Writer’s block and the power of the UTY Vow™

oath-of-horatii-close-crop
Get your sword, it’s vowing time!

Lately I’ve been suffering from awful writer’s block / burnout / slump / custard / whatever you like to call it. But although I have nearly given up many times in the last few months I have never quite given up.

I’d like to tell you my secret because it might help you too.

BUT FIRST AN ASIDE (watch it, it’s a long one) for those people who don’t believe writer’s block exists.

I’ve seen your tweets, I’ve read your posts. When I read them, I felt a bit cross. I’d have been crosser, but writer’s block is so draining my annoyance banks are depleted. And anyway, I’m happy for you block-naysayers, because not believing in it implies you’ve never suffered from it. And I wouldn’t wish it on any writer.

But for the record, it’s like this:

Imagine one day you show up to write and nothing comes for hours and hours. You force yourself to write some stuff but it goes nowhere. You’re all unfocused. You hate the few sentences you’ve vomited out. You take a break, try a bit of outlining. A bit of free-writing. Go back to work. Nothing. A cliché or two. Meh. Never mind, just a bad day. You’ve been working hard lately on promo for your last book. Take the next day off. An early night. No worries, mate.

But then it happens again

and again

and again

and again

and again

and the weeks pass

and you keep showing up

again

and again

and again

and again

and again

and again and you still end up with nothing.

So, you get a bit sad and frustrated and everything goes weird in your life. And the weirder it gets the less you can write. And you start wondering if you’ve written everything you’re ever going to write. But that can’t be true, so you still show up. Oh, but not too much. Don’t worry, you know all about self-care. You take sensible breaks. You still do the research and try ALL THE THINGS including not sweating it and writing something else and NOT TRYING ALL THE THINGS. On the face of it you’re doing everything right. But still nothing.

Oh, and please don’t tell me my ‘writer’s block’ is not actually ‘writer’s block’ because you prefer the term ‘writer’s molasses’. Because to me, that’s splitting hairs. I am a writer. I’ve written books before and I know I’m doing everything I can and yet I’m still not writing. Even though I want to. Weird, no? And okay, sure, there’s a bit of low mood in there, a bit of anxiety, fear and exhaustion and being busy with other things and doubting my own judgement – and yes, it’s all wrapped together in a ghastly Gordian Knot of comparisonitis and stuckness. But that’s what writer’s block IS, surely? A writer who can’t write, despite showing up and trying to do the work.

And if you still don’t believe in it, you’re a lucky little pixie, but don’t tell me it doesn’t exist because I may bite your wings off.

ASIDE OVER. Back to the post:

Because despite everything, I haven’t given up and here’s why:

In 2015 I made an Unbreakable Ten-Year Vow (now known officially as the Lee Welch UTY Vow™ because acronyms make me laugh with their ineffable naffness) to do my absolute best to write books and get them published for ten years. That takes me to 2025. Then I will take stock. If I still want to do it, I’ll continue. Maybe I’ll make another ten-year vow. If I’m fed up and want to breed alpacas, I’ll do that instead. But only in 2025.

alpaca
Unlikely, actually, but I’m not ruling it out.

That UTY Vow™ has taken some of the stress away because I never have to relitigate the ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ thing. I simply will. For ten years. The decision has been made. I don’t have to re-examine it. I have to do whatever it takes. If I have to set up a website, I will do it. If I have to create social media accounts, I will do it. If I have to re-write a story from a different point of view because that’s what the story needs, I will do it (it’ll half kill me, but I’ll do it). If I need to research, I will do it. If I have to deal with writer’s block, I will do it. I promised my best. That vow has enabled me to trust myself. I won’t break it. It’s a long time, right? Ten years. But it’s also finite.

I don’t know about you but those motivational ‘never, ever, EVAH give up writing’ or ‘the only failure is quitting’ type posts/tweets send a cold shiver down my spine. I know they’re meant to be encouraging, but I find them faintly threatening. I get visions of some poor miserable sod with their fingers glued to a keyboard, slogging on and on and on – wanting to pack it all in and learn to ski instead – but consumed by the idea that they mustn’t because quitting is UNACCEPTABLE. I instantly want to rebel and rush out and buy that snowsuit. I’ll give up if I like. But ten years seems like a nice chunk of time to me.

sisyphus
Poor old Sisyphus. He’d rather be skiing.

 

By the way – ten years when we’re talking novels isn’t really very long. People dedicate their whole lives to learning to write. But I wasn’t starting from scratch in 2015 – I’d already done years of writing practice on and off, studied creative writing for a couple of years at a university, written my first crappy novel and had a couple of short stories published on writer’s websites – but the UTY Vow™ signalled my starting to take it seriously.

