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How to smash an unexpected block: When the writing’s going well

We’ve all probably read articles about writer’s block that stumps and paralyzes, but several writers I know have experienced another unexpected and surprising block. One described it: “My fingers play the computer keyboard like a concert pianist, my pages pile up like gold. ‘Wow, I think, I’m gonna go all night!’”

Then he confessed, “‘Faster than a form rejection, more powerful than an editor’s frown, able to freeze me in a single flash, a horrible thought darkens my brain: I can’t stand it anymore!’”

What? The writing was going just too well.

When we’re blocked in the usual ways, the reasons are pretty clear—terror at the blank page or screen; infinitesimal progress; search for the ever-elusive perfect word; unshakable suspicion that, despite all our sweat, what we’ve written is still no good. But why, in heaven’s name, can’t we stand it when our words are surging?

The answers aren’t easy. For one thing, the more we write, finding our voice and feeling our oats, the more this paradox can strike, and its irrationality throws us. For another, the emotion itself is hard to pin down. In a “normal” block, we recognize depression, frustration, anger, anxiety, sugar cravings. But what the heck is going on when the work is going well?

Psychologist and personal growth specialist Gay Hendricks in The Big Leap offers insight. We all have borders, he says, boundaries of joy, like pain. Each of us has set “an inner thermostat . . . of the ‘upper limits’” of the success, happiness, and creativity we allow ourselves.

Hendricks admits with candor that he discovered his own “Upper-Limit Problem” early in his career. His work at a well-known university was going well, as were his relationships. “I felt great. A few seconds later, though, I found myself worrying about my daughter, who was away from home on a summer program.” After assuring himself she was all right, he wondered why he had gone from feeling so good to feeling so anxious. His realization applies to us all:

I manufactured the stream of painful images because I was feeling good! Some part of me was afraid of enjoying positive energy for any extended period of time. . . . The thoughts I manufactured were guaranteed to make me return to a state I was more familiar with: not feeling so good.

And so with our writing. When we bump up against our upper limits of joy or the exhilaration that it’s going so well, often unconsciously we activate ways to shut down our feelings. One writer admitted, “When my writing flows, I shake all over.” Another said, “I avoid it because it’s too delicious.” A third confessed, “When I’m stuck, I get depressed, and that I can handle. But when my creativity explodes, I get nervous, itchy, elated, giggly, and panicky, all at once. And I hit the chips, or booze.”

Familiar with this illogical writers’ malady, in The Writer’s Portable Therapist psychologist Rachel Ballon says, “You may get so overwhelmed by the burst of creativity that you respond the same way that you do to frustration—by turning to a substance or activity that calms you down and relaxes you from your excitement.” So we tamp down our excitement and tell ourselves, “I’ll never get through all these articles for the lit review.” “My conclusions are vapid.” “The publisher was crazy to send me the contract.”

In this state, if we quit we’re only defeating ourselves and our writing goals. When I feel myself shutting down because my writing is taking off, I’ve learned to take action. First, I promise myself to keep writing. Second, I choose one or more of the ten remedies below. They’ve worked for many writers who feel the paradox of the unexpected block. Try a few.

The first five shake up your body:

1) Get up. Get out of your chair and away from your desk. Run in place. Do ten situps. Jump up and down ten times. If you have an indoor exercise machine, use it. Take a walk—around the room, the house, the block, up and down the driveway.
2) Put on your favorite upbeat music and dance for twelve minutes.
3) Do one household task. Clean the bathroom sink, take out the garbage, windex the mirrors. Water the plants, pet your pet. Pet the plants, water your pet.
4) Cook. Put together a dish that can be completed quickly (like sautéed vegetables or scrambled eggs) or a dish that needs little attention after initial assembly (like spaghetti sauce or soup).
5) Run out to the local office supply store and buy one writing supply. Pick something you don’t really need, something that may cost too much, or something you’ve always yearned for and haven’t allowed yourself. And leave.

The second five solutions shake up your mind and feelings:

6) Feel all those fear-anxiety-panic feelings. Acknowledge them. You won’t get destroyed or punished, the other shoe won’t drop, your inspiration and creativity won’t run dry.
7) Grab a piece of paper and a pen. Pour out your feelings and thoughts right now. No censoring.
8) Identify whose “voice” is intoning that you don’t deserve this exhilaration. Who is telling you that you don’t deserve to do what gives you the greatest pleasure? Whose life is it? No one else is living it but you. Like hands made of glue, those voices grab at you to conform, to be what they want you to or think you should be. You have the strength to shake them off. Write about what you’ve discovered.
9) Remember the wise words of the great philosopher Dr. Seuss: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” Fortify this directive with a chaser from life and career coach Tama Kieves: “I allow myself to be uncorked, unabashed, and showered with delicious good in every facet of my life.”
10) Shout to yourself. Take a deep breath. Open your arms wide. Repeat out loud: “I can stand this. It’s not too good to be true. I’ve dreamed and worked all my life for this. I’m doing it!”

With these methods, you’ll break through your upper limits and vastly extend your boundaries of joy. You’ll soar right through your scribbling ceiling and allow your writing to go well—and fabulously, as it should. And then, faster than a fifteen-minute break, you’ll be back at work and rarin’ to go all night.

© 2018 Noelle Sterne

For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site:

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.

Noelle will be teaching the TAA Writing Gym writing class, “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish!”. Learn how to get over writing stalls and bumps so you begin to write in earnest and continue more consistently. Suggestions, tools, techniques, and reassurances will be offered to support you in writing, persisting, and completing your project. The gym will be open 24 hours from July 16-August 26, 2018. Learn more