5 Kinds of Writer’s Block Everyone Faces


I used to think that writer’s block was a problem for creative types. I know better now. Whether it’s a novel, a poem, or a research paper, everyone who writes faces writer’s block eventually. And since students spend much of their time writing, you know exactly what I’m talking about: sitting at your desk, staring at the screen with your hands hovering over the keyboard, nothing happening, the screen stubbornly blank. You’re blocked.

What do you do?



The problem with much of the advice that I’ve seen on how to deal with writer’s block is the failure to recognize the different kinds of blocks you might encounter. And dealing with each requires its own tool. Imagine that you moved to Chicago last year, right before one of the nastiest winters in memory. (I’m not sure who would do such a foolish thing, but just pretend.) You go out to your car one January morning and discover copious amounts of snow between you and the street. Would you address this obstacle by going inside and getting the plunger from your bathroom? I sure hope not. And I strongly recommend not trying to fix a clogged toilet with a snow shovel. Different blocks require different tools or you’ll have a mess on your hands (and probably your shoes).

The same is true with writer’s block. If you’re stuck, you need to recognize why you’re stuck and identify the right kinds of tools for getting unstuck. Otherwise, you might just make things worse.

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You Must Resist Resistance

impasse situation

If there’s anything a student knows more about than just about anyone else, it’s how to come up with creative reasons not to do what you’re supposed to be doing. We’ll use anything: chores, family, the dog, analyzing the random movements of that fly over there. We’ll even do things we genuinely dislike just to avoid writing that paper or studying for that test. (I once spent an afternoon deep-cleaning our bathrooms instead of finishing a paper.) We now how to avoid.

impasse situation

That inner force almost compelling you to avoid your work is what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance” in his The War of Art. Although he’s talking about the kind of resistance that writers face and why they need to resist that resistance, it works for students too. If you want to succeed in your studies, resistance is something you need to conquer every day.

There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.” (The War of Art, preface)

Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to defeat resistance. You can learn lots of tricks or techniques, things that will remind you of the need to resist resistance, little devices for tracking your successes (and failures). And I find many of those quite helpful. In the end, though, it’s all about sitting down and getting to work.

Every day.

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On the Need to Write Something “New”

I am sure that this is true in many disciplines, but one of the challenges of doing research in Bible and theology is that it seems like all the good stuff has already been said. Every now and then someone comes along with a truly unique idea or way of approaching an issue, and they usually end up being the people we study for the next few decades. The rest of us? Not so much.

typewriter (500x332)

How do you write something “new” on topics that people have been studying for thousands of years? And should that even be our primary focus?

Maybe the issue isn’t whether your writing/research is new in the sense that you’re saying something no one has ever said before, which would raise some interesting questions of its own. Maybe the kind of newness that we should pursue is that fact that you’re the one saying it.

In her advice to writers, Anne Lamott has this to say about the issue:

“Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.”  (Bird by Bird, 181)

Does your research offer anything “new”? It does, at the very least, because it’s your research, your writing, your perspective on whatever it is you are studying. That’s never been done before. Indeed, it can’t have been done before, because no one can do that except you.

[This is part of our Back to School: Tips from the Writers Guild series, focusing on things we can learn from professional authors about what it takes to thrive as a student in today’s world.]

A Day in the Life of a Writer/Student

Done For The Day

I like to read books about writing, probably because so much of my work involves writing in some form or another. And I’ve discovered that the writing life and the academic life have a lot in common.

Done For The Day

So I particularly appreciated this description of a writer’s day from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (Black Irish Entertainment, 2012). It nicely captures the daily grind of academic research, the importance of getting up every morning and punching the clock even when you don’t feel like it, and that all-important sense of satisfaction that comes at the end of a long and only marginally productive day of hard work.

Whenever you’re working on a writing project of any kind, whether it’s a research paper or a book, come back to this and be reminded that (1) it’s a grind, (2) you’re not alone in the fear and frustration you feel, and (3) get up and till the field anyway, you’ll be glad when the harvest comes in.

I wake up with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction. Already I feel fear. Already the loved ones around me are starting to fade. I interact. I’m present. But I’m not.

I’m not thinking about the work. I’ve already consigned that to the Muse. What I am aware of is Resistance. I feel it in my guts. I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.

I go through the chores, the correspondence, the obligations of daily life. Again I’m there but not really. The clock is running in my head; I know I can indulge in daily crap for a little while, but I must cut it off when the bell rings.

I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.

What’s important is the work. That’s the game I have to suit up for. That’s the field on which I have to leave everything I’ve got.

Do I really believe that my work is crucial to the planet’s survival? Of course not. But it’s as important to me as catching that mouse is to the hawk circling outside my window. He’s hungry. He needs a kill. So do I.

The sun isn’t up yet; it’s cold; the fields are sopping. Brambles scratch my ankles, branches snap back in my face. The hill is a sonofabitch but what can you do? Set one foot in front of another and keep climbing.

An hour passes. I’m warmer now, the pace has got my blood going. the years have taught me one skill: how to be miserable. I know ho two shut up and keep humping. Thi sis a great asset because it’s human, the proper role for a mortal. It does not offend the gods, but elicits their intercession. My bitching self is receding now. The instincts are taking over. Another hour passes. I turn the cordner of a thicket and there he is: the nice fat hare I knew would show up if I just kept plugging.

Home from the hill, I thank the immortals and offer up their portion of the kill. They brought it to me; they deserve their share. I am grateful.

I joke with my kids beside the fire. They’re happy; the old man has brought home the bacon. The old lady’s happy; she’s cooking it up. I’m happy; I’ve earned my keep on the planet, at least for this day.

Reistance is not a factor now. I don’t think of the ing and I don’t think of the office. The tensions that drains from my neck and back. What I feel and say and do this night will not be coming from any disowned or unresolved part of me, any part corrupted by Resistance.

I go to sleep content, but my final thought is of Resistance. I will wake up with it tomorrow. Already I am steeling myself.

The War of Art, p. 67


How to Be a Professional Student

Done For The Day

Done For The DayNo, I don’t mean the kind of “professional” student who never graduates, either because they love school or because they fear the world outside of school. What I’m talking about here isn’t about how long it takes you to finish school but about how professionally you approach your education. If you want to thrive as a student, you can’t approach your education like a hobby or like that list of chores that you may get to when you feel like it. Your education is your job, even — or better, especially — if you have more than one. So approach it that way.

I was thinking about this when I ran across the following excerpt from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles. The book actually focuses on the challenges of being a writer in today’s world, but many of the lessons apply to students at every level. And that certainly holds with this appeal for writers to approach their writing professionally.

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