Emotional Roadblocks and Writing

We talk about a lot of things on Pub Crawl – writing craft, the submission process, the editorial process, the industry, and lots of stuff in between. We like to encourage writing by hopefully imparting insight and advice. Lots of people do; bloggers, writers, editors, agents. And at one time or another, you’ve likely seen this advice: Write Every Day. There are no excuses. Do it or you’ll never get better. Practice makes perfect – so practice every single day.

But for many of us, this advice can actually be detrimental to the process because we are going through a different kind of process: Healing. And sometimes, healing means not writing every day, or at all, for a long time. And the biggest key to this is understanding that it’s okay. That your pace may different. That even your writing routine may change. This does not make you less of a writer, nor does it mean you won’t still improve.

Full disclosure: I lost my father in March of this year. I say this not to garner sympathy, but to give some context. It was shocking in many ways, and completely unsurprising in others. But the thing I didn’t expect? How grief really felt, and still feels. How it comes out at strange times, making the rest of your day difficult to get through. It’s a daily struggle, and I am only just beginning to understand that it will be for a long time yet.

The worst of it was, I lost my will to write. For many years, I posted poetry and flash fiction on my blog a couple of times a month. In addition, I did write nearly every day, or revised finished projects, or dashed off a few lines here, a few lines there. A random scene. A conversation between characters. For a long time, I was lucky enough to be full of inspiration.

After March, I still tried to write. But I was dissatisfied with the words, with the content. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure who I was as a writer. What did I even enjoy writing? What stories did I have to tell? Everything was colored by this new way I viewed the world, however slight the difference might have been. I would begin a story, short or long, and see it through to 5,000 words before deciding I wasn’t into it. I’d sit down to dash off a line here, a line there, and end up staring at a blank screen instead.

I read advice that told me to keep writing, to keep doing, to keep practicing OR ELSE. So over and over again I attempted it, and more and more the anxiety over that command made it impossible. And you know what? It wasn’t until I finally allowed myself a break, some time away from the page to actually breathe, that writing finally started to be of interest again several months later. Now, I’m using NaNoWriMo to encourage that interest – but I’m not punishing myself when I don’t hit the word count.

This is not to say I am not still struggling. Every word is harder to write than it used to be, because I’m fighting to understand who I am now versus who I was then. This is the same for those struggling with depression, or even with physical illness. Sometimes the idea that a true writer is one who writes every day, despite the struggle, despite the emotional hardship, is more detrimental to a struggling writer than the idea that we are allowed some time off, or we are allowed to adhere to a schedule that works for us – even if it means not writing daily. We are allowed to back away for a little while, to regroup, to think, to fight.

There is only one “right” way to write, and that is whichever way empowers you as an individual. If the idea of writing is giving you anxiety, remember that it’s okay to take a break if you need one. Writing isn’t going anywhere – it’ll still be there when you’re ready.

I’m certain I’m not alone in this – if you’ve found a way to write through emotional hardships, tell me about it! I’d love to know what you’ve done, or are doing, to find writing in your life again.


22 Responses to Emotional Roadblocks and Writing

  1. PK Hrezo Nov 11 2015 at 7:25 am #

    I’m sorry for your loss, Hannah. We lost my FIL last December so I have a good idea how you feel.
    Your words are important for so many writers to read. I am a writer thru and thru but I take long breaks sometimes. These breaks help me refill my creative well. That doesn’t mean I don’t dream up and jot down new story ideas inbetween, but it means I’ve learned every writer must carve their own path.
    The upside to writing is that it’s therapeutic and can help us deal with grief. Putting pressure on ourselves does not. If I’m not feeling the groove during a writing session I simply stop.
    You will find it again. Undoubtedly. I do each time and it’s blissful.

    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 9:50 am #

      I am sorry for yours as well.

      I agree writing can be cathartic, but for some (like me) it’s not ALWAYS cathartic – there’s a middle ground that I’m just now finding, but I definitely wish someone had said it was okay to search for that for a while. Which is what I’m here to do now!

      Glad to hear you’ve found some good ways to cope with your writing and your loss. It’s so, so important.

  2. JJ Nov 11 2015 at 8:10 am #

    Leigh Bardugo once said that writing is not therapy; therapy is therapy.

