My writer's block is about to get me fired.
July 5, 2011 7:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm worried my writer's block is about to get me fired.

I recently landed the best job I've ever had in my life. Now I'm about to lose it because I can't seem to commit words to a page.

So I'm a journalist. I freelanced for three and half years, clawed my way into a staff writer position at a small newspaper, and then this spring, thanks to a hot streak of sensationally good articles and a miraculously timed job opening, secured a staff gig at a big-time glossy magazine. Widest circulating publication I've ever written for. Most respected one, too. It's my dream job, exactly what I've been working toward all these years. I'm perfect for it.

Except I'm fucking it up.

So far for the magazine, I've written two features and a smattering of short arts items. Every single one had to be dragged out of me. Especially the features. Those sent me into a realm of panic I thought I had left behind in college: harrowing all-nighters spent chain smoking, trying not to cry, and only occasionally typing. I have never, ever struggled this badly at the keyboard. It's terrifying.

And here's the thing: Those features? Mostly fluff pieces. Profiles. Moderate length. Stuff I routinely banged out as a freelancer. Now I'm on the hook for my third feature--it's actually due tomorrow--and I am feeling that hellish freak out coming on again. I spent all day today in my cube NOT writing. Just panicking. And telling myself I would write the article tonight, in the calm of my own bedroom. (I hope to god this will happen.) And the worst part is, I thought my nerves would work themselves out after a few months on the job. But again. THIS IS MY THIRD FEATURE! I'm starting to get that sinking feeling that my writing powers have finally hit their expiration date. And that they're not coming back.

Also, I think my boss/coworkers are starting to notice. My first two features were only tepidly received, and I'm starting to sense that there's some silent questioning of my skills. Which of course completely amplifies my insecurity and makes me worry about my job security. I have a performance review this week, and I'm certain it's going to come up.

I realize this is classic fear of success/failure. And perfectionism. The old finally-get-the-big-break-and-blow-it.

So, AskMe, I need a pep talk. Especially from those of you who write for a living. I know there's a ton of questions on here about term paper freak outs--and believe me, I don't envy our grad school friends out there banging out research projects. But I want to hear from those folks who put themselves under the gun as a career. Anyone out there make the leap from freelance to staff and suddenly feel the well run dry?

Tell me your heroic stories of battling back writer's block! Or your horror stories of getting fired for drawing a giant blank.

(I guess I'd prefer the first. But I may need to wallow in the second.)

Thanks in advance. And cast those creative spells my way!
posted by sureshot to Work & Money (40 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of sitting down to start the feature, how about setting a timer for 15 minutes to write about something else? I keep a document going and just ramble on for a few sentences about whatever flits into my mind. Mostly it's about chores and beverages, but this inconsequential diary allows me to write without pressure for as a warm up exercise.

I'm a freelance writer, not a staff writer, but I just turned in my piece of the day--that's how I know this technique works for me. Good luck.
posted by dragonplayer at 7:14 PM on July 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

For as a warm up exercise, um yeah. My inner editor needs a tuneup!
posted by dragonplayer at 7:15 PM on July 5, 2011

You can do this, and you're GOING to do this, not just for yourself, but for every freelancer trying to claw their way into a real job with benefits.

Sorry, that's a plea, not a pep talk.

When my writing's blocked, it's usually because I did a crappy job with the reporting. How are your notes? Do you have your first sentence? When I get that first sentence ... and sometimes it takes blood ... I'm good to go.

I feel for you. Feel free to memail me for editing or a chat or if you don't have a writer friend handy to thrash this out verbally. Sometimes I need to TELL the story before I can write the story.

posted by cyndigo at 7:16 PM on July 5, 2011 [6 favorites]

Tell yourself it doesn't matter. Tell yourself that you're writing it for fun. Write it well, but proceed as if it's one of 1,000 features you've already done, with thousands more that you'll do once you turn this one in. Snap a rubberband on your wrist every time even a hint of thoughts about your boss, your performance review, etc. come into your mind. Those things DO NOT MATTER (tonight). All that matters is how cool your topic is, and how much fun it is to think of clever turns of phrase, and and how great you are at this. ACT AS IF. You're MONEY, baby. You've got this!

