our society expecting unhealthy levels of activity and productivity from us. Over the past year or so I've been evaluating what's really important to me and cutting out the things that aren't, because I just had too much going on.

May 29, 2011 at 3:52 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

If gardening helps, then I ought to be good to go for a while - my mother and I put in four flowerbeds this week. :)

Personally, I've got to be careful about distinguishing between real writer's block and a random restless mood that I'm using as an excuse not to focus. But when I do get the real thing, I've got to take a break. And I completely agree about the read, read, read part. Very often when I'm just bored with my work, reading a good story will get me interested in creating one again.

May 29, 2011 at 4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anne-Mhairi Simpson said...

When I finished my last novel I was so burnt-out I couldn't even contemplate writing any kind of prose. My brain was still throwing up ideas but flatly refused the prose format - I ended up spending a couple of weeks writing screenplays. Which worked quite well.

Now I'm back onto the next book, but I did enjoy the screenwriting and fully intend to pursue it further.

May 29, 2011 at 4:57 PM  
Blogger Judith Mercado said...

80% Oh my, what a statistic. I am not a depressed person but, indeed, I think I'm happiest when I am writing. I do give myself long intervals between actually "putting words on paper." In those intervals, I believe I am writing also because I'm thinking/mulling/feeling my characters come to life within. Then when I finally am at the keyboard again it's almost a riff. On some occasions, the riff never happens, but that is infrequent. Thankfully.

May 29, 2011 at 4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a different perspective, go to www.slonightwriters.org and click on the May 6th blog: The Writer's Missing Link--Connection. My contention is that writers block can be overcome by connecting with others in various meaningful ways.
Judythe Guarnera
SLO NightWriters Member-at-Large

May 29, 2011 at 5:38 PM  
Blogger J.M.Cornwell said...

Not writer's block, but what I call writer's avoidance, the procrastination phase of writing. What it really is I call burnout. There's also a healthy dose of fear in there, too. Will the book be good? What if I make a mistake? What if I write a best seller; will I have to follow it up with another? The endless loop of the creative mind stuck in what if-ville. Call it what you will, I agree that it's a way of the brain protecting itself, and taking the ego and creativity with it.

May 29, 2011 at 5:57 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

I think the stress of being creative all the time, trying to come up with interesting plots and characters, burns us out. I know I do. Since last May, I've written 2 books, started 3 more and wrote a short story. Since April 16 I haven't written a word, until today. This morning I wrote 1500 words and you might have thought I'd won a triathalon. I was stoked to get back into the game after being so long without it.

But sometimes I just need to get away from it. Let it go, let me be. I'll never give up writing completely but sometimes I just need a vacation from it.

May 29, 2011 at 6:56 PM  
Blogger Ann Best said...

Writing books. Writing blog posts. We can get so bogged down. I'm doing better at doing what you brilliantly outline here: move about, garden, take a walk (I walk on my treadmill, too hot and humid outside). I watch movies with Jen. My little brother suffered from severe depression (he died a few months ago). I would tell him the best thing he could do is walk.

And read, read, read is the best thing to do anytime to get the muse active. That works the best of anything else for me.

Thanks for stopping by and congratulating me. I always appreciate your visits!

May 29, 2011 at 7:17 PM  
OpenID amarquette333 said...

My best writing comes when my muse is freely inspired and not forced.

May 29, 2011 at 8:23 PM  
Blogger Caitlin said...

Wonderful post! I recently went through a nasty bout of writer's block that, in retrospect, was writer's boredom. When I finally set that project in the drawer for the time being my writer's block went with it.

May 29, 2011 at 8:37 PM  
OpenID ordinarytime said...