    Although I have been fortunate enough not to have dealt with grief, I suffer from bipolar disorder. While I am someone who is organized and systematic and pretty good with self-discipline, I know when I Can and when I Cannot. It is something I have grown to understand, something I have had to learn about myself ever since I got my diagnosis when I was sixteen.

    Grief, like mental illness, is not a linear progression toward healing. You have good days. You have bad ones. And that’s okay. Learning to be kind yourself is it’s own form of healing, and sometimes the hardest thing to do. For 18 months I could not write. It has not been a stable past two years for me, in terms of my disorder. I cannot write when I am depressed, but neither can I write when I am manic. (I wish that pernicious myth that manic people are CREATIVELY PRODUCTIVE in that state would just DIE. As another writer friend with bipolar disorder said, “I’m super prolific if you want 65 laminated be-glittered holiday book ornaments. Oh, you wanted my writing? …soz.”) I can only write when I’m stable. Finding that point of stability varies day to day. Some days I can fight for it. Other days I am blessed with it. Still others I am a spinning top about to topple out of control.

    Like our writing, living with grief is a work in progress.


    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 9:55 am #

      JJ, I’m really glad you mentioned your struggle with bipolar because I think it’s a poorly understood disorder from the outside. I have watched family members struggle with it my entire life, and I can’t imagine the sheer strength of will it takes find a good mental space to write despite those depressive and manic stages.

      Also, your friend’s quote is amazing. Love it.


  3. Katie Nov 11 2015 at 8:29 am #

    I’m so sorry to hear about your father.

    And thank you for this post. Very much. I’ve always hated the “write every day” advice, just like the line “if you’re a writer, you can’t stop yourself from writing” really bothers me. The truth is, everybody’s experience is different.

    I tend to be the type of person who plots copiously. I come up with story after story, or a cool setting, or a character that I love, but forcing myself to sit down and write it all can be really difficult. I’m a young single mom, working full time and caring for my son and my home all by myself. And the unhappy truth is that it is just exhausting. I don’t get many breaks, and when I do there are plenty of days when I am too brain dead to actually do anything creatively productive. Some nights I just need to mindlessly scroll through my Tumblr dash and unwind.

    I’ve had to repeatedly remind myself that just because I’m not writing everyday, or even every week, doesn’t make me any less of a writer. One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is to figure out how to prioritize my well being, and take care of myself first and foremost.

    I hope you continue to rediscover yourself and work toward a place where you’re able to keep moving forward.

    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 9:59 am #

      This: “One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is to figure out how to prioritize my well being, and take care of myself first and foremost.”

      You are spot on. I think the problem with the Write Every day advice is that it ignores a very important aspect of writing, and that is taking care of yourself. I’m glad you have come to understand this, because it makes a huge difference.

  4. Elizabeth Torphy Nov 11 2015 at 9:53 am #

    When you said, “Writing isn’t going anywhere – it’ll still be there when you’re ready,” that is the key. I, too, read all the advice on keep going. But keep going shouldn’t be a burden or some marker…it should be a push. If it is holding you back, then a break is good. When I find myself at those points, I read. I break from the pressure and sit back as an observer. That always clears my mind and I find my energy renewed. I loved your honesty and openness. I am sorry for your loss. My own father has been gone for almost 10 years, and I still have days that hit my exactly as you described. Grief is just a mother journey of your life that enriches you in ways you never thought possible. Seeing the world differently is par for the course…you don’t have to apologize to anyone, and most of all to yourself. Writing will always be there…when you are ready.

    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 10:03 am #

      Thanks so much for your comment. I don’t think we really understand, before grief, how different the world is going to look once we’ve felt it. And that’s okay, though it’s painful. Because when you *are* ready, you have new stories to tell. And that’s never a bad thing.

  5. Mandy Nov 11 2015 at 10:41 am #

    THANK YOU for this post. I think the well-intentioned advice (admonishment?) that we must write daily does a disservice to writers whether they are working through grief or not. It places an inordinate amount of pressure on writers who then feel guilty for not being as ‘committed’ as other writers. I wrote a few books without a daily practice, the last of which just debuted from Albert Whitman & Co. on September 1. There are days I write for 9 hours. There are long stretches where I cannot bring myself to write because of ongoing depression and life in general. For writers who follow a lot of social media, you’ll see posts like “I fit in 10 minutes of writing waiting for Joey to finish soccer practice,” or “I can’t function if I don’t write three hours everyday beginning at 5 a.m.” Kudos to all writers who figure out a system that works for them. But, let’s show some compassion for ourselves when we don’t fit those ideals. (Special thanks to JJ for commenting about her struggle with bipolar disorder.)