So, if you’re a writer who’s just starting out, or you’re thinking about finally giving writing a serious place in your life, I highly recommend making a UTY Vow™ to yourself. It’s remarkably comforting to know during the long dark nights of the soul (and there will be some) that however bad it gets you won’t quit (for now). You will move on through. Then you will reassess with the clarity of hindsight.

Go on – make a UTY Vow™ to yourself today. Come back in 2029 and tell me I was right.

Oh, and in case you’re getting silly ideas, my using the ™ symbol is a JOKE. I’m know I’m not the first person in the world to make a vow. I point this out merely because some people really do try to ™ stupid things, like common words.

And if you’re suffering from writer’s block, don’t listen to those lucky, lucky people who’ve never had it and therefore don’t believe in it. Just think of them as pixies frolicking in the gardens of Hard Work That Pays Off – and forgive them. Because I know you’re not lazy. I know you’re not doing it on purpose. I know you’re putting in the hours and getting nowhere. I know fear and exhaustion and boredom and self-doubt are all wrapped around it and you’re so confused you don’t trust yourself any more. I know you’d be writing if you could. It’s okay. I see you.  Try making a UTY Vow™. It won’t trap you. It will give you strength when times are tough. And I wish you all the bravery and all the best.

pixies-frolic
Pixies frolicking in the Garden of Hard Work that Pays Off. Soon, it’ll be you and me in there. I bags the blue catsuit.

 

13 Comments

  1. Two years. I’m a believer! After six decades of writing (not necessarily well) as easily as most people breathe, I’ve been stuck, crippled, literarily paralyzed for two solid years. I have closed my blog, left my writing sites, thrown up my hands and walked away. It isn’t that I don’t want to write; I am thinking of starting a new blog, locked behind passwords, to be shared if and when I ever produce anything again. I feel like a modern-day Tantalus, doomed to forever reach for words that refuse to stay still to be grasped.

    Or maybe I’m done. A sixty-year habit can be hard to break, but I admire your UTY Vow . . . nor will I go quietly into that good night! Know that you are not alone, and that you have fellow afflicted out here that are rooting for you. Every success encourages us all. Look at all this rambling; if only I could write product as well! I just stopped by to tell you that your blog writing is engaging and readable, and to wish the best of luck. I hope you’re writing again soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jack – you have all my sympathies. It’s such a confounding and hellish state. I’m glad you’re not going quietly, because neither am I. I reckon, if I can’t write fiction at the moment, I may as well write blog posts about not writing fiction. At least other people suffering from it know they’re not alone, and I found it good to write the blog post – it got a bit of my frustration out. A writer on Twitter recommended having a go at something completely out of my usual sphere – a different genre, say, or a completely different tone. So I’m going to try that next. See you soon in that garden I hope!

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  2. Ugh, yes. I have been struggling not to take my own writer’s block as a failure of my personality for the past couple of years, especially when I do manage to write something and it’s not the thing I SHOULD have been writing. Apparently all my brain can do these days is blog about fairy tales and every time I try for fiction I run into a blank wall of Nope. Your description of how it feels is precise in a way I’ve (appropriately enough!) been unable to put into words. Thank you so much for the validation!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Faith, yes it’s hard not to take it personally, isn’t it? ‘If only I was stronger/better/more creative/braver I’d be writing’ is a very easy trap to fall into. I fall into it daily and daily have to clamber out. You know, you used a word that resonated with me – the word ‘SHOULD’. What we ‘shoud’ be writing. I wonder if that’s part of the problem for us? Many people have very strong views on the kinds of stories that are acceptable or morally ideal. And we may even agree that, yes, these are great stories. These are the stories we should be writing. But what if our subconscious throws us other stories? What if we just want to write the thing we want to write? But we’ve dismissed that as ‘not good enough’. I have a suspicion that my subconscious is on strike because it’s thrown me hundreds of story ideas that I’ve dismissed because I feel I SHOULD write something else. My latest idea to get past the block is to go back to the first idea I had after writing my last book – and to write it. Never mind that I don’t think it’s tremendously strong. Never mind that another kind of story would be better for my career or my writer’s brand. I will go humbly to my subconcious and say ‘ok, let’s do that one’ and make myself finish it and see what comes out. After all, I needn’t publish it, or even show anyone if it’s not good enough. But at least that might get me back on side with myself, so I stop feeling so conflicted. Worth a try, eh? I wonder what it is you ‘really’ want to write? With no ‘should’ in the equation? Of course I may be on the wrong track but at this point I’ll try anything.

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      1. Well, I am in the middle of study, so I should technically be doing that! Finding the time and energy to write at all is so hard lately that I desperately want to finish at least one ongoing story, just to get it out of my head. But maybe you’re right and I need to try other ideas until something sticks with me. The fairy tale blogging may get me back into retellings, who knows?