The difference between writer's block and depression is that writer's block can be addressed by a distraction that refreshes - the silverware cleaning, the truffle making. If we turn to this repeatedly and compulsively, it's avoidance behavior. But intentionally shifting gears is a healthy activity. When a person is depressed, cleaning the silverware doesn't make any more sense than going through the motions on that next chapter. And truffles taste like cardboard, so why bother. Paula @prnancarrow

May 30, 2011 at 5:53 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Ooo, I'm one of those "I don't get writer's block" folks, but I DO believe in getting stuck, and I have on plenty of occasions. I just find it more helpful to say "I'm stuck" vs "I'm blocked", because blocked implies you can't get past it. How can you move forward if you can't get past something? But stuck implies you can get out if you just do the right thing. That's something you can overcome.

Walking away from the keyboard is what works for me. The longer I try to force words the longer I'll be stuck. But if I leave and let my brain work on the problem in my subconscious, the solution to getting unstuck always surfaces.

May 30, 2011 at 6:39 AM  
Blogger Carradee said...

I've discovered that writer's block for me means something's wrong. If I figure out and fix what's wrong, things flow again — and "what's wrong" could be as simple as "I need to figure out the point of this scene", or "somebody's acting out of character [2 scenes up]".

May 30, 2011 at 7:01 AM  
OpenID dianehenders said...

I think writer's block is like insomnia: sometimes things just won't work the way you think they should. I suspect that happens to everybody sooner or later.

I think the issue is how we define it. If we label it "writer's block" or "insomnia", it sounds like a big, scary problem. The more stress we associate with it, the more it becomes a vicious, self-fulfilling circle.

Your advice is great - acknowledge that it's not working, walk away, let your subconscious deal with it, and come back to it later. Works for me!

May 30, 2011 at 9:04 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

So many great comments. It's good to hear people's personal experiences.

I am seeing a pattern here--the professional writers have figured out similar ways to get through it: 1) never use the term "writer's block" and 2)if you're stuck, give the work a good left-brain analysis 3) know when to walk away and turn things over to the subconscious for a bit.

The most important thing is to listen to your own mind and body. If truffles and scene cutting don't help, your brain has probably already crossed into depression territory, and it's time to get help.

May 30, 2011 at 9:51 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Aston said...

Writer's block can indeed be procrastination or boredom or fear or all those things.
Or it can be you're trying to write the wrong thing - wrong for you, not wrong in the eyes of the world.
An agent's insistence that you up the romance in that dark thriller, or an editorial request for cosy instead of gritty can tie your creative mind in knots - and that means you have to take a long hard look at yourself and what you want and need to write, and step away from the demands of the market/critique group/best friend or whatever or whoever is making that inner voice say, No.

And a word of warning - when we don't listen to those voices, they start shouting, and we don't pay attention to their yells

May 30, 2011 at 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Aston said...

Best to finish my comment before I inadvertently press the button -

If we don't pay attetnion to those yells, that's when the black dog may come and get us.

May 30, 2011 at 10:41 AM  
Blogger MKHutchins said...

Terry Pratchett makes me laugh again...

I don't really believe in "writer's block" either, but like Janice, I do believe in getting stuck. I guess I just consider doing other things -- cleaning the house, getting to bed early, reading books -- as part of the writing process. I write every day. Even if I'm laying sick in bed, I'm filing away new and exciting ways to describe bile and stomach pains. Sometimes the "writing" I'm doing is whining at my husband about how I can't figure out a plot point...and the process of talking it out gets me unstuck.

May 30, 2011 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Elizabeth--you bring up a really good point: sometimes an agent or editor asks for a rewrite that really, really doesn't work for you, and you can't make yourself do it. If you don't yet have a contract, this may be a sign this agent isn't for you. It's very hard to walk away from a possible deal, but if you can't stand this rewrite--think of how much you'll hate writing all your books to those specifications for your whole career.

MK--You write when you're sick in bed? That's dedication. When I'm sick, my muse takes off. I guess she doesn't want to catch my germs.

May 30, 2011 at 11:36 AM  
Blogger Clarissa Draper said...