If it helps, tell yourself you'll spend 5 minutes working on the most basic outline, then you'll take a break. Then 5 minutes putting the quotes in the right order. Then 5 minutes coming up with your opening sentence. Then 5 minutes for the anecdote about the black market for cheese graters in Timbuktu (or what have you).
posted by mauvest at 7:17 PM on July 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Cyndigo, you are my new best friend. Thanks for the confidence.

(And yes, my reporting was rather lazy. BUT. It's another puffy profile piece, Talk of the Towns-ish. So I won't be held to the flames for lack of facts.)

I can do this. I can do this. I can do this....
posted by sureshot at 7:22 PM on July 5, 2011

Yeah, I'm definitely with the timed approach. Think of the shortest amount of time you can work. Maybe it's 30 minutes. Maybe it's 20. Maybe it's 10. Probably it's just 2. Then set a timer and work for that period of time, and only that period of time. Take a break, get some tea, watch a few minutes of Seinfeld, whatever. Do it again. And again. Short stabs. Don't think of the big picture 'till it's done.

And by the way, this happens to EVERYONE! Once you're at the top, it's hard to keep clawing. So pick something that's even MORE your dream. An award, maybe? A higher position? That look on your boss's face when you know you nailed it? Never let yourself achieve your "dream" -- always keep moving up! The target is what keeps it interesting.

You can totally do this! :)
posted by caoimhe at 7:23 PM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, one more thing -- read something you LOVE. If you're writing a Talk of the Town kind of thing, read some awesome Talk of the Towns, or other articles you admire. I know that always revs me up and gives me good writing ideas . . .
posted by caoimhe at 7:24 PM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Go back to the basics. First off, the old saw, "don't get it right, just get it written." Think of this like combat, go into auto-pilot and rely on basic training.

Try this





Start filling under each with the quotes you want to use. Work on any section as it comes to you. Pretty soon you are to have a pretty good piece. Don't edit on the fly, save often, and dont get caught up doing a word count every few minutes, just write. Then take a break for a few minutes, and come back and play with it. Switch paragraphs back and forth to make it flow better.

It's not going to be as hard as you thought.
posted by timsteil at 7:25 PM on July 5, 2011 [11 favorites]

This is actually how I write all the time:

Do you have a stopwatch? You probably do, on your smartphone, and if not there are free programs.

Start the stopwatch. Start typing. Doesn't have to be good, but just start. When you see the numbers flying, I bet you will. When it gets to ten minutes, stop. Take a ten minute break. You don't have to think about writing at all during the break- in fact, you're not allowed to.

When the break is up, start the watch again, and write for another ten minutes. Repeat until you're done.

(I realize now that several people have already suggested this. But it works. It really does.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:26 PM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you're caving under the pressure of what you see as being a Big, Glossy Magazine You Can't Possibly Really Write For. Drop that mindset. Ignore the magazine and it's glossy paper and big readership. Instead, write your fluffy feature for the publication that got you this gig in the first place. You'll feel less pressure.

You can totally do this because you've done it before, and done it well - that's how you got here, remember?
posted by DarlingBri at 7:32 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is all excellent advice! Go, go, go! You can do it!!!
posted by mothershock at 7:32 PM on July 5, 2011

Writer here. Trying to force yourself through this is only making your resistance stronger. Part of you wants to write and part of you does not want to write. Take some quiet time and unconditionally give love to both of these aspects of yourself. Stop beating up on the part of you that is "fucking things up." Your disapproval of that part is causing it to dig its heels in and say "You can't make me!" So drop the disapproval and replace it with love and understanding -- love for the person who is scared that they're screwing up, love for the procrastinator, love for the one who wants to get things done. Also -- allow yourself not to write. Allow it unconditionally. Then see what happens.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:43 PM on July 5, 2011 [17 favorites]

