My Secret Battle With Writer’s Block

For the first twenty years I wrote fiction, I didn’t understand when people spoke of “writer’s block”. Of course there were times when I got stuck, and it took me a day or two to figure out where to go with a story. But usually, when I sat down to write, the words flowed. It was partly because of the way I wrote, snatching hours and minutes here and there from my hectic life. Writing was a pleasurable and gratifying experience, something I yearned to do, rather than a chore. But gradually the joy I found in writing began to diminish, until a few years ago, it stopped being something I sought out at every opportunity and became something I had to force myself to do.

Part of the change came from my dwindling hope for my writing career. For ten years I steadily sold books and had writing contracts and deadlines to motivate me. Even after my career stalled, for a long time I was able to convince myself that my latest work-in-progress was the one that was going to get me back in the game. By the time I finally realized that wasn’t going to happen, self-publishing had opened up new opportunities.

I excitedly began to re-release my backlist, and indie-published three manuscripts I’d finished but never been able to sell. But it soon became apparent that marketing my books to readers was going to be as difficult as finding a publisher. And marketing those books consumed more and more of the time I had available for writing. For an entire year, I didn’t write any new fiction. Instead, I edited and revised, proofread, wrote blurbs and blog posts. Finally, I said “enough”, vowed I was done with self-publishing, and decided to return to writing fiction. But it now seemed a lot more difficult.

I told myself I was “rusty” because I’d gone so long without working on new material. I’d broken my long-standing pattern of writing nearly every day and it was difficult to get back into it. I tried. I sat at the computer with my manuscript file on the screen and waited for the words to come. Some days I actually got through a few paragraphs before flipping the screen to the internet to answer email or do some on-line shopping, or check my sales figures on Amazon or Smashwords, anything to avoid writing.

When I did write, it was at a snail’s pace and a grim, grind-it-out process. I got stuck all the time. Even when I knew where I was going in the story, the words wouldn’t come. Or they came so slowly it was ridiculous. I went from regularly writing a chapter a week to a chapter a month and then less. I wondered if it was over.

Most of us have heard the ironic line about writing as an addiction: “You’d quit if you could.” Well, maybe I could. Maybe, having realized my dream of being published, and now realizing that the dream was over, I didn’t care anymore.

I told no one of my fears, my gnawing sense that I was no longer really a writer. Because, after all, “writers write”, and I wasn’t. At least not much. And yet, because I am driven and goal-oriented, I did manage to finish three books over the last three years. All of them were partially written before my “crisis of faith”, which made it easier. And my intuitive sense of plot and story, honed over the years, got me through the worst stretches. And I sold those books. To small presses that offered no advances, but still, they did the editing, formatting and cover art and helped with promotion. These books are probably not as good as my most inspired stories, but they’re decent books. I’ve gotten good reviews on them, especially from readers, which are the ones that really count these days.

So, yes, I can still do this. But what about the joy? a little nagging voice asks. What about the way the words used to flow? The way I used to be excited to sit down and “get to write”?

I’m afraid to talk about it much, for fear it will go away. (We artists are a superstitious bunch.) But I’m beginning to have those moments again. Those out-of-nowhere revelations about my story. That tingling thrill when the characters come to life and the story unfolds before my eyes. I’m starting to have days when I sit down to write, and what seems like a short while later, I realize an hour or two has gone by. I’m no longer making myself write. Instead my story is calling to me, tantalizing and seductive.

Maybe I was right after all. Maybe writer’s block isn’t real. It possible it’s nothing more than a loss of faith. In yourself. In the words. In the process. Maybe the creative process really is magic, and all you have to do is believe.

For more tales of struggle and how various authors get through the rough spots, join me and authors Jeff Seymour, Julie Kazimer, Bonnie Ramthun and Shannon Baker for our panel at the Colorado Gold Conference entitled Failure and Self-doubt, the Silent Battle.

Mary Gillgannon
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Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

9 thoughts on “My Secret Battle With Writer’s Block

  1. Wow, this was a hard blog to read. Really made me think. If this was a book, I would have read to the end just to see how it came out. Glad you’re having a happily ever after for now! Thank you for some insight that may help me get through some tough periods to come.

  2. I never claim to have writer’s block, but I sure do have long stretches of time when I don’t feel like writing and wonder if it’s worth the effort, especially when sales stall or a snarky review hits my Goodreads page.

    The Failure and Self-doubt, the Silent Battle panel is going to have a huge audience — I hope they gave you panelists a big room.

    • The thing that I think will surprise a lot of people is that all the authors doing the panel are published and appear to be successful. I think just knowing that this struggle is normal (and maybe almost universal) will be helpful.

  3. What a lovely, heart-felt post, Mary! Your generosity in sharing such deep, tender thoughts and feelings is so appreciated! I have no doubt we have all felt these frustrations and doubts, and that it has affected our writing. Your panel sounds fabulous, and I agree with Pat — you will need a large room to accommodate all who will want to attend! Hugs!

  4. Thanks, Janet! I hope sharing my struggle makes other writers realize self-doubt is very normal and something you just have to work through. And that even when you appear successful, it doesn’t ever really go away.

  5. I think “writer’s block” is not so much knowing what to write as it is having the passion and initiative to write as you seem to indicate in your case. At least you have had a writing success record to show for past efforts and I think that is a big plus.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    • I agree. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep the passion going when things get tough. But it seems like the creative spark always comes back, because it’s such an innate part of those of us who are writers (or artists in some other way).

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