I think you're right. Boredom is only one of the reasons writers don't write. Serious depression is nothing to be mocked. And many writers suffer from it. For me it's not that I can't write when I'm depressed it's more that I don't care to. But, I hope writers can tell the difference between not writing because they're stuck at a point in their manuscript and actual depression.
Great post. Really powerful points.

May 30, 2011 at 1:12 PM  
Blogger Robin Lythgoe said...

What an excellent, insightful article. "Writer's Block" is kind of a hard thing to nail down precisely; there are plenty of symptoms, but finding the right dose of the right cure isn't easy. I like the way you've approached this and the ideas that you've given. I'm definitely going to try some of them.

May 30, 2011 at 1:42 PM  
Anonymous Fionnabhair said...

I have depression, and lately I've really, really wanted to write, but as soon as I pull up a word processor, that's it; no words come out. I have creative ideas running through my head on a regular basis, but if I try to write them down, or put words to them, no words come.

I'm a firm believer in a link between writer's block and depression for some writers, if only because I'm experiencing it right now, and have been for months.

May 30, 2011 at 7:22 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Clarissa--Thanks for stopping by. I loved your post. I think most writers get stuck from boredom or it comes as sign that your book needs help. But it's important to pay attention and assess what it really is.

Robin--I hope they help. And that you have fun with them.

Fionna--I'm so sorry to hear you're going through it. I know how miserable it can be. But the important thing is not to beat yourself up and make it worse. Sometimes you just have to lie fallow. Everybody has cycles.

May 30, 2011 at 7:44 PM  
OpenID matthewcook said...

This is one of the most helpful things I've read in a while. It's nice to think that the darkness may not be an enemy, but a strange friend.

May 30, 2011 at 8:32 PM  
Blogger Kara Lennox said...

I did the marathon flower-bed weeding today. Muse has been on vacation since Wednesday. I'm afraid she might not come back tomorrow when she's supposed to. Great post, BTW! You were re-tweeted so many times I had to check it out.

May 30, 2011 at 9:52 PM  
Anonymous LR said...

Hey Anne. I can't seem to comment on blogger lately. My google id doesn't come up no matter how many times I log in.

Anyway, great post. I've come to accept "quiet" times as part of the process. Sometimes the brain needs to work out plot problems or just recharge.
"LR" (who can't comment)

May 31, 2011 at 12:51 AM  
Blogger J.L. Campbell said...


I tell myself I'm moody and not depressed. :)

I don't believe I've ever suffered from writer's block. More to the point is that I probably do get bored with writing. I've never been someone who writes everyday no matter what. That sort of discipline and regimentation doesn't seem to work for me.

I write when I get an idea and the story is burning my fingertips. Once I get it all out, I'll go for up to a month, maybe more, without writing anything new. However, in that time, I'll be editing as and when the mood or a looming deadline demands.

Maybe my stories flow at lightening speed when I do write because my batteries are recharging during the down times.

May 31, 2011 at 6:07 AM  
Anonymous Rebecca Burke said...

Great post. I don't know how any of us write, given how many distractions there are these days. Jonathon Franzen says he doesn't "trust" any novel that's been written on a computer that has online connections. !!! I understand what he's saying, but can't afford the time to drive out to the woods, where there's no wifi, and write.

In her book for writers, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks a lot about how perfectionism can be at the core of writer's block. She uses the wonderful term "shitty first drafts" to describe those first efforts that are such sheer hard work, but which can be so horrifying to look back on. Her simple advice is "bird by bird"--start small, accumulate, don't let your perfectionism oppress you, and eventually you'll have a mass of material to work with, shape, and refine.

May 31, 2011 at 7:58 AM  
Anonymous Rebecca Burke said...

I forgot to mention two ways I refuel: music and museums. They stimulate my emotions as well as my senses, and you need to draw on these elements in your writing if the process and result are going to be satisfying.

