Overcoming Writer’s Block: My Journey as a Writer

Even though I have been writing and journaling consistently since I was eight years old, I still have problems with writer’s block. Take today, for example. I want to write this post but have been staring at my computer screen for almost an hour, trying to figure out what to write next.

Writer’s block never really goes away, for me anyway, and it can happen for any number of reasons. Typically, I find that writer’s block results from allowing external opinions or circumstances interfere with our writing practice.

This is a lesson I have had to learn over and over again, starting most memorably fifteen years ago when I decided to put writing first after finding inspiration and my voice while completing Julia Cameron’s creative unblocking course The Artist’s Way. The course was a revelation to me, and I got serious about my craft as a fiction writer and poet and applied to MFA programs in creative writing. I didn’t get accepted. I was devastated. I stopped writing for awhile but eventually took a creative writing course at my local community college and found the will to continue.

After working consistently on my craft for another three years, I got accepted to the MFA program at Columbia College in Chicago. I was ecstatic! FINALLY, I was going to earn the terminal degree that told the world I was a writer. The only problem? It didn’t work out.

depressed woman at work

Life Gets in the Way

My job at the time went from a normal nine-to-five gig to working nearly 60 hours each week. The company I worked for had just been bought out, and the creative team was on the chopping block. My boss went into overdrive and drummed up all sorts of work for our department to demonstrate the need for our services to executive management. Since my ex-husband was a full-time student himself, I felt I had no choice to leave the MFA program. In hindsight, I probably could have gotten another job with more sane hours. Knowing how much effort it takes to update resumes and interview for new positions, I decided to keep my job and get my ex-husband through school.

Devastation is Replaced with Depression

In a word, though, I was devastated. I had worked so hard and gave up my dream to support my ex, which could be a whole other a blog topic in and of itself for another day. At the time, I felt I needed to stay the course we had set out as a couple, but that decision drained me. The reality of giving up my dream overtook my emotions, and I barely had enough energy to go to work let alone write. I sank deeper and deeper into a pit of anxiety and depression that felt like it would never lift.

happy woman watching a sunset

The Sun Breaks through the Clouds

Eventually, though, my depression lifted once I decided that my dream was merely postponed rather than over. I sprang into action and made a plan to re-apply to graduate school. I sat down with my ex-husband and had a serious talk with him. I said, I supported your goal, so when you’re done earning your degree, I expect you to support my decision to return to graduate school. He agreed. I got busy researching programs.

This time, with his support, I opened myself up to a national search and applied to schools extending from the East Coast to the West and Southwest. I spent the next year refining my portfolio, sending my work out for publication, working on applications and statements of purpose, and gathering recommendations from former college professors who were all too happy to help.

One MFA program director told me I had a 10% chance of getting accepted, so I thought, okay, great, I’ll apply to ten programs. Eventually, I got accepted to three schools and chose to attend Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

I Uproot My Life and Move to a New Town

At this point, I had an important decision to make: should I quit my job and teach or keep working? Around the time I enrolled in graduate school, I had a raging anxiety disorder, and I allowed the anxiety to win. Even though that time in my life has passed, at the time, I knew that I would not be able to take charge of a classroom. I hoped that maybe things would change once I was in school, but they did not. I continued to struggle with anxiety attacks. Luckily, I had a great relationship with my supervisor at my full-time job, and she asked me to stay on and work remotely. I was delighted to and remember feeling like I had struck a great balance between my professional life and pursuing my dream of earning an MFA.

angry woman sitting on concrete steps

I Suffer from Severe Writer’s Block in Graduate School

The one place I never expected to encounter writer’s block was while enrolled in my graduate program, but it happened. I had a professor who did not like my work. To be fair, she did not like most people’s work. Looking back on this experience, I realize that she was right to criticize my writing; even so, it was difficult to write anything fresh or original knowing it would get torn to shreds during workshop. The panic attacks resumed, and to make matters worse, my father, who had been fighting cancer for seven years, started to succumb to his disease. I started spending many weekends in Chicago, regularly making the six-hour drive from Carbondale.

Even though I was struggling from writer’s block and exhausted from continuous road travel, I still managed to churn out work every week and turn it in for workshop. It didn’t feel good to write, though, and for one of the first times, I struggled with the fact that the one activity that brought me so much pleasure was now a source of pain. Instead of seeing myself on a journey to improve as a writer, I was obsessively focused on the end results. It became about the need to write finished stories and poems rather than making small solid steps to improve.

My Father’s Passing

In October 2008, my father succumbed to his disease and died from complications related to multiple myeloma. After taking a week to grieve with my family, I returned to graduate school, not knowing what to write. For the past few weeks, I spent the majority of my waking hours in the ICU with my dad, checking on the size of his hands and feet that swelled to inhuman proportions during the last weeks of his life. I had also obsessed over his vital signs because in that tiny, windowless room, there was nowhere else to look. These were the images that kept playing through my mind, and they went right into my poems and stories.

