When writing is going well, there’s no mistaking it.
Words flow, characters delight with thoughts or actions of their own, and the plot picks up pace; in nonfiction, research stimulates new insights rather than weighing you down.
But is there something underneath your writer’s block? And, if so, how can you work out what’s holding you back?
Ideal Self theory
A couple of years ago, I was struggling to write the followup to my first published novel. I initially put it down as “second book syndrome,” but as the months dragged by and I still only had a third of the book written, I needed to know what was really destroying my ability to write.
I turned to an exercise I adapted from my studies into Possible Selves theory, which I’d come across during my MA in English Language Teaching (ELT).
The theory, by psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius, is rooted in ideas about self concept and suggests that people are motivated by ideas of what they would like to become in the future, what they might become and what they fear becoming.
These possible selves are particularly useful in explaining dynamic parts of people’s self concept, and how the way you think of yourself links to your goals and aspirations.
“The possible selves that are hoped for might include the successful self, the creative self, the rich self, the thin self, or the loved and admired self, whereas the dreaded possible selves could be the alone self, the depressed self, the incompetent self, the alcoholic self, the unemployed self, or the bag lady self,” Markus and Nurius explained.
When I applied the ideas to myself, the results were so revealing I now use this exercise periodically to find out the hidden motivators and blockers to any area of my life, not just writing.
Try this exercise to figure out what’s blocking you
You need a couple uninterrupted hours to do this properly. You could do it in shorter chunks, though I think it’s better to do the initial writing all in one shot if possible, and save the analysis for later. That means no internet or phone; make sure no one is going to disturb you.
Also, you need to be able to write unfettered by the thought someone might find and read it — you’re going in deep!
Visualize your dream life
Visualize yourself as a writer a year from now. Describe that “you” as if it is a real person or a character in a book. Write about the absolute ideal version of that person, almost as if they are someone completely separate from you now.
What are they doing? Where are they? What’s happened in their writing career?
Don’t stop yourself from including any detail no matter how trivial, such as how they look. It might prove to be important in the next stage.
This is not the time for modesty or practicality.
If your ideal self is a prize-winning, millionaire author, say so. Likewise, if your dream self is something much closer to regular life, that’s fine too. Try to free write for at least twenty minutes, though you’ll probably find you want to carry on longer.
Explore the future you think will probably happen
Repeat the above task, but this time, make it realistic.
This is the “you” that’s likely to happen in a year’s time. Try to be realistic rather than falsely modest.
Again, it doesn’t matter what you write about. If it’s helpful, you can use the ideal self as a template and modify it, though I think the fewer restrictions you put on the writing, the more revealing it will be.
Uncover the future you fear will happen
This is the “you” where everything has gone wrong. It’s the worst version of yourself as a writer you can imagine. It can be scary to explore but describe that person, again, as if they are a character or real person.
Your fear could be that you no longer write. Whatever needs to come out, write it down.
A quick analysis: The gap between your different selves
A quick way of analyzing the results of your writing is to examine how far the gap is between your ideal self and your probable self.
If they’re far apart, you’re probably struggling to motivate yourself. The writer’s block could be because you believe what you’re trying to write won’t bring you any closer to your dreams.
Or, it might be that your feared self is frighteningly close to your probable self, and those fears are holding you back from writing.
From my own experiences doing this exercise, I’d say it’s likely you’ll uncover themes you didn’t even realize were entwined with your motivations. Time to do a further analysis.
What’s really driving you?
Get some colored pens, or use the highlighting tool on your computer. Look for themes and color-code your texts accordingly. In mine, I had written about my feelings about writing, my second book, marketing, and earning money from writing.
I was also surprised to find an emerging theme related to other people’s opinions of me.
Not all the themes will be immediately obvious and you might find, as you go through, that you want to split larger themes into two smaller ones — for example, family and friends’ opinions vs. readers’ opinions of you.
At the end, you should have assigned a color to more or less every sentence.
This is where the revelation came for me. I’d spent a lot of the “selves” describing how I felt about writing. I feared that the first book had been a fluke, and it would become apparent when the second book bombed.
Worse still, I was scared that the very act of writing the second book was eroding my ability to write at all, and once I had finished, I’d be unable to write anything ever again.
By not getting it done, I was subconsciously trying to delay finding out that I had no talent.
Overcoming writer’s block
When you understand what’s behind the block, the psychologists’ work in the field suggests what to do next. They found that people who went on to achieve success were those who adopted strategies to try to meet their ideal selves.
For me, that meant planning out a schedule for the second book and sticking to it without caring about the result, just to pass the invisible barrier I had set myself and break the spell.
On finding that I could still write, I was able to finish a second draft much quicker.
Of course, this stage isn’t easy, but it’s much easier to take steps to solve a problem when you know what’s causing it.
Have you figured out the underlying cause of your writer’s block? How did you overcome it?