It's also stimulating to hear and see other artists' creations. It boosts your desire to part of a community of other artists.

I don't find it especially stimulating to go to a bookstore, funnily enough. Makes me think there are enough good books out there, why add more!

May 31, 2011 at 8:29 AM  
Blogger Sierra Godfrey said...

I don't use the term writer's block. I think there's moods and times of life that make writing difficult. My current WIP is one I like a lot, but every bit of it has come hard. In particular, the first chapter is awful and I've rewritten it a hundred times. Part of this is distraction--I have difficulty finding time to work or think about it right now, and even as I type this comment my son is going "Mommy mommy" and tapping my shoulder....there's just no time, and although sometimes that means better writing, in my case I just can't concentrate at all. There's no time to myself.

May 31, 2011 at 8:33 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Welcome all the new followers! 603! I remember not so long ago, when I thought I'd never have more than 42.

SO sorry to all of you who couldn't comment--and thanks to those who sent me emails about it.

LR and those who've had to email--Blogger is still being a brat. Have no idea why. Some bloggers can't even comment on their own blogs.

Matthew--Thanks. That new research on brain activity really turns things around.

J.L.--there's real wisdom in your comment. I think people who push to write every day can "block" themselves.

Rebecca--I'm a big believer in shitty first drafts. Great advice on museums and art galleries!

Sierra--That's not writer's block, that's Mommy's block. I'm so amazed you can keep writing and blogging and working while raising whippersnappers.

May 31, 2011 at 10:04 AM  
OpenID jesswords10 said...

Oh thank you for making me think I'm NOT crazy. It does happen, and there are absolutely things you can do to combat it that are proactive, but I get so frustrated by those quotes that say it doesn't occur. I wrote about it myself one day describing my frustration with what to do with my antagonist. So instead, I did a photography walk in a graveyard (which is the setting of my story), and that helped get ideas for scenes I wrote about later. Proactive writing research is the best combat against real writer's block. Thank you for this post!

June 1, 2011 at 9:34 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Jess--"Proactive writing research" is a great way to put it. That's what I meant when I talked about retail therapy. But there are lots of other ways to research. I love the idea of a photography walk! And it really is part of your job, so no guilt allowed!

Blocked commenters--I'm SO sorry Blogger is continuing to be rude. So many of you have been writing and saying your comments don't go through. All I can say is try again. One thing I do know is that when Blogger throws up a red-lettered message saying "this didn't go through; try again," they mean it. It almost always goes through the second time. No idea why.

June 1, 2011 at 10:52 AM  
Blogger Carol Kilgore said...

Wonderful post. I don't know if I get writer's block, but I go through phases when I write real crap. I'm so happy to be back online with Blogger.

June 1, 2011 at 7:17 PM  
Anonymous Rodeena Stephens said...

Thank you for this post! I recently graduated from a Master's program that required extensive writing. I graduated with A's and Honors because i LOVED to write. But I've had "writer's block" ever since and my blog remains dormant. Thanks for these great tips!!

June 1, 2011 at 8:39 PM  
Blogger Meghan Ward said...

Anne - I agree with Mark to "Change tack. Work on a different project for a while. Get out of the rut. But if you’re still feeling down, and about most things, not just your WIP, then get yourself to a doctor. Clinical depression is real and serious." I also agree with you that the trick is learn to see the signs of oncoming depression and to fight it before it debilitates you. And all of your suggestions for doing that are great!

June 1, 2011 at 9:32 PM  
Blogger Ashley Graham said...

I completely get this post, Anne. I've never had a problem with depression, but after years of writing and dealing with let down after let down and everything else that comes with it, I can definitely see how feelings similar to those of depression seep in when you least expect them! I wrote a blog post poking fun at how the symptoms of writers are similar to those associated with depression after my hubby started teasing me whenever a commercial about anti-depressants came on TV. All joking aside, I know others -- especially the artistically-inclined -- deal with REAL depression all the time. Great post.

