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Writer's Block Equals Self-Silencing

Updated on August 15, 2010

 Can't speak, as least not in writing? Why not? There's a reason. Let's find it.

What's the payoff?

Everything we do or avoid doing has a payoff. The idea that writer's block contained a payoff shocked me at first. How could there be a payoff in not doing what I want to do? But when I delved deeper, I found it.

Julia Cameron: the spiritual path to creativity

The Complete Artist's Way: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice
The Complete Artist's Way: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice

Three of Julia Cameron's books in one: The Artist's Way, Walking in This World, and Finding Water. Learn how to cultivate greater creativity by spiritually exploring your artistic journey


Julia Cameron, in her stellar book The Artist's Way, has an exercise I find useful. She extorts us to complete a relevant sentence at least ten times without pausing or thinking. For writer's block, I use: "I can't write because....."

She's right. I needed to write quickly, before I could censor my thoughts, and at least ten times to get beyond the ordinary excuses:

"I can't write because the kids are home, and I can't concentrate."

"I can't write because I'm fresh out of ideas."

The latter was a lie. I've got enough ideas to last me a lifetime, so why did I lie to myself? By the time I got to number eight, the truth was starting to emerge:

"I can't write because I'm not an expert and people will laugh at me."

"I can't write because I'm afraid people will be upset by what I say."

"I can't write because I'm afraid of letting the secret out."

Natalie Goldberg: How to Write

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library)
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library)

Write where you are, write in the moment, use what you have, be passionate. Bring your whole body and spirit into your creative endeavors.


Wow. Where did that come from? I consider myself pretty open. So what was I hiding? Of course, I couldn't quit at that point if I really wanted to figure out why I couldn't write. Or should I be saying, didn't want to write? That's becoming more evident. But before I went deeper, I made a few decisions that helped me begin writing:

I don't have to publish anything I write. I don't even have to show it to anyone. No one will ever have to discover my secret unless I'm ready to share it. (Since I had no clue what it was, that didn't seem to be a hard promise to keep)

I don't have to write about anything in particular. If a subject makes me uneasy, I can write about something else. If the first subject is something I really want to write, I can come back to it later.

I can confine myself to a subject I know thoroughly, even though I may not be a "recognized" expert. There are many things I'm good at, people ask for advice about and have expressed gratitude when I've shared my knowledge. I don't have to be an expert to share my knowledge.

Virginia Woolf: Words Fail Me

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays
The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

Twenty-eight essays, sketches, and short stories, including "Words Fail Me" "Up to the author's highest standard..." (Times Literary Supplement (London)).


The most important decision was not about what to write, but how to write:

Brainstorm without letting my self-editor have a voice.

Write in phrases rather than sentences if that is all that wants to come out.

Let my writing go wherever it wants to go. I can edit later.

Start with personal stuff that will never be used in a published piece.

The last is the most important. Trying to block those emotions, those uncomfortable thoughts that never go away were causing my writer's block. So I gave myself permission to let it all out, to write in rage, fear, pain or sheer joy on any subject my soul wanted to express. I wrote until that well was empty. Then I set it aside and begin writing the current project.

Ernest Hemingway

For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.  ~ Ernest Hemingway
For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can. ~ Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway on Writing
Ernest Hemingway on Writing

A collection of Hemingway's thoughts on writing gleaned from a vast range of letters, books and interviews. A few categories: Advice to Writers, Working Habits, and Obscenity. "Eschew the monumental," he wrote to Maxwell Perkins, his editor, in 1932. "Shun the Epic. All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones."


Ernest Hemingway gave a good piece of advice to an aspiring writer: "I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it."

He wrote five hundred words a day, every day. I tried his advice. I set a word goal for the day, every day, and stopped when I still knew what the next event would be. It worked, even better than I hoped. While I was doing other things, my brain was whirring and creating, so when I sat down for the next scene, it flowed right out, often in ways I did not anticipate.

It wasn't long before I was writing far beyond the word goal but never beyond the next known scene. It became natural to stop there and go out to refresh myself by participating in activities that inspired me. They were as simple as admiring flowers, enjoying the sunshine or talking to a friend. The could also be more complex, like trailering my horse to a new place to ride or planning a trip. As long as I came away feeling better about myself, they aided me in my writing goals.

Of course, there were days when the dreaded writer's block reared its ugly head again. On those days, I stuck to my word goal, even if it meant typing the same thing over and over until the goal was meant. I didn't let myself walk away. That's when I began thinking walking away was part of the payoff. But what was the rest? I didn't yet know.

Virginia Woolf - A Room Of One's Own

A Room of One's Own (Annotated)
A Room of One's Own (Annotated)

Virginia Woolf created a sister for Shakespeare, a sister whose talent and genius were denied the right of expression. A classic work addressing the silenced voices of women through the ages.


So I went back to completing sentences. The truest answers all contained fear of some kind. But where was the root of that fear? I had to use another exercise to find out.

