How to Stop Obsessing About "Writer's Block"

07/06/2016 07:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Writer's block is bunk."

That's not exactly what prize-winning author Loren D. Estleman said a few years ago at a Michigan writer's conference, but it's close. He'd already published over 60 books--working on a typewriter.

The problem with even using the term, he said, is that it's a super unhelpful way of saying something very basic and ordinary in the life of a writer: you're stuck.

I totally agree. When writers say they have writer's block, they turn a minor problem into something major like depression--and suddenly it's as if they've got a life-changing affliction.

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I've felt this way through writing and publishing 25 books and hundreds of stories, essays, book reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that we all get stuck sometimes in our work, no matter how much experience we've had.

Stuck is not a bad thing. It just means we haven't worked something out, we haven't answered some question the book or piece is asking us, or maybe we're headed in the wrong direction and need some time out to backtrack.

I do what Estleman suggested, and what I've advised my creative writing students over the years: I leave the writing alone and don't obsess about it.

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You're stuck? Don't panic. Give the problem to your subconscious to figure out. Work on another project or don't do any writing at all. Focus outward: the gym, a movie, dinner with your spouse, drinks with some buddies, walking your dog, home repairs, Road Trip!, gardening, working on your tan, yoga, biking, cooking, a new hobby, going out, reading a new book by your favorite author or re-reading a favorite -- anything that will distract you, absorb you completely, and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck can be connected to secrecy and revelation. It can mean we're afraid of what we want to write, afraid of revealing too much about ourselves (or someone else), afraid of what people might think. That fear of exposure is shame, or the dread of shame. Calling it "writer's block" confuses the issue, disguises the real problem(s).

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Unfortunately, there's a small industry devoted to helping people overcome "writer's block," to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because the culture loves stories about blocked writers like The Shining, there's a perverse kind of glamour associated with this "condition." It's dramatic, it's proof of how serious a professional you are. And hey, writers are crazy anyway, so of course they can't do their jobs.

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Writer's block is almost a perverse badge of honor to some people.

And let's face it, since most people hate to write, especially in a texting/Instagram world, "writer's block" connects with non-writers much better than if you say, "I'm working on my book, it's going great and I'm having fun. I'll probably turn it in early." You risk sounding arrogant.

But when you tell people you have writer's block, that makes you more human (and clichéd). It comforts people who don't write, because it confirms their perception that writing is drudgery and even torment.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Lev Raphael is the author of the thriller Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.