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Dear Story Nurse,
I’m a professional writer. I write list articles for a website that focuses on trends in geek culture. I usually average about 1750 words per article. It’s a fun gig and I get paid to write about my favorite things like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. It’s part time so I supplement my income by working at a grocery store.
The problem? I’m blocked.
And it’s just on my list articles. I can sit down and plug away at my passion and practice projects (thanks for the idea for practice projects!). But I’m running out of ideas for list articles and when I sit down to write I just end up staring at the outlines I made with nothing to say. It doesn’t help that I sometimes work early shifts and come home too tired to write. Is there anything you would recommend to get unblocked?
Thanks for this very interesting question. Being blocked on writing that one is obligated to do—for work, for school, because of any other external commitment—is something we don’t usually think about the way we think about being blocked on creative projects. But it certainly does happen, and the root causes are very similar.
Here are some things that “blocked” can mean:
- Bored. Your project just doesn’t excite you the way it once did—or it never excited you in the first place. You aren’t having fun.
- Conflicted. Your outline or assignment says to go one way but your interests or writing instincts say to go another way. You agreed to take something on and are realizing it’s much bigger or more complicated than you expected, and you can’t decide whether to cancel it or force yourself to do it. You’re freelancing for a kind of sketchy company and your personal ethics are running up against your need for funds.
- Anxious or insecure. You’re worried that the next part of your piece is going to be stressful or emotionally difficult to write. You’re concerned about how your writing will be received by your teacher, editor, or audience. You’re very emotionally invested in what you’re writing and not sure you can do it justice. Your deadlines make you want to run and hide.
- Maxed out or powerless. You just have too much going on in your work life or in the rest of your life, or both, and it’s easier to avoid your work than confront the lengthy to-do list. You’re writing about the same fandoms where you also make fanwork and hang out with other fans, and it feels like eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You’re dealing with illness or chronic pain or something else that saps your energy and limits your abilities. You feel pushed around by your editor or boss, or in some other area of your life.
- Upset or angry. For whatever internal or external reasons, you’ve built up negative associations with writing, with this particular type of writing, and/or with the person or entity you’re doing the writing for, and whenever you try to write, you get stuck in those feelings.
- Distracted. Something else, or everything else, feels way more important than the writing you need to do, and you keep getting caught up in the ooh shiny.
- Uncertain. You don’t have an outline and pantsing isn’t working. Your editor isn’t giving you enough guidance. You have too many possible projects or directions, and are feeling choice paralysis. You don’t know what to do next.
- Guilty or ashamed. You think you should be writing more. You think you should be doing something that’s more important or urgent than writing. You feel bad about something else in another part of your life and it’s spilling over into writing.
There are other options, but in my experience, those are the big ones. And of course they can overlap and feed into one another; for example, if you’re overwhelmed by stressful personal matters, you may turn some of that into anger at your editors for daring to ask you to write something, or feel incredibly anxious about making your deadlines.
I can’t tell you what’s causing your feelings of being blocked, though I can take some guesses. For me, running out of ideas usually means I’m bored or not engaged with the topic. If I’m interested in something, I can write a mile a minute about the tiniest detail (not just knitting, not just knitting tools, not just knitting needles, but the specific pros and cons of particular brands of interchangeable knitting needles). If I’m not, even big concepts leave me struggling to find a hook (insert crochet pun here). Have you been struggling to connect with the geek culture you love? Is it less fun than it used to be? You may need to find a new fandom, or confront your mixed feelings about your current ones.
“Running out of ideas” may also mean that you’re feeling obligated to discard the ideas you have—maybe you think they’re too far out there, or too political, or too minor to be of interest to anyone else. If that sounds familiar, try running some of those ideas past your editor. Or use them to launch a brainstorming session: one of those ideas but, one of those ideas and.
Staring at your outlines with nothing to say sounds like a bit of a different problem. What feelings come up when you look at those outlines? Do you resent them telling you what to write? Do you feel anxious or despondent over your ability to write them well? Do you just want them to go away and leave you alone? Dig into the deeper emotions underlying your blockage.
Distraction may be a big problem here, since your personal projects are going so well. Compartmentalize as best you can. Set aside different specific times for writing-for-work and writing-for-self. Use personal project writing time as a reward for finishing an article or a section of an article, but don’t do one right after the other: get up, drink some water, have a snack, move around. And try not to fall into the trap of thinking of them as “the good writing” and “the bad writing”; that just makes it harder to get into the groove with the articles, and meanwhile you’re setting yourself up to be unpleasantly surprised the next time you feel blocked on your personal work, which will inevitably happen. Neither one is inherently good or bad. They’re just different, and they serve different purposes in your life.
A little power-of-positive-thinking never hurts. What do you appreciate about your articles? Can you reread the one you most enjoyed writing, or spend some time wallowing in positive comments and fan mail and kudos from your editor? What are some great opportunities you’ve gotten because of this gig, like backstage access at a convention or the chance to interview a creator you love? Remember what it’s like to at least enjoy that work, even if you don’t currently think it’s the bee’s knees.
Being tired will make everything harder, of course. Give yourself permission not to write on days when you have those early shifts, and adjust your writing schedule (and deadlines, if those are negotiable) accordingly. Also, on those early-shift days, make sure you get to bed on the early side, and do whatever other body-care things you need to do: eat well, move around enough. Working two jobs means they need to work around each other, not against each other. Even if you’re feeling pretty ragged, see if you can muster up the energy to do a little planning so that the intersections and transitions between your obligations are smoother.
I recommend trying the inspiration-generating techniques in my post “You Are Your Own Muse”; those will help get the juices flowing. I wrote them for a fiction writer, but they should be pretty easy to translate to nonfiction. And I think this one will be especially useful for you:
Acknowledge what’s blocking you and deliberately move forward. Whatever you’re feeling, say it out loud. “I’m scared that my writing is only good when I’m inspired.” “I know that the next scene is where things start getting hard for my protagonist and I don’t want to put her through that.” “Writing is the last thing I want to be doing right now—I’d rather go take a nap.” And then ask yourself, Am I going to do some writing right now despite that? If the answer is yes, say that out loud too: “Even though I’m scared/nervous/tired, I’m going to do some writing now. That’s what I choose to do.” Because you can always choose to do something else with your time—no one’s forcing you to write. Own that choice and feel powerful in making it.
You’ve chosen to take this job. You may not choose each individual assignment, but you’re choosing to keep taking on assignments. You’re empowered here! And owning that choice can help give you enough of a push to get you over that block and on your way toward banging out another article.
Finally, if you have a decent relationship with your editor/boss, let them know that things are starting to feel a little stale, and ask whether you can mix it up a bit. Maybe the movie reviewer or fine art critic can swap columns with you for a week. Maybe you can go to a convention and interact with other fans to remind yourself why you love fandom. Maybe you just need some time off. Ideally the folks you’re writing for can help you brainstorm some ways to get engaged again. You feeling good about your work is good for them as well as for you, so don’t hesitate to ask for help.
I hope your writing starts making you happy again very soon!