I Stick to My Guns in the Face of Criticismhappy woman writing

The other graduate school students in my cohort were surprised to say the least. Some of them even refused to workshop the poems that focused on his passing. I read the comments, “I don’t think you should be writing about this right now.” “You just lost your dad — I can’t bring myself to pick on this poem.” And on it went. But I persisted because my mind could focus on little else.

Within just a few short months, I had gone from allowing one professor to intimidate me to sticking to what my gut was telling me, and I continued to write the stories and poems that were aching to come into existence. Until I wrote this blog post, I hadn’t realized the gift my father’s passing had given to me. After he died, it just didn’t seem to matter what other people thought, and his death started a period of re-birth in me. I just had to write about him. I couldn’t have stopped myself even if I had wanted to write about something else.

Final Reflection

Writer’s block can occur for any number of reasons. In my case, these extended blocks were about giving away my power. I allowed the outer criticism, which in some ways I needed, to completely take over. This kept me stuck and struggling. It was like trying to write with a ten-pound weight on my hand, except that it came from inside myself. All writer’s block, no matter how we define it, comes from within ourselves. My former professor is not to blame. She shared her opinions, but ultimately, I am the one who allowed those opinions to work against me.

How about you? If you are a writer or a blogger, have you allowed the criticism of others to impede your writing plans? If so, I’d love to hear about your story in the comments below.

5 Replies to “Overcoming Writer’s Block: My Journey as a Writer”

  1. Great post and very inspiring.

    I think everybody had this moment in the life you know, that you have such a hard time to encourage yourself, your life gets in the way, and you get depressed and maybe getting a burn out because of it.  

    I also suffered the same, but I kept in my mind that if I kept going, I will reach higher grounds, and I did it, it took a while, but I achieved it. 

    If I can, and you can, everybody else can. 

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Emmanuel! I’m glad to hear that you have been able to successfully overcome writer’s block. I hope you are sharing your story with others as well.

  2. Hi there:  I have been writing unprofessionally and professionally since I was 7 years old.  Writers block can be a severe thing.  After a very traumatic time in my life I couldn’t write a word for over five years.  I would get all kinds of ideas in my head but when I actually sat down to write something I couldn’t get anything to come out.  However, here I am making money from my writing.  It’s great being able to do something I have been passionate about my entire life.  Thank you for a great article.  Many people don’t know exactly how bad writers block could be.

  3. Writer’s block is something I think most writers have had to deal with at one time or another. It sounds like you were confronted more than a few times with adversity, I can imagine how much of a challenge these periods were for you. Thankfully, you have come out on the other side and are in a better place.

    People say that you learn from these periods and can avoid future bumps in the road, but I am not sure that is true in all cases. I have been a natural writer since I started writing as a young lad (‘natural’ is not synonymous with ‘good’ in this case, smile), but there have been times when the block reared its ugly head over the decades.

    When I first started college, I thought I could cake-walk through the writing required, and was promptly (and rightfully) confronted with just how lazy my writing was. After getting a paper filled with red from front to back, and some not so kind remarks (but deserved ones), I had a shock and block.

    I really had to do a check and see what the truth was. Was I as bad as that Professor seemed to think I was or was I as good as I thought I was, or most likely, was the answer somewhere between the two ends of that continuum? Following that paper, I lost confidence, struggled, and just seemed to have no ideas.

    That lasted through that course (I did pass, but received a grade of C, one of the lowest I had ever received in all my schooling years) and beyond. Finally, I decided that I just needed to do the necessary legwork to improve the grammar, the punctuation, and etc. 

    This was unrelated to the actual ideas I was writing about, other than to put them in a format that people would understand. The block went away, and I went on writing quite a bit over the following years with no recurrence. As I was moving forward in my professional career, I had to do many styles of writing.

    Two other times when writer’s block came to the fore again was times when I had to learn the new styles of writing. One was writing newspaper articles and the other was writing government contracts. Totally different styles and times when it just seemed to not come together easily.

    Having had that experience as a young lad who as overconfident, I knew immediately what was happening, so took the steps I had found worked over the years to avoid the block syndrome. I left myself some space, used mind mapping, slept on the problem, and forced myself to start. 

    Even a paragraph was okay initially. That represented something. If I had to get something done due to a deadline, the block could be a real issue, but the methods worked and I managed to meet the deadlines in both instances. The follow-on tasks in both areas became easier…    

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with writer’s block, it was an interesting read. Sometimes it is helpful to know that you are not the only one that suffers from this issue, and also it’s helpful to see how other’s worked through the hard times. You have most certainly gotten your mojo back!

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