        For what it’s worth, I love your writing style and reading more of it, whatever shape your story ends up taking, is worth a wait. Best of luck!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Lee, I’m going through the same thing myself. After 9 books with a small publisher I’ve hit that wall of writer’s block. I’ve been stuck at that “keep showing up, again, again, and again” but still nothing part.
    “I know fear and exhaustion and boredom and self-doubt are all wrapped around it and you’re so confused you don’t trust yourself any more.” <–This x 1000. This is where I've been for too many months now. And while I wouldn't wish this on anyone, I'm appreciative that you shared your struggle. It helps me feel a bit less alone, if that makes sense. Six years ago I threw all my energy and time into my writing goal. So today I'm making an Unbreakable *Four* Year Vow. (UFY Vow) I think I've finally arrived at the "Oh, F*** It" mindset and I'm going to write something just for me and hope I can bust through the block. Sending good thoughts your way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay for the UFY Vow! And I think the ‘oh fuck it’ mindset is very useful at this point. I’m there too and there’s ENERGY in that mindset. I’m so pissed off and fed up that at this point writing ANYTHING is better than nothing. In fact, yesterday and the day before I wrote some words! I make no claim to their quality but it’s more than I’ve managed for months. I don’t feel triumphant, but I do think it’s a step in the right direction. Did I mention I’m doing what are known as ‘morning pages’? In other words writing 1- 3 pages of absolutely anything as early in the day as I can (which sometimes means doing it at 10pm). You don’t read over, you don’t fix mistakes or edit as you go. You just splurge ANYTHING on the page; fragments of conversation, descriptions, memories, complaints, feelings, ideas. You allow yourself cliches and repetition and none of it matters coz you need never read it again. Some days I hate it and some days it’s a relief. I’ve been doing it for about two weeks now and I don’t say it’s what’s got me writing again, but I feel it may be involved. The other thing I’m doing is corresponding with a fellow writer who is also blocked – we’re sharing our thoughts and fears and useful links (she sent me an Elizabeth Gilbert Ted talk and ditto Brene Brown on vulnerability). Do you have anyone to correspond with honestly? To tell your fears out loud? I’m finding it very helpful – I understand myself better as I write to her, and her fears are so familiar it gives me perspective. And she listens and understands and doesn’t judge. Feel free to email me if you think that would help. I know we don’t know each other but we’re in the same boat. NB – ANYONE reading this comment is free to email me privately if they’re suffering from block and think it might help. I have no answers but I will listen and tell you what I’m trying and thinking. You are not alone!

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  4. Ah, I was reading this and finding it too relatable, when suddenly you had to go and mention the pressure of the “Never Give Up”, and it’s given me flashbacks. In a good way. I think that sometimes giving up is necessary. I’ve had to give up writing (one thing in particular) before because it was destroying me. So much time, so much anxiety… but at least I tried. And, most importantly, I realized and I’m trying to fix it, hopefully before it’s too late. I guess I’m proud of myself now. But mental health also takes time, so I have small goals and no deadlines. And now I can write again (this time, what I wanted to write)! Sometimes. Not every day. But I enjoy it once more (shyly, still), and that’s a wonderful feeling I hope you’ll share soon!
    BTW, I really like the idea of the UTY Vow™
    I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for me at the moment (no deadlines, remember), but I think I’m going to use it for something I’ve been working on for a very long time. I’ve been stuck in the outline for years, I’m ashamed to confess, but last year I decided to start working on a draft. And it’s gonna take a long time, because I’m slow, anxious and busy, but I’m doing it anyway. And I think a UTY Vow™ would be perfect as a deadline of sorts. Being able to review, change and doubt for some years, but having a date in which I know I’ll have to stop and… just let it go, I guess.

    Thank you for your wonderful (and very helpful) posts.
    You know, this also counts as writing. So go and celebrate you’ve written something awesome. You deserve it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that sometimes giving up is necessary for one’s own sanity. There have been times in my life when I *had* to stop writing because I needed that energy and time for surviving other things. To expect myself to keep producing at those times would have just been mean (and writers are sometimes mean to themselves!). I guess, for me, the power of the UTY Vow is that it makes me feel OK about taking breaks if I need to work through things (like writer’s block) because it’s TEN YEARS – so the pressure of self-imposed deadlines and word counts and those things are suddenly gone. All I have to do is the best that I can, genuinely, for ten years. I know some people are very motivated by deadlines so setting a deadline (for them) would be part of doing their best. But if deadlines are just more pressure and STOP you producing, then clearly they’re not helping you achieve YOUR best. I’ve heard a lot of writers talking about process and finding what works for you being one of the most important things about being a writer. I guess this is all part of that journey for us. I certainly hope I’m learning a lot about my process by going through all this! x

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