Zen and the Art of Banishing Writer’s Block

Have you ever thought about something scary and started sweating or panting?

"Amy Dean meditates for writer's block"

Amy Dean meditates

That’s because our bodies and minds don’t discern the difference between what we tell ourselves and what actually happens. Conjure a mental image vividly and persistently and your body and mind will interpret it as reality.

In the case of writer’s block, tell yourself that you can’t write and your mind and body will believe you. That’s what I did.

Once upon a time I suffered through a prolonged period of writer’s block. I tried taking the advice of writing coaches to escape its clutches.

Read other writers for inspiration. Conduct more research.  Write anything. Go to a coffee shop. Get some fresh air. Take a shower. Drink a beer. Sound familiar?

None of them worked for me. My body and mind were far more enthralled with the story that I was telling myself: I had lost my ability to write.

The Zen Approach

Clearly, I lived to write another day or you wouldn’t be reading this blog post. So, how did I finally wriggle loose? I took the path of personal insight or what I like to call a Zen approach to waking up from the illusion of writer’s block.

First, I started paying close attention to what I was telling myself about my writing and my life. Some people refer to this as mindfulness, which is an aspect of Zen, a spiritual “way of liberation,” as the great philosopher Alan Watts defined it. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to your thoughts and actions on purpose, without judgment.

Staring Down Fear of Failure

I stepped back from swirl of thoughts. I watched them like I was watching a movie on a screen. This objective state of awareness afforded me the distance to discover that at the root of my writer’s block was a stifling fear of failure.

The secret about fear is that staring it in the face obliterates it. It’s like turning on the lights to find there weren’t really any monsters under the bed after all, only an overworked imagination. So, instead of running from the notion that I would never write again, I embraced it. I imagined what life would be without it.

Once I played the drama all the way out to its bitter end, I was free. I could write a different story about the position that writing played in my life. My writing no longer loomed over me. I put it in its proper place as one aspect of my life.

Following are the steps I take to keep writer’s block at bay based on what I learned about myself during that difficult time:

1) Don’t Panic!

Practicing yoga and zen relaxes Amy

Yoga relaxes Amy

My primary source of income is writing. It feels like a matter of life or death when words don’t emerge on the page. Or, at least that’s what I told myself. Wow. Talk about pressure to perform!

It’s not surprising that my initial dot of worry swelled into a massive blob that consumed me. I trapped myself into thinking that a temporary lull in my writing flow amounted to a permanent freeze.

Now, if I hit a wall, I don’t panic. I simply accept that nothing is leaping forth at the moment. I have complete confidence that the inspiration will strike again. I know that “this too shall pass.”

2) Remember Your Primary Purpose in Life

My process of self-discovery showed me that I had a deep desire to identify as a writer. I felt inadequate without this label. Although it’s a foreign concept to many of us in the midst of our busy lives, I started focusing on the importance of simply being a human being first.

Now I embrace the notion that my primary reason for existing is simply to exist. My writing ability doesn’t define me. Writing flows through me, which is great, but whether or not I write doesn’t make me better or worse. Attaching to success or failure stifles innovation. Striving to outdo others or criticizing yourself is constricting and leads me to my next point.

3) Stop Comparing and Start Celebrating

It’s easy to compare yourself to other writers, especially in the world of social media where the blog across the street might have more comments and/or tweets than yours. This is an exercise in futility that will quash your creativity.

Everyone’s voice is different. My only obligation as a writer is to express my uniqueness. Accepting where I am without beating myself up has freed me to perform at my best. Instead of wasting precious energy worrying, I write with a sense of celebration for the opportunity to express my individuality.

4) Power Your Writing With the Present Moment  

I used to think about failing before I even started writing. I also clung desperately to the few words that I managed to paint on the page, so I didn’t have the freedom to discard copy at will and welcome something new.

Now, I don’t even think about the outcome nor do I marry myself to what I’ve written. My writing rises from the present moment like a wave and unfolds before me like a hand-painted fan. I’m also open to destroying it with the delete button. I don’t force the words or form attachments to them. I let them emerge and evaporate as needed.

5) Clear Your Mental Clutter Through Meditation 

Thoughts accumulate in our minds like temporary Internet files or unused icons on our desktops. They back up and slow down our mental processing power. Every morning I meditate for as long as I can to clear them out and free space for new ideas.

I believe that writer’s block is a trick of the mind. It’s a story we don’t have to tell ourselves. You have the power to write the story you want about your writing.

Amy Dean is President of Dean Public Relations, offering multi-channel communications strategies and execution to raise the visibility of businesses. She provides strategic communications consulting, media relations outreach and social media writing and counseling. Photos by Paul Goyette.