    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 11:19 am #

      First, congrats on your book! I agree, though – kudos to all of those who can get up at 5 am and write every day – but we cannot all be that writer, and that’s totally normal, regardless.

      And love this: let’s show some compassion for ourselves when we don’t fit those ideals.

  6. Linden Nov 11 2015 at 11:02 am #

    I am so thankful that you wrote this. I have gone through such long periods of being frozen, usually related to a major loss. When my good friend was killed, for a whole year I couldn’t bring myself to leave my family to go out to my studio to write. I recently left a several-decades long job that I loved in order to dedicate myself to my writing…and have written almost nothing. I had no idea that I would need to grieve leaving that profession. I feel that being sensitive to the world is part of the double-edged sword of being a writer. We all have our own path, and I appreciate hearing about yours.

    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 11:16 am #

      You are so right that being sensitive to the world is a double-edged sword for writers. And I also understand the grief that comes with leaving a job you love, even if it’s for another you love just as much, or more. It’s okay to breathe, and come back when you’re ready.

      Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

  7. Jan Hawke Nov 11 2015 at 12:35 pm #

    Hi Hannah – thanks so much for pointing out the elephant in the writer’s study! There is no normal or ‘good’ when it comes to writing. Or what you’re writing come to that.

    I lost my husband in March this year. It wasn’t exactly a shock and it hasn’t drastically altered my lifestyle (I now have an electronic dishwasher and a new friend who takes my 2 dogs for their walk for me), but it does leave a dent and something has to give sometime. So whilst I CAN write every day I don’t beat myself up on how much I do, or what it’s for. Writing a grocery list or a note to the milkman counts as writing too!

    For me it’s as natural as breathing, but my big WiP, which I was going to return invigorated to this Spring has completely fallen by the wayside. That’s alright – I found other things that weren’t so hard to tackle to do (and write about) instead.

    Writing is great as therapy – it got me through chronic depression and losing my livelihood and made me feel like a human being again. That was ten years ago and eight of them was spent writing my first novel alongside joining a Tolkien community and role-playing an Elven Bard (pen and paper RP). My novel wasn’t fantasy at all, but it was completely fulfilling to write, even though it dealt with heavyweight topics like PTSD and genocide, because it helped me assimilate my own experiences on a human level and gain a fresh perspective on life.

    To write you need to live – there’s no avoiding that if you want to be a good writer. So having to deal with grief is valuable to your experience as a writer – get through it as best as you can in terms of how you can make sense of it later. It doesn’t matter whether or not you keep on writing, so long as you let it run it’s course without letting it consume you. My husband and your Dad will still be proud of us, because we still love them and have kept going. Take your time and be gentle with yourself. Grief is a wrenching, debilitating process but words will come back and make their way to your fingertips eventually.

    Forcing it doesn’t help, but time does and that’s OK, however long it takes! Just don’t let writing be a chore because that shows and doesn’t do you justice. 😀

    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 10:32 pm #

      Thank you so much, Jan 🙂

  8. Tracey M. Cox Nov 11 2015 at 2:57 pm #


    I’m sorry for your loss. I lost my mother 16 years ago and there are moments, and sometimes days, where I find myself at a loss.

    Good for you to step back. Sometimes we all need to do this. Whether it’s from a loss, physical or mental ailment, or to keep from a burnout.

    You’ll be okay as you learn your new normal and those words will be waiting. {{{HUGS}}}

    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 10:32 pm #

      *Hugs*, Tracey. Thank you.

  9. Teri Howatt Nov 11 2015 at 6:56 pm #

    Pub(lishing)crawl is the email I always open. Today’s post is great advice– thanks, Hannah

    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 10:36 pm #

      I’m so glad! Thank you!

