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Navigating Writer's Block and Being Kind To Yourself

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

So, writer's block. Where to start?


A dictionary definition is traditional, but that doesn’t seem a very productive thing to give. Writer's block is a pretty self-explanatory name. It does what it says on the tin.


A thesaurus could be helpful, although most synonyms of writer's block that I can think of are not actual words. Maybe a rude hand gesture. An incoherent mumble. An empty cup of tea. Most writers will concede that unless at least one cup of tea has been left to go cold, it has not been a productive writing day.


A woman lies in bed, head turned from the camera, sleeping

In a society that punishes slowing down, the need to be productive is an incurable ailment. If you can’t work, you can’t eat, or have a roof over your head. You can’t live. Productivity is survival. Attending to your brain and your body's essential needs is ‘self-care’ now. A word to justify looking after ourselves, something that should be a feature of everyday life, not just a monthly bubble bath. It’s another way to section up your time, a precious commodity in the cycle of capitalism. Work, money, food and shelter, work, money, food and shelter. Where is the time for anything else?


As much as this is an oversimplification, the overarching motive for keeping on this cycle is the same. Fear. It’s driven into us from the moment we enter school. If you don’t get enough on the spelling test, you don’t get break time. If you’re not good enough at maths, you get extra school. If you don’t get the grade, you have to retake the exam. If your grades aren’t good enough, you can’t get a job. You can’t get money. You can’t live.


It’s a corporate fear that keeps us all on our toes, that makes us afraid, and that disproportionately keeps anyone who can’t stay on the cycle from doing what they want to do. It does not reward art. It does not reward compassion or human feeling. It does not reward any non-academic intelligence.


Most writers are writing in their spare time. They’re working, and when they’re not, there still needs to be time to eat, clean the house, put laundry on, to sleep, and by the time you’ve done all that, is there even any energy left for creating? Don’t you just want to put your feet up and watch Bake Off, or play Starfield for five hours, or go to the pub with your mates?

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” - E.B. White

My first question to you is: why not do that? Maybe you have a self-imposed deadline: somewhere you want to submit to closes soon, you’re writing a book and you want it done before a certain date, you have an article to write for a website of a publishing company… but why today? Not writing today does not impede your ability to write tomorrow. Not writing tomorrow does not impede your ability to write the next day. There is no shortage of writers telling you to write every day, but if you’re going to write, do it because you want to. Because you can’t hold the words anymore. Because you’re exhausted, but there’s been a particular line singing in your head all day. Do it because you love it. Even if the words come out wrong, you can always fix them later. The world is always pushing you to be productive, to monetise your interests, and to never stop, but if you never stop, when will you look at the trees? When will you face your anger so you can make it into something? When will you drink your cup of tea that’s been sitting next to you for the past ten minutes?


My next question: why are you struggling to write today? Too many distractions in your house, you’ve been working all week and you’re exhausted, you haven’t had breakfast, you don’t like writing in your pyjamas, you just can’t sit still, can’t still your mind enough to think, you don’t know what to write about, everything is just coming out wrong.


I’m here to tell you there is no reason too small for why you can’t write today, that they’re all important and just as valid. Try indulging yourself. Watch Bake Off, play Starfield, and have breakfast. Just sit down for a bit. The page will still be there when you come back. Scribble a word on your lunch break. Write down a thought you had in the shower. Maybe when you eventually sit down to write in the way you’re ‘supposed to’, you’ll find the words you were looking for are already there. If writing isn’t working, then do it differently. Go to a new place. Try something new. Break out the post-it notes. I find writing is always there for me when I need it most, even when it does not come easy. I write because I have to, in whatever way I have to. What else will I do with all these words?


Of course, time is a privilege, as are so many things, but can you feel? Making art in any form is a form of love. It’s a love letter to the Earth, to humanity, to your best friend. It’s using what is truly your own to rebel against the status quo, the ability to face everything that is happening in the world, and to turn it into something beautiful, to refuse to let it dominate.


Two people hold hands in front of a field, wearing matching outfits

In every tragedy, there is art. People are saying ‘I am still here. I have hands to make things, I have words, I have a voice. Where is your compassion?’

Of course, capitalism does not reward compassion. But what about you? Do you have compassion? Do you have anger? Do you have joy?


Have I given you something to write about yet?

 

Alex Callaghan is a poet from Leeds. You can find them on Instagram at @poetry_ditties or on Twitter as @ABCallaghan2


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