June 1, 2011 at 10:08 PM  
Blogger Steven D. Jackson said...

Could anyone tell me why writers get depressed? It seems quite common and it's a bit worrying!

June 2, 2011 at 5:34 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Carol--I think sometimes we just have to write those "shitty first drafts" but other times, it can be that the muse is AWOL. It helps to step back and try to figure out which it is.

Rodeena--that does sound like a case of muse burnout. It's OK to give her permission to veg out for a while.

Ashley and Steven--If you click through my link above about "recent research" you'll see the reason for the depression and depression-like symptoms in writers is simple brain chemistry. Writing and depression activate the same area of the brain. I think I should post an update about that research soon.

June 2, 2011 at 9:19 AM  
Blogger Anthony V. Toscano said...

Thank you, Anne. Just plain thank you.

June 2, 2011 at 9:27 AM  
Blogger Roseangela James, Poetess said...

I refer to it as "writer's resistance"....because that's what it is truly. Let's just be honest with ourselves. ;)

June 2, 2011 at 5:14 PM  
Blogger Liz Fichera said...

Interesting. I've never thought of writer's block as a defense mechanism but I can totally see how that would be true. Sometimes when I get writer's block it's because I'm not getting into what I'm writing at that moment. That's the time I do something different: read, run, write something new.

June 3, 2011 at 7:40 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anthony--Glad I could help.

Roseangela--Whatever we call it, sometimes it's necessary to preserve mental health.

Liz--That's a good formula, too: read, run, write something new. (Well, in my case, it's more like "walk.")

June 3, 2011 at 10:05 AM  
OpenID wosushi said...

Great post.

I don't really think in terms of "writer's block" because I don't sit down to write unless I "feel" it. But I know there are a lot of personality types that work better with schedules, etc, so I can see where sitting down and finding the words aren't flowing at the prescribed time can be frustrating.

I couldn't agree more with your suggestions. Part of the process is getting inspired. :)

June 3, 2011 at 7:30 PM  
OpenID catherinemjohnson said...

What a fantastic post! I thoroughly agree with you. I've been in such a funny mood today, I'm very much between projects so I should set myself a to do list of writing query letters and researching agents instead of beating myself up that I'm waiting on critiques or not sure if they are ready etc. Very poignant for me right now and so important to look after yourself too. Thanks for brightening my day!

June 4, 2011 at 11:15 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

wosushi--that's one way to deal with it. Some people can work without schedules. I'm not one of them, but I admire you if you can.

Catherine--That after-book let down is a biggy. But query block isn't a bad thing either. Agents say querying too early is our biggest mistake.

Apologies to anybody who can't comment. I have no power over Blogger, but I've sent a complaint. Meanwhile, send me an email and I'll post it for you.

NB: if they say "try again" believe them. Click again and it almost always will go through the 2nd time.

June 4, 2011 at 2:01 PM  
Blogger armouris said...

more info on depression here - Depression After Stressful Event

June 13, 2011 at 1:17 AM  
Blogger jbchicoine said...

I appreciate this post more than you know. It deals with some of he very same issues I have been going through, and I can attest to the truth of it.

I've been on a break, and my 'muse' has be ever so grateful. Happily, she's now willing to play once again :)

Thank you for consistantly expounding on so many helpful subjects, Anne. You continue to be one of my 'Must Reads.'

June 13, 2011 at 4:33 AM  
Blogger Sandy Nathan said...

Anne, I loved this article so much that I ended up writing an article on my own blog about writer's block and depression––so I wouldn't post the world's longest blog comment here. After being "blocked"rewriting the sequel to my first novel, I thrashed around for a couple of years before I finally realized I was depressed. I got treatment. Since then, I still haven't rewritten that sequel (it's next in line), but I have three novels in a new series written, one published. The block is gone. Here's my post:

August 5, 2011 at 7:42 PM  
OpenID whisperedwritings said...