Response by poster: You guys are the fucking best. I'm opening up the word doc right now. Stay tuned! Ipromsie to give an update after I file this tomorrow.
posted by sureshot at 7:48 PM on July 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

The only advice I can offer is that you need to write through it. If you've got something crappy down, it may be fixable. If not, write some more. Let it be nonsense, let it be bad. even. The enemy of good writing isn't bad writing; it's not writing. At some point, you'll get back into fighting shape again, and be able to knock this shit out.
posted by Gilbert at 7:48 PM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some people are motivated by framing their work in catastrophic terms, but many are completely paralyzed. Reality check: is your writer's block today actually going to get you fired imminently? If not, is there something more realistic you could say to yourself to take some of the pressure off? Or better still, can you refocus to the topic you're supposed to be writing about? Because I think if you can bang out 522 words about how much you suck at writing, you aren't actually losing your writing skills.

Also I often just write any goddamn sentence I can about the topic at hand and put in my headers or high points, so that I'm not up against a snow-white empty page.
posted by gingerest at 7:49 PM on July 5, 2011

I spent last summer feeling like this. Panic attacks so I couldn't do $MAJOR_PROJECT. It freaking sucks. BUT IT IS CONQUERABLE.

Start somewhere in the middle. Put any old crappy words on the page for right now, and worry about stuff like flow and continuity later. Just get some words down. The one thing that makes the anxiety go away is to start working.

Once you're rolling, inertia can edge you into your groove and you will totally rock it. I promise.

You can do this thing. You've been a freelancer! You can turn stuff in on deadline, it's what makes you a professional. Go on and get this thing done.

(And then, for next tim, take up running to sweat the crazy out before this happens next time. And give up caffeine. It helps more than I can even describe.)
posted by Andrhia at 7:49 PM on July 5, 2011

(Wow, that was some bad editing on that last line there. But you still know what I mean.)
posted by Andrhia at 7:50 PM on July 5, 2011

Write or Die on kamikaze mode. I wrote the first 20k of my last two novels in WoD. It's like a game, certainly you can beat this simple game. All you have to do is write one word every ten seconds or so. Every ten seconds!

WoD murders the perfectionism dead because there's not time to rearrange three words for an hour when they're going to be deleted in 11 seconds. First draft in WoD. Edit in word processor of your choice.

You can do it. They're just words. Beat them into submission like only you can do because you're a motherfucking writer, yo!
posted by headspace at 7:50 PM on July 5, 2011 [11 favorites]

Just going out on a limb here, I don't know what kind of writer you are, or how you think when you're on a roll. That said: You landed your dream job because the magazine's editors loved how you wrote to your audience. You may be struggling now because you think of these editors as your new audience. That's scary, and probably inaccurate. Maybe it would help if you prodded yourself to write to the same audience that got you on a roll in the first place.

And in the event that what I just wrote is absolutely unhelpful in your case, here's the pep talk portion of my comment: "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word."
(Margaret Atwood)

OK, that maybe wasn't very peppy. I guess that was just my second-hand way of encouraging you to stop trying to live up to your dream job and start living up to the well-honed talents that got you there.
posted by YamwotIam at 7:51 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also? You can revise crap. You can't revise nothing. Now get in there and write some crap!
posted by headspace at 7:51 PM on July 5, 2011 [8 favorites]

Another vote for "do what ever it takes to shut up the inner editor nattering inside your head and just get things down". Don't edit as you write--just write. You can edit later. We all know editing is (usually) 100 x easier than writing. timsteil has great concrete advice. When I had to blog like a mofo a couple months back, I found that quotes + location details were what really gave me something to work with. If you get stuck on the lead, then skip it. Sometimes it comes right away, and sometimes it's the last thing.

