3 Steps for Writers to Turn Blah Blocks Into Building Blocks

In 1916, a man named Joe Gould came to New York City. He slept in doorways, hung out in diners, and took a shower every now and then. He always wore the same garments. If someone gave him new clothes, he would throw the old ones out. You wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at him, but he came from a long line of wealthy Harvard graduates.

Gould had been working on a book for many years, a book he called “An Oral History.” He told everyone he could about the project and how he had already written millions of words for it. “In time to come,” he declared, “people may read Gould’s Oral History to see what went wrong with us, the way we read Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’ to see what went wrong with the Romans.” Aristocrats funded his meals after hearing him speak, predicting that he would one day become a famous author.

It’s been more than a century, and very few people know Gould’s story. So, what happened?

“Writer’s block is a phony, made up BS excuse for not doing your work.” — Jerry Seinfeld

Much of our culture today mirrors Seinfeld’s words. We write off writer’s block as a lack of motivation to write — or worse, as laziness. As a result, many authors take pride in publicly denouncing the condition. The rest of us are left in the dust.

But let’s take a step back. What even is writer’s block? Wikipedia says it is when “an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown.” We don’t know what to write about, so we don’t write at all.

Somehow, Wikipedia doesn’t do my feelings justice. I have revisions for my manuscript due in two weeks. I know that I am perfectly capable of finishing it in time. I have every single chapter outlined. Yet, I am currently sitting and writing an article to you about how I can’t write. I haven’t lost my ability to produce new work as the classic definition suggests. I just feel “blah” about book-writing.

Wikipedia doesn’t do my feelings justice, because I’m not experiencing writer’s block. I’m experiencing a “blah” block.

A blah block is having an urgent deadline coming up but not having the motivation to write. It’s knowing exactly what you want to say, but not being able to convince your brain to get the words out. It’s finding no word to describe your creative struggle other than “blah.”

The good news for you is that I have experienced dozens of these blocks in the last few months as I’ve worked my way through writing my first book. And coming out of them, they have helped me form the foundation for much stronger writing. To turn our blah blocks into building blocks, we need to follow the three R’s: refuel, reflect, and rewire.

Refuel

To be productive, you need to be unproductive sometimes.

When you can’t convince yourself to keep creating, it means your brain needs a break. Indulge it. This means physically stepping away from your workspace and doing something that is not writing-related. To be effective, the words “wasting time” can’t cross your mind. Instead, treat it as a necessary way to supercharge your writing. Many studies have shown that idle time is when your brain is at its most creative.

Some suggestions:

  • Take a walk while listening to a podcast.
  • Read a book (the more different from your current work, the better).
  • Learn a quick new skill (juggling is known to be awesome for your brain and it’s also fun).
  • Watch a movie.
  • Take a shower.
  • Close your eyes and listen to music. I particularly like this one of a coffee shop on a rainy day with lo-fi music.

Reflect

In Indistractable, author Nir Eyal talks about the root of distraction. We are surrounded by external triggers — things outside of us that are the sources of our distraction (for example, our phones). But why do we seek distraction?

This is where internal triggers come in. Internal triggers are our fears and insecurities — they cause us to seek external triggers of distraction. My theory is that blah blocks work in a similar way. Our brain is trying to escape writing, and we have to reflect on why. Ask yourself: why am I letting myself not continue writing?

When I did this exercise, I realized it was because I am scared. Your internal trigger is likely different — it could be boredom or fear. Whatever it is, dig deeper. Ask yourself why repeatedly. Why am I bored? Why am I scared? Why am I insecure?

For me, it’s because I am 19-years-old and writing my first book. Once it’s published, it’ll be out in the world with my name on it forever. It feels like getting a tattoo. How can I be sure I won’t regret it when I’m ninety and my body is entirely different?

Whatever your internal trigger is, write it down. This is your building block.

Rewire

Often, we try to fix writer’s block through brute force. If I stare at the page long enough, words will have to come out eventually. But things didn’t work the last time you sat down to write for a reason. Rewiring is when we seek change. We set the building blocks from reflection down. They will form the foundation of our work, so we can begin creating again.

Go back to your internal triggers. How can you combat them? Boredom may require a different project while insecurity requires taking the pressure off your first draft. Once you have a plan, let the people close to you know. They can hold you accountable and support you.

Along with these smaller changes, find ways to rewire your environment. During the pandemic, I’ve sought new environments by writing in a car instead of my home. When I begin feeling blah, I can drive to a new place and soak in a new environment. Wires come in all shapes and sizes.

Joe Gould died at the age of sixty-eight. His friends began looking for his manuscript, hoping to uncover the secrets of his work. Several days later, they found it: a poem, a fragment of an essay, and a few letters. The vision Gould had for his book never manifested. He was the victim of a life-long blah block.

His story is now one people lament when they think of creative blocks. But by nature of reading this, you still have a lifetime to create the idea on your mind. Gould’s problem lay in denying his feeling of blah. Your solution can lay in embracing it.

Let’s Stay In Touch

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Vedika Dayal

Vedika Dayal

Author of “Think Outside the Odds” & student at UC Berkeley. Thinking about empowering the underdog and how we can all live more intentional, innovative lives.