I had major writer's block also--mostly due to outside stress in my life. Here is the radical way that I got myself back in my zone. http://whisperedwritings.wordpress.com/2011/08/31/finding-myself-on-trail-2/

August 31, 2011 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Marie said...

Great post!

No, writer's block is not a myth and it makes me angry when other writers say it doesn't exist. It does for me. I'm going through it now and it's so upsetting, and as a depressive, it just makes me more depressed. I am writing a book series and am now on book 2, and I have so many ideas but just can't force myself to write. I can just about manage a few words a day, sometimes none at all.

Thanks for the tips. I tend to read a lot if I can't write, or play with my sweet kitten. I also sing and listen to music. But sometimes the depression is so bad that I can't even do that.

January 26, 2012 at 3:59 AM  
Blogger Sandy Nathan said...

This is to Marie and all. I've now rewritten the first chapter of the novel that brought me to my knees. It's good! I like it! Bodes well for the rest of the book. And––I'm soon to have three books out on my "accidental" scifi series. That's because I got treatment. I feel very sad when I read that your depression is so bad that you can't play with your kitten or enjoy music. Please take care of yourself. I contacted a qualified medical professional and got the help I needed. I hope you do the same. I'm leading a book club for depth psychologists this month and will be doing more with them later. I want to write a blog article about the insanity of the writing and marketing life. We're subjected to much psychological pressure, in addition to the pressures of writing itself. Later for that. Here's a cyber-hug for you, Marie and everyone who needs it!

January 26, 2012 at 9:50 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sandy--Many, many thanks for the sage advice from somebody who has been there. There is help for depression!

whispered and armouris--thanks much for the links.

Bridget, Marie--I empathize. It's something I've battled my whole life. When I found out this new study showed too much unbalanced cerebral activity can actually trigger depression, I had an a-ha moment.

I get furious when people say there's no such thing as writer's block. My mom used to do that when I had heartburn as a little kid. "There's no such thing" she'd always say--because she had never personally experienced it. (She has since, and changed her tune.) Just because some people haven't experienced something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. That's just narcissism.

January 26, 2012 at 10:39 AM  
Blogger tia said...

I'm so glad I found this post. I have often wondered if writer's block was linked to depression. It is an a-ha moment for me, as well, to discover that the type of deep, imaginative thinking that I thrust myself into whenever I am not physically active, can lead to depressive episodes. (Not sure why that should come as a surprise - my father is a philosopher and professor, and struggled with this his whole life). I have also found that when I'm not writing, I'm not interested in doing much else, either.
I live in Illinois, and throughout the winter months I struggle a lot more with my writing, but am extremely productive in the summertime.
So, over the past few years, I have come up with a few ways to combat the block.
I put a Naturebright sunlamp on my writing desk. I turn it on for the first hour that I sit down to write and it really increases my mood and output. Everyday, I make sure to take a walk outside. To stop myself from thinking, I play music I love to sing to and "dance-walk" around. This makes sure I get some activity as well as shutting off my brain.
Now that I know my over thinking can lead to slowing me down, I'll make sure to give myself a break more often.
Thank you, Anne!
Dorothea Duenow

February 9, 2013 at 10:19 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dorothea--I'm so glad this helps. Reading about this research gave me an ah-ha moment, too. But I forgot to mention your very good point: a full-spectrum light source can help a lot. Being literally "in the dark" can darken mood. When you're on a tear with the writing (or spending endless hours on social media, or it's just too *&%! cold out there) a good full-spectrum light can help combat depression, too.

February 9, 2013 at 11:24 AM  
Blogger Shel said...

I suffer from writer's block most often *when* I'm depressed. I desperately want to write, but I'm unmotivated to do it or anything else. In fact, that's my key to knowing how serious my depression is; writing is like oxygen for me, so if I lose my motivation for that, I know I'm in trouble.