Lastly, when I'm really, really, REALLY stuck and there's a deadline fast approaching, I break out a similar time drill to mauvest and drjimmy11. I have to at *least* get the first paragraph done before I stop typing, and so forth.

Just don't give up! You can do it!
posted by smirkette at 7:52 PM on July 5, 2011

When I'm feeling frozen by needing to get what I'm writing written well, it helps me to let go and insert (marked) filler when I'm not sure what to say in order to keep my writing moving. I'll write things like "This technique lets me [keep the flow of writing going], and thus..." when I'm not sure if I'm phrasing the bracketed part well, or even "Placeholders can help by [BENEFITS]," when I'm more stuck.

I know that getting a rough draft, good or not, out onto the screen is the way to start, but I have trouble letting things go without some sort of annotation like that. I find that knowing the bracketed text can be no good helps me quiet my inner perfectionist voices and keep writing. Once I have something written I can go back and look at the bracketed sections. Often, [rough phrases or sentences] I wrote just to get the vague idea out end up being pretty good and needing minimal revising, or later writing will help give me ideas for what the [PLACEHOLDERS] should be.
posted by JiBB at 8:22 PM on July 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

I suffered my writer's block in an academic context, not as a professional writer, but the techniques mentioned by all the MeFites here helped me a lot (writing for short intervals, using placeholders, adopting the "plan to write crap and revise it later" approach).

Another thing that sometimes helped break the mental log jam was to switch out of the word processor and start writing an email to a friend: "Hey friend, I'm sitting here stuck on how to start my next paragraph. I need to explain how [insert colloquial explanation of topic] . . ." I usually wouldn't get more than two or three sentences into it before copying the unfinished email into my word processor, deleting the "Hey friend, I'm stuck" part, and tweaking the wording of the colloquial explanation to make it suitable for academic writing.
posted by Orinda at 8:37 PM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing Write or Die.

Nthing the "Skip and come back to this sentence later" procedure.

Matter of fact, Nthing everything here. This is all amazing advice!

As a full-time freelance writer, I struggle with writer's block in all of its various and cold manifestations. Living pen to mouth, in a sense, I guess I've gotten familiar with the symptoms.

I get way up in my head. I second guess every comma splice. Every analogy is raked through some internal, self-loathing coalbed. "My phrasing is awkward." I say to myself. "The economy of this prose is stilted." You better believe I'm doing all of this right now, in fact, as I write this response.

I have a quote, taped to the wall overlooking my desk, designed to jar me out of these fairly common stupors: "Writer's Block is a bourgeois conceit. Just get to work." The quote comes from John Darnielle of Mountain Goats fame. And even though it typically provides me with a firm enough kick in the pants to get going, I still find ways to short circuit my motivation and fall into the old traps.

I think I've discovered that writer's block, at least for me, is kind of an existential hiccup. It isn't about the assignment so much as it is about me. I always end up talking myself through it, though. When it comes down to it, I guess, everyone uses their own peculiar strategies to get through it.

So. Try all of these different methods out. Create some sort of bespoke combination of them to get what you need to, on paper, on time. I think everyone here knows that you can. We're rooting for you!
posted by shiggins at 8:45 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey sureshot? They wouldn't have hired you to work at big, glossy magazine if you didn't deserve a job at big, glossy magazine. You belong there. You're not an impostor. You're a good writer. And you can do it!
posted by Addlepated at 9:19 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

So it doesn't address writer's block specifically but this blog post by Reihan Salam has really helped me think better about my own procrastination.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 9:21 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing the 'timer' approach. Also nthing the "tomorrow it's under the puppy" mindset. As big and scary and important as it is to you, it's just one of a million articles your editors have gone through, and it's something someone's going to idly read while they're on the toilet or waiting for the bus. No one, except maybe you, is going to remember a word of it in six months.