  10. Ann Nov 11 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    Thank you Hannah for this thoughtful, honest post. A dear friend recently lost her mother and shortly thereafter declared herself no longer a writer. I keep thinking it’s because she’s grieving, but she claims it’s not that. I am sharing this with her in the hopes she lets herself off the hook for not having any desire to write while she’s mourning.

    For me grief has almost the opposite affect. I find writing the most important part of my healing process when I am grieving. I have written my way out of the greatest losses I have endured, often very soon after. In a way, grief turned me into a writer. Perhaps it’s different for those of you who were writers before experiencing a great loss.

    I especially appreciate you pointing out that writing, like grieving, is a completely unique experience for each of us. There is no right way to do either.

    • Hannah Nov 11 2015 at 10:36 pm #

      I understand that feeling so much. And I appreciate that you’ve shared this with her – I hope that, even just reading about someone’s experience, helps give some peace of mind. I’ve said quite a lot lately that writing, and even the idea of writing, feels different than it used to. I’m sure after a time it will normalize but it was very jarring for me at first. And perhaps your friend needs to explore what it means to not be a writer for a little while. I think that’s okay too.

      Thanks so much, Ann. Your comment means a lot.

  11. Meghan Nov 12 2015 at 7:04 am #

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Hannah. I lost my dad a year ago May and could easily relate. While I know there will always be days when certain memories or moments bring back the pain, time is truly a kind-hearted healer.

    Thanks for this post, which came at the perfect time for me because I have been trying to keep up with NaNoWriMo, but my son was sick this week and I lost 3 days of writing. Your post helped keep me from feeling frustrated and guilty… especially now as I’m trying to get myself back engaged…

    For anyone really suffering writer’s block, I couldn’t recommend more Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. The first time I read it, I was able to draft a manuscript straight afterwards!

  12. Eric Nov 19 2015 at 9:57 am #

    I’m sorry for your loss Hannah. I know a lot about grief and struggle. I lost my high school sweetheart when I was just 27 leaving me to raise my two sons and a daughter on my own. Life was very hard and the loss was unbearable but eventually I rose up. Time does not heal but it will allow us to move on because the loss and the love stays with us. The youngest and last one to leave the nest was in 2004. I remarried 8 years ago to a great lady. Not the same of course but I’m thankful.

    My kids are all doing well with their lives and careers. We have 10 grandchildren. All of my family is 2,500 miles away so my grandchildren will never know me but I had the privilege of spending some time with them a few years ago. We use Facebook to keep up with family but the Internet is so impersonal and cannot replace face to face contact. My oldest son is an International ecommerce Business Analyst with Papa Johns, my daughter works in healthcare and my youngest son is an Analyst and is rapidly rising to success in the Christian Hip Hop world of self created music. He sells online and performs in churches and other places. You should check him out at 4sight.

    As for my writing I am partaking in NaNoWriMo 2015 and have been working on my novel for some time. I hope to one day make a living at it. Currently I struggle with moving on with the story. I have around 17 chapters but sometimes I don’t know where to go next. They say the middle is the hardest part.

    So how do I use my life experience to help me write. I try to invoke those emotions I experienced years ago when I write dialog or a scene. It’s a challenge as I was not trained in college to be a creative writer. I’m self taught. I like what you said about allowing ourselves to take breaks. I do it all the time and yes it does help with returning to writing.

    Ok so some deeper thoughts. I learned recently two secrets of life I never knew.

    1.) Why are we here? (for me) it’s to worship God
    2.) Why did I lose her when she was only 26? – why not me or her. What makes any one of so special that we can’t be taken?

    I made a promise when their mom died. To raise them the best I can and I did. I decided to make the best of the time I have left on this earth. Writing brings me joy. A simple kind of joy.

    So why do we write? Why do I write? Because it’s brings me joy and a freedom I’ve never known. Last – I want to give something to the world.

    Practice does not make perfect. But you can practice perfectly!

    We are never done. Our human existence is just the beginning of the journey. We will do great things in the next life. So keep learning, keep writing and find a smile now and then. Take in the breeze, the smell of a flower, the warmth of the sun, the smile or laughter of a child. Take life in one moment at time but don’t let it pass you by.

    My final thoughts…

    Never quit, never give in, never surrender and above all Never except Defeat!

    May God bless you with the richness of life, love, joy and success as a writer.

Leave a Reply to Jan Hawke Click here to cancel reply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.