April 14, 2013 at 5:49 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Shel--It sound as if your problem is related to what these researchers have discovered: creativity and depression use the same part of the brain. It's over-stressed. You need to step away from the keyboard and do something that uses another part of your brain--something physical or very different, like listening to music. Gardening works for me.

April 15, 2013 at 2:40 PM  
OpenID poemblaze said...

Thanks for the post. If depression and creativity live in the same part of the brain, depression has definitely taken over the real estate. For me there has been guilt that I "should" be writing, but nothing is there.

July 7, 2013 at 5:06 PM  
OpenID poemblaze said...

And writer's block as a defense mechanism rings true for me. When emotion is too strong I just can't get anything on paper. That's the case right now.

July 7, 2013 at 5:24 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

poem--I totally relate. My mom is in the middle of a health crisis and I can't write. Anything that makes me feel too deeply just brings the waterworks--nothing creative. Gotta wait until the muse is back in control.

July 7, 2013 at 7:35 PM  
Blogger Sandy Nathan said...

Dear Anne R. Allen and poemblaze, Well, first, Anne, I'm sorry to hear about your mom. All the feelings I had when my mom was seriously ill pop up. It's a terrible time of life for both of you. And poemblaze, I'm almost done with the second edit of a manuscript I started in 1995. That's writer's block. I was blocked because I just couldn't go near the material. too many feelings, again. So, I think we need to be easy on ourselves. We're only human.

July 7, 2013 at 8:07 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sandy--Thanks. Good luck with that book. I think the people who say if you're not grinding out 6 books a year you're a slacker aren't putting their whole souls into their writing. Or they're wired differently from the rest of us. There are people who just feel things less than the rest of us. I guess they have callouses on their souls. Not me.

July 7, 2013 at 8:41 PM  
Blogger John Scherber said...

I stumbled into writer’s block in 1968 and didn’t get out for 37 years. This is one experience that led to my book of writing tips, A Writer’s Notebook: Everything I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Was Starting Out. Writing it, I imagined the self I am today, after 19 books, standing next to my younger self, ready to answer any question. There’s a sample on my website:

February 15, 2014 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger Sarah Brentyn said...

You've created a comment monster. I'm commenting on 3-yr-old posts! Is that legal?

This won't get me followers or whatever but I really wanted to say that I totally take part in "Repetitive, mindless tasks..." and most certainly "...get [myself] grounded". I've also clicked on two links you've provided here so prepare yourself.

March 10, 2014 at 8:40 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sarah--Thanks for commenting here. This is one of those posts they call "evergreen" since it's just as relevant as when I wrote it. And I need to remind MYSELF of this stuff fairly often. I've been living "in my head" too much lately. BTW, Catherine and I talk a lot about this stuff in our book How to Be a Writer in the E-Agee. That's why we're calling it "a self-help guide". Thanks!

March 10, 2014 at 9:02 AM  
Blogger Sarah Brentyn said...

Okay, not to be a kiss-up but I just bought it. Looking forward to all the "self-help" I can get. The cover alone is priceless...not that I'm judging your book by that.

March 10, 2014 at 9:28 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

:-) Hope you enjoy it! Catherine has been in this business a long time, so she knows everything that can go wrong, and how to deal with it and come out on top. (She was #1 seller on Amazon for a while last summer. Even knocked J.K. Rowling off her perch)

March 10, 2014 at 10:19 AM  
OpenID mdscoggins said...

Wow Anne just the reading material I needed today. I have went on a writing hiatus it seems like and my brain is really foggy. But you gave some really good advice that I will begin using. Also, I will have to debunk that I am a drunken Californian :)

January 23, 2015 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

mdscoggins--Best of luck getting back into your writing. Even taking a break of a week will often shut off the flow for me, so I totally relate. (I'm one of those drunken Californians, too. :-) )

January 23, 2015 at 11:28 AM  

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