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Comments

  1. Great advice. When I get stuck, writer’s block seems to worsen. It’s a downward dog for sure! I’ve never tamed that beast. Now I have some practical tips. Useful post.
    Thanks!
    Patricia

    • Thanks, Patricia. It is a beast and our good friend Amy gave us a formula that should help us to banish our demons.

  2. How very interesting Jeannette, that the first thing that caused you to panic is the linking of your blogging to your income. What IS it about money that sets many of us off into the weeds of the mind? All those rambling weeds, negative thoughts.

    I love this post! It’s timely because I just had a blessed month of guest bloggers and was finding it a bit tough to break into my own writing again. That’s where your number 2 suggestion fits in. It’s actually how I was starting to crawl back into the swing. I think NOW your post might help me start skipping! It’s not about anything defining me in anyway. It’s just about, being in-joy for and trusting the present moment.

    Love it Jeannette! Thanks.

    Patricia Weber, LinkedIn Group BHB

    • Hi Patricia,

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comment on my guest blog for Jeannette! You’re so right! What is it about money that makes our monkey minds start hopping from branch to branch! If I’m not vigilant, it’ll slingshot me right into the future, which is a state of anxiety. I also have to be careful not to dwell on past performances. Living in the images of yesterday certainly zaps the writing zeal. The present moment is an oasis where money doesn’t matter!

      So, you’re a number 2 writer, too? I love that there are people like you in the world! I think if we focus on our humanity first and foremost all good things will flow from there. I wish you all the best as you break back into writing your blog. As soon as I’m done leaving this comment, I’ll subscribe!

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!!

      • Hi Bethany,

        Thanks for your comment! My writer’s block actually dragged on for a few months. I felt like I was battling quicksand. The more I tried to break free, the deeper I descended into the muck. I had no other choice but to trace my block back to my fear and confront it head on. Now, I’m actually grateful for the experience. I think I emerged a stronger spirit.

        I’m so glad you raised the point about fear holding us back from presenting a piece of writing to the world! I completely relate to wondering if something I’ve written will resonate with people. I think it we speak truthfully and passionately, it certainly will. Honestly, I didn’t know if people in the business world would get a post about Zen, but here you are commenting! I’m so grateful. Your blog is my next stop.

        Amy Dean

  3. This is an exceptional post, Jeannette. It makes me wonder how LONG your writer’s block lasted. While I have never suffered a long period of writer’s block, I do have those moments. What I suffer from more is lack of confidence about my writing. I know I can put words together, but I’m not always sure people will relate to them. Your Zen tips work for this too. Because in the end, even though my lack of confidence may not keep me from writing, it can keep me from sharing and it can take the joy from it sometimes.

  4. True Jeannette. It works. Probably the most important is to stop programming your mind with negativities that become reality.

    Meditation and yoga works wonders for all human beings. When it comes to yoga, mainly because of the deep breathing. No matter how stressed you are after an hour of deep breating and yoga you feel you have taken a drug that makes you one hundred percent positive.

    • Catarina — I think it’s back to the yoga mat for me. I took yoga years ago, and I know how calming it can be. I walk a lot and I find that is very relaxing for me and helps to clear my head.

  5. I am mesmerized by your post. I have a voice that has so much to say, but every time I hit the publish button I am in fear of missed typo’s and misspelled words and I know that holds me back.

    Be dyslexic has been a challenge all of my life. It hasn’t stopped me from facing challenges or I wouldn’t be blogging. However, I do know it holds me back at times. But then I finally publish my posts and the comments start to come in and the article seems to be well received. I know there are typos and some misspelled words because my neighbor and former legal assistant is now helping to identify them and make corrections.

    Nevertheless I take your words in, I marvel at how well you craft them and your message seriously resonates with me. Thank you for some great tips and advice. Your dyslexic friend and follower, 🙂

    • Susan — Giving credit where it is due, the post was written by my good friend and colleague, Amy Dean. I’ve read your posts and have not noticed any of the misspellings you mention. It’s your thoughts and opinions that count. As you are doing, you can always have someone else check for spelling. Keep on blogging!

  6. Thank you so much. This is truly useful. Sometimes the pressure to perform is a figment of our own imagination, we are already doing well, just that we don’t realise it and strain ourselves to the point of breaking down.

  7. Certainly a helpful post! When I get stuck, I tend to try various forms of freewriting. That way even if I have to write about something really off topic, I am still writing. That eventually tricks my brain into getting the writing done.

    • Jeri — I do something similar. I just hunch over the keyboard and begin to type gibberish. Somehow that frees me up to start actually writing.

  8. I hadn’t heard of 750 Words and just took a look. Interesting concept — it imposes discipline on your writing but rewarding you with points every time you write 750 words.