Why You Can’t Write: A Writer’s Block Diagnosis Guide

Sarah Yoon Writing Tips

I used to believe that writer’s block was a mysterious headache. It would blockade all thought on one day only to vanish the next, and there was nothing I could do about it. I believed that artists create in an abstract haze, never knowing where their inspiration comes from, where their inspiration is taking them, or whether they’ll even get there.

Thankfully, writer’s block isn’t an incurable mystery illness. Instead, it’s a generic symptom that can have any number of causes. While the art of writing has plenty of mysteries, we can’t let that discourage us from finding a sustainable artistic process. Instead of treating the symptom, I’d like to help you diagnose the core issue.

Who’s Your Doctor?

It’s tempting for me to give you a tidy list of tips and tricks, but nothing that I say will fully reflect your needs or remove whatever headache is between you and your work. You can get valuable insight from writing friends, blog posts, podcasts, and books on craft, but your intuition must have the final say. In writing, only writers can give themselves an official diagnosis. To train your intuition, you need practice in two things: information gathering and problem solving.

Writer's block gets a bad rap for being a state of creative stagnation. But what if you had the tools to diagnose it and access your creativity quickly? Click To Tweet

Gathering information is purely observational, objective, and dispassionate. Whatever word you want to put to it, I want to be clear that this is not the time for bias. All you need to do is find the information that you need. Walk through your mind, considering the story you can’t seem to write, your broader work context, advice you’ve picked up over the years, and anything else that feels pertinent. When I tidy my house, I collect the miscellaneous where-on-earth-does-this-go junk in one pile. I can’t shove it in the closet and hope I’ll know what to do with it next time. Instead, I lay it all out. Only then can I be ready to poke through it all.

The problem-solving stage is about learning to be judicious. All the information you’ve gathered wants to tell you what is going on. It’s time to listen, process, and try out some diagnoses. You might misdiagnose yourself, deciding that your writing block is due to hunger (time to grab another bag of chips) when you’re still overwhelmed by that confrontational phone call you had to make earlier in the day, but that’s alright. Take a deep breath. This is another wave of information that’s ready to help you out next time.

Diagnosis Guide

When people hear writer’s block, they assume you’re dealing with creative stagnation. They suggest taking a walk, reading a fun book, or hauling your laptop to a coffee shop. Those solutions might be helpful for one afternoon, but they won’t sustain a lifetime of creative work. Let’s dig a little deeper with an information-gathering brainstorm.

  1. Imploding circumstances: Are you investing your creative energy in a life crisis? What change, loss, grief, or stress is draining you? Do you need to set boundaries to free up that mental space? Or do you need to set your writing aside and ride things out?
  2. Health deterioration: Are you tired, overscheduled, dehydrated, suffering from allergies, or catching a cold? Do you need to listen to your body a little more closely?
  3. Project problems: Is there a problem you need to locate in your writing? What do you need to retool? What do you need to scrap? What new story ideas are getting in the way of your work in progress, and what makes them shinier?
  4. Emotional evaluation: Honestly, how are you feeling? Are you depressed, anxious, sad, discouraged, impatient, or insecure? Do you need to deal with inner turmoil before you can make progress with writing?
  5. Procrastination: Do you have so much pressure to perform that you can’t face your work? Where is that pressure coming from? What part of the project do you not want to deal with anymore?
  6. Output and intake: Have you been pushing yourself to generate creative ideas in a vacuum? What output do you expect of yourself? What input have you invited into your process?

Track Your Mental History

Whenever I go to my doctor, I get the same question: “So, are you allergic to this thing that’s completely unrelated to this appointment?” Okay, she doesn’t say those exact words, but this is basically what I hear. She has printed a chart that gives her a quick overview of my medical history, and she brings up this one irrelevant thing. Every. Single. Time. It’s annoying, but I appreciate that she pays attention.

Writing is a whole-person artistic pursuit, so don’t write yourself out of your own story. Pay attention to things that trigger your writer's block. Click To Tweet

I’d like to see more writers treat their art with a similar ritualistic intentionality. Your writing is at its most vibrant when you’re actively developing emotional intelligence and self-awareness. This means always keeping your mental history—the broader context of your relationship with your creative work—in mind. You can see progress and regress in your writing habits. You store the information you’ve worked hard to collect, and you can use it again and again to help you problem solve through each new challenge.

Writing is a whole-person artistic pursuit, so don’t write yourself out of your own story. If you tend to bail on projects, claiming writer’s block will not help you. One headache isn’t a big deal. One anxiety attack isn’t the worst thing that could happen. But when they keep coming? The information is all there, laid out in your memory, waiting for you to gently reroute patterns.

Keep Digging Deeper

It’s easy to brush off writer’s block as just another headache, a simple problem with a simple solution. But if you care about your work, you’ll look beyond the symptom and find the root cause. The general dialogue among creatives is to poke fun at our own helplessness, but you don’t need to run with the joke. You can find out why you are struggling, and you can take slow, intentional steps toward growth. Engaging your whole self helps you create a sustainable process that will only grow more intentional and personal along the way.

About the Author

Sarah L. Yoon lives in a whirlwind. While her husband, son, and Airedale terrier dig holes in the backyard, she forms creative communities, writes interior design articles for Engaged Media, and pushes her stories to the next level. Her work has appeared in Fathom Magazine and Every Day Fiction. She received honorable mention from Glimmer Train Press’s Very Short Fiction March/April 2018. Find Sarah on Twitter @sarahlyoon and Instagram @slywriter.