Long ago, in a book I do not remember, there was an idea that worked for me. Even when we suppress uncomfortable memories, our body remembers. When something triggers that body memory, we may not know the source, but we know we should avoid whatever is causing that discomfort. It is a valuable warning system. My head warns me when I'm about to bump it into a cabinet corner. My foot warns me when I am about to step on something harmful. I just have to listen.

So when an uncomfortable emotion rises and I don't know its source, I go to my bedroom (because I feel safe there), lay down and focus on the part of my body where the emotion is felt the strongest. For me, that is often my stomach, but it can also be somewhere else. When I'm focused, I ask my stomach, "When did you first feel that way?" Silly, huh? But it works.

So-called 'Sappho', c. 60 CE

Roman and Greek noble women were educated as a symbol of family pride.  "Sappho" is wearing golden snood typical for the Neronian period. Her stylus and wax tablets are symbols of higher learning.       Found May 1760, Pompeii, Region VI, Insula occi
Roman and Greek noble women were educated as a symbol of family pride. "Sappho" is wearing golden snood typical for the Neronian period. Her stylus and wax tablets are symbols of higher learning. Found May 1760, Pompeii, Region VI, Insula occi
The Complete Poems of Sappho
The Complete Poems of Sappho

“Mysterious, mellifluous Sappho shines anew in this glorious translation, and Barnstone’s masterful introduction locates her historically, unveils her impassioned life, and reflects on the sensuous grace of her poverty, revealing the woman as she’s never been seen before.”—Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses


Writer's block clenched my stomach. As soon as I asked about the first time, a memory from second grade came floating up. My teacher was praising me as a good writer. My mother was saying she hadn't even known I was writing short stories. The teacher gave her one -- and my mother expressed disapproval because it was about horses. I love horses. That's a natural subject for me, but I didn't write again until high school, when I took a journalism class. Again, the teacher thought I was a good writer. I even got an A. My mother thought my articles were awful. I quit writing again, at least not writing I let others see.

It was another decade before I tried to write again. I was a mother going to college for the first time. I took a journalism class and then another. Soon it was my major. I was winning awards and becoming well-published. One morning, my mother called, raging that I embarrassed her. Since I hadn't seen her in six months, her charges shocked me. Turned out, a customer came in, saw her last name on her name tag and asked if we were related. The customer then told her how proud she must be because of the awards I'd won. She was embarrassed because she did not know. She demanded and got copies of my articles. She never said another word about them. I graduated college and slowly quit writing. I had daughters to support and writing didn't pay enough. Or so I told myself.

Joanna Russ

"This book is written in blood.  Is it written entirely in blood?  No, some of it is written in tears.  Are the blood and tears all mine?  Yes, they have been in the past. but the future is a different matter. ~ Joanna Russ
"This book is written in blood. Is it written entirely in blood? No, some of it is written in tears. Are the blood and tears all mine? Yes, they have been in the past. but the future is a different matter. ~ Joanna Russ
How to Suppress Women's Writing
How to Suppress Women's Writing

"She didn't write it. She wrote it but she shouldn't have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. She wrote it but she had help. She wrote it but she's an anomaly. She wrote it BUT..."

How to Suppress Women's Writing walks us through the many ways women's writing has been suppressed and helps us find our voices for the future.


After Mom died, I found the envelope I'd sent with my articles. It was buried in a closet, unopened. But there'd been one more event in the last months of her life when she knew she was dying. I came to visit and she handed me a short story. One she'd wrote. One she'd wanted to write since she was a teenager. It was good. I told her that. To my regret, I gave the story back to her. I couldn't find it after her death.

What I did find were letters from her mother, criticizing her just like she criticized me. Reading them, I could see with a clarity I did not have before. The pain she inflicted on me was pain she still carried within her. I wondered how far back the pain went. I'll never know.

That was the secret. The one I did not know. The one that became crystal clear when I let it. It brings tears whenever I think about it, including right now. All the lost years, the lost ideas, the times I struggled with "writer's block." But it wasn't writer's block. It was pain and a need to block the pain.

After I acknowledged the pain and knew the secret, I began writing again, being published and even founded Moondance, the first women's ezine to hit the Net. Occasionally, that old enemy comes wiggling back, but I'm prepared now. I acknowledge its roots, grieve the issues that arise and then sit down to write. My mother and grandmother are two among millions of women whose voices are missing over the centuries. I cannot carry that legacy forward, so I envision my voice ringing clear, filling the void left by their painful silence. That I can speak when they were forbidden brings a pride that allows the words to flow.

So if you're struggling with writer's block, you might have a secret you need to find. Or perhaps you just need to vent in writing before settling down to the current project. Either way, your heart is the key. Use it to unlock the flow of the great ideas that thrive inside.

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© 2010 Loretta Kemsley


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    • sweetguide profile image


      7 years ago from River side

      Very informative piece and well written too. Excellent. Bless you

    • htodd profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks for the great post..Nice

    • astigpinoy16 profile image


      8 years ago from Philippines

      Very good hub, I enjoy reading it, and good advice.

    • angelenastanford profile image


      8 years ago from Riverview, FL

      Wow, I never even thought about half of the things you say in here. Great work and keep it up.


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