One thing you might try is this: Grab another similar puff piece article that's about the same length. Rewrite it, sentence by sentence, so that it's about what you're writing about instead. Do rewrite every sentence, but you at least have a 'scaffolding' you're following.

and Nthing the "YOU CAN DO IT". You will do it. One of the suggestions on this page, not mine per se, but one of the tricks suggested here will work.
posted by The otter lady at 9:23 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, stop refreshing this page. Go do it. You will.
posted by Sebmojo at 10:09 PM on July 5, 2011

When you get through this hurdle (and you will, partially with the amazing advice you've already received here!) get Anne LaMott's book Bird by Bird. It's the best book on writing ever.

And there's a chapter on that voice inside you that keeps telling you you're not good enough - she calls it KFCKed radio. And she tells you how she turns it off. Look it up...seriously.

And for good measure: YOU CAN DO THIS! MEFI IS WITH YOU! :-)
posted by guster4lovers at 10:30 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

For me, when I was freelancing, research + plan = piece. Times when I struggled were when I didn't know where I wanted to go or didn't have the resources to get there.

In addition to a simple plan such as:

1. Intro
2. Focus on X
3. Talk about how X compares to Y.
4. Conclusion

I would often ask myself what's the through-line here? or what's the angle?. Every piece I wrote had an angle, so I was trying to _persuade_ the reader of something. Sometimes it was a sophisticated argument, sometimes it was simple, even a little trite. But I liked to have a direction for the piece that I could sum up in a sentence. E.g "People often associate trenchcoats with flashers, but a wealth of texts show trenchcoats as a womb stand-in"; or "Such-and-such writer's experiences as an emergency ward nurse have shaped his writing, giving his Regency romances a sense of pathos and urgency unique in the field. The novels become a kind of case history for the sick psyche."

Great, now I know where I want to go. If the piece was giving me trouble, I would write up a plan, and see if I had the resources in terms of research/quotes etc to get there. This doesn't preclude researching beforehand. If I didn't, I would do more research, if I did, I would start writing my numbered system. Say, I have to write 1. (my intro) before I can get up for tea. After I do that, I can have a break, then 2. and then dinner, and then 3. and so on.

The other thing is dude, no one - not even susan orlean - can write gold all the time. We are polishers and weavers, brightening ideas and personalities, and teasing together strands to make an interesting whole. We're not alchemists, turning lead into gold.

Most work by most writers most of the time is average. That's what average means. Few editors - if any - will care if not every piece is J'accuse. They care if you miss a deadline, or don't meet the brief. Don't let the phrase "workman-like" sound like an insult; it's a compliment. Workmanlike means Model-T Ford, the hospital guerney, the shaker furntiture. Go, be the workman, my friend, there's no shame in it. :)
posted by smoke at 12:53 AM on July 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

for artists, the trick is just to sit down with a ream of paper (500 sheets) and just draw...draw something on each page, don't stop until you're drawn something on every page. now then, interesting fact: on one of those pages will be an elephant. it's like totally impossible to NOT draw an elephant.
sooo...write about elephants. everybody likes them. make it work.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:18 AM on July 6, 2011

How can you describe a room you've never been in? As writers we need to write about the nuances of the room before we can even see the room. That text will probably never see the light of day, but it's how we open our eyes so we can write what needs to be written. Take comfort in that. Get used to having completely different versions. Most will be junked, but they're just you getting a feel for the room. Eventually you'll know what feels right and that's what you should develop into a piece. As a gift to yourself you even have tons of material to pull from with all the other versions.
posted by jwells at 6:04 AM on July 6, 2011

This advice, c/o Ira Glass, is for your next piece. It's not concrete stopwatchy stuff, but a way of overcoming your sense that "the well is dry".

tl;dr: write every day, because most of what everybody produces is crap at first. This reorientation away from the idea of 'inspiration'--AKA, "the well"--got me through my dissertation in one year, after two years of floundering.

