Writer’s Block vs. Writer’s Doubt: Different, but Both Deadly

I’ll admit it. Right now I’m in a massive hole of writer’s block.

Writing that out seems weird, especially when I spent a lot of my day today writing film reviews for my other site (shameless plug no. 1), penned an article for Lydia Magazine’s first print edition (shameless plug no. 2) and was just published twice on Bitch Magazine’s website (shameless plug no. 3 and 4).

Oh, and I write daily at my job with a profile due at the end of this week and a case study and feature due a week after that.

So do I truly have writer’s block?

Probably not in the same sense as most people think of it. Then again, most people don’t write stories for a living — I consider myself one of the lucky few who get that privilege. But writer’s block can still exist, and I’m dealing with it right now, even as I type out this post for Quills and Typewriters. Remember that ghost story book I wanted to write before Halloween? Nope. Not going to happen. And that’s killing me inside, because I hate backing out of goals.*

*Unless they’re something like, “Stop eating Nilla Wafers out of the bag.” Because that goal is more of a suggestion, and I don’t trust my own advice when there are Nilla Wafers involved.

I had this tiny seed of an idea planted in my head back in August, and in the months that followed it started sprouting into a full book with dynamic characters and terrifying ghosts and don’t-let-your-mama-read-this-because-it’s-disturbing-and-she’ll-never-let-you-leave-the-house-again scenarios. But even though I started jotting down plot points and themes, whenever I open up that Word Doc saved to my desktop, I freeze. Thusfar, I have six pages written. They’re not bad, but they’re not good, either, and I have no clue where to fit them, mostly because I have no clue what’s going to happen in most of the story. Needless to say, October 31 will not bring with it a new book by one Kate Everson.

Feel George Michael's pain.
Feel George Michael’s pain.

So we’ve established the fact I have writer’s block.

Now onto “writer’s doubt.”

A good friend of mine has been having a lot of doubt about his writing skills. He shouldn’t — I keep telling him he shouldn’t, but I’m not sure he’s listening to me, so if you’re reading this, Mr. Neyer, YOU SHOULDN’T DOUBT YOUR WRITING SKILLS, AND I’M POSTING IT ON MY BLOG SO YOU KNOW I MEAN IT.

He suffers from what I’ve dubbed “writer’s doubt,” which is the terror that what you are writing isn’t good enough and, in extreme cases, that whatever you write in the future will never be good enough. Like pain, sadness and degrees of sunburn, it varies, so I put together a handy chart to explain it:

Screen shot 2014-06-15 at 11.03.45 PM

Please note that no. 3’s Emily Dickinson simile is unfounded. (But if there’s anyone willing to see if my assumption is accurate, be my guest and leave a comment at the bottom of this post. Then seek psychological treatment immediately.)

No matter where you clock in on the scale, clearly “writer’s doubt” has more repercussions than “writer’s block.” At least with writer’s block, there’s a hint of hope, that one day you won’t be creatively constipated anymore. Writer’s doubt leaves little room for “one days” and can get people to give up on what talent they do have because they’ve confused writer’s block with not having any skill whatsoever. Both can cripple, especially when writer’s block masquerades as a lack of ability, but is one worse over the other?

Writer's block is the jackass wearing the mask, after all.
Writer’s block is the troll wearing the mask, after all. (And it’s probably the Gerard Butler version of the Phantom, not the Michael Crawford version.)

I asked the all-knowing font of knowledge, Facebook, what my friends thought about the situation. Was it worse to have writer’s block or writer’s doubt? 

The question received a smattering of input, and interestingly it came from both solid writer friends and those who only brush up on their prose when they feel like it. Those who were more regular writers said writer’s block was worse.

“I hate the feeling of wanting to write but having no idea what to write about,” said one friend, who’s working on a time travel story that he lets me read once in a while. “It’s really frustrating because you can’t force yourself to come up with something. All you can do is wait it out until inspiration hits.”

A reporter with whom I worked at Vox said the writer’s block was the criminal because it spawned forced (bad) writing. My old roommate Rachel concurred that writer’s block was worse, but with a different spin: “If you’re writing crap, at least you’re writing. And I find that if you word-vomit onto paper, going back and building on it is much easier than waiting until you see it perfectly.”

But others said that writer’s doubt was the bane of their creative existence — that writing something you have no faith in is worse than not writing at all. In one case, a friend from high school said that doubt was the very reason she never became a serious writer.

After my small mini-poll, I came to this conclusion:

Writer’s block is bad for writers. It twists our stomachs and barricades our brains, which makes it impossible to get our thoughts coherently down on a piece of paper — or worse, it makes it impossible to have thoughts that can be put down on a piece of paper.

But writer’s doubt is worse for the rest of the world because it makes people with talent withhold their skills and the stories they have to tell from the rest of the world (hide the proverbial light under the proverbial bushel basket). Ernest Hemingway, Sam Cooke, even Emily Dickinson dealt with writer’s block and conquered it. They probably had some writer’s doubts, too, but if they hadn’t overcome them, think of what a wonderful world this wouldn’t be.

So a note to writers struggling out there: don’t perceive a bad bout of a block as not being talented. Chances are you’ve hit a dry spell, just like your fridge hits a milk drought just when you get your hands on a box of Corn Pops. You’ll go to the store and buy more milk, and in the car you’ll probably have some great inspiration that will lead to your next big story.

To those who don’t feel they have talent and therefore don’t write, understand that you probably do have abilities if you cultivate them the right way. Read. Write. Have conversations with yourself and your characters while doing mundane tasks (like hitting the grocery store for more milk). Read and write some more. Finish a story, no matter how hard it might be to spit it out. The initial product might be about as coherent as a Jimi Hendrix-Kenny G collaboration, but at least it’s something, and you can go back to improve upon it.

And finally, to those who are writing and not feeling like they’re getting anywhere: it’s time to put away the cereal, crank up “Twisting the Night Away,” close the Dickinson, look away from the source of God’s power and get writing.

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2 Comments

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  1. As in all things there is a parallel in the art world..to paint anything or to wait until inspiration knocks you flat and you create your masterpiece. I contend that one must be willing to allow the right brain some room to function. The need for “words” or for that matter anything concrete to hang onto often blocks the right brain’s ability to give you the message. Allowing your right brain to work takes some time and it will flow if you find something else to do and leave it alone. In other words, you say your goal was to write a ghost story by Halloween. Did you specify the year? It will be written when it is ready, so maybe not this year. It ain’t ready.

  2. Steven Dexheimer June 16, 2014 — 4:49 pm

    I’ve never combined drinking with my writing. Hmmm…

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