"To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it's usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it...In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can't tell if it's going to be good until you're really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.

"It kind of gives you hope. If you do creative work, there's a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired."
posted by Beardman at 6:51 AM on July 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

(And yes, my reporting was rather lazy. BUT. It's another puffy profile piece, Talk of the Towns-ish. So I won't be held to the flames for lack of facts.)

Another possibility: You're holding yourself to the flames. You haven't done the in-depth preparation for this like you have for everything else you've written and you know it and you're unfocused for lack of information and for not doing a thorough job on reporting (even when you don't need much). So maybe get far more from your sources than you need for the little puff piece. That'll give you the familiar feeling that you're prepared to write. Crank out the puff and then see what you can do with the rest of the good, solid reporting you've got.
posted by bryon at 9:17 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

IANAW (writer), but you might want to check out a copy of The Now Habit. It addresses some of the fear of failure that is holding you back, along with many, many suggestions for how to get past it and start happily producing.
posted by squasher at 11:45 AM on July 6, 2011

I do have the same problem !
After reading all these answers , I got an idea : maybe that's why it is so hard for me , too ?
When I am working on my own/freelance , it is all right that lots of work and ideas will be left out later . It is a normal path that will lead to the beautiful result .

But "at work" , "on my employer time" , I feel that I can not "waste time" doing "extra work" -- I guess I am suddenly trying to know everything already and produce creative work that is "just right" at first attempt .

I am getting suddenly aware of every minute of my activity , surely I am taking too much time ...

I am ashamed to do a preparation , research ... If I am as good as I am supposed to be , I would do such a fluff work at once , right ?
Only without all this research , mistakes , real art can not be born !

I guess I am not letting myself to work naturally. I am trying to produce at once , complete and ready . Only it does not work this way . It just stop .
posted by Oli D. at 1:19 AM on July 7, 2011

Response by poster: My god, the kindness of the Green!

Original poster here. Thank you, writers! I'm filing my puffy, poorly researched, and somewhat stilted piece today (somewhat blew the deadline, but it's all good), and then it will be out of my life forever...or at least until my editor asks for a re-write (gulp).

Regardless, I'm truly touched by the support here. I hope other panicky freelancers find this thread in the future. Makes me think we should form some sort of writers block support group.

If anyone out there ever wants to commiserate over existential paralysis, harrowing deadlines, or the writer's life, don't hesitate to memail me.

You guys rock!
posted by sureshot at 10:15 AM on July 7, 2011

As a former musician, when I wanted to come up with new music, I visualized myself playing a totally great song in front of people, listen to the song, and then I would just learn (for the first time) that song that I heard. Oftentimes just a few bars or chords would be enough to get me going and inspired.

Would this work for/translate into writing words (or even ideas in general) as opposed to sound? I don't know, but maybe just imagine yourself sitting at your cubicle--no, no, imagine someone picking up your magazine and reading the best article about whateveritisyouwriteabout they've ever read--then just write that article.

There's a lot of disconnect between visualization and reality, but if you're actually good at what you do maybe it's not entirely as "(1) idea (2) ??? (3) profit!" as it might sound.
posted by resurrexit at 2:38 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bravo, sureshot.
posted by mauvest at 9:11 PM on July 8, 2011

Well done! Did you use all the techniques offered here? I'm not a full time writer but I write content for web pages - often on topics I really know nothing about and in voices in which I don't normally write (I'm kind of invisible: I can be a HEY hire me, I'm GEEERRRRRREAT motivational speaker or I can provide full and detailed information on the wide range of words I can create about financial advisers) - being invisible doesn't help, as I'm representing the web designer I'm working for too, so could annoy both him and the client!

Anyway, I use the "sit the heck down and type for an hour" one and it does work.

I'm up for joining the writers' block MeFi support group, though!
posted by LyzzyBee at 12:32 AM on July 9, 2011

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