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  • Elizabeth Carlton

The Writer's Block No Writing Hack Could Fix

It was a season of writer’s block no “tried and true” tip could cure— only I could, and it was the most challenging 4 years of my life.

Let me preface this by saying that I’ve been writing professionally for 14 years. I thought myself impervious to writer’s block. Sure, there were encounters here and there, but I knew every trick in the book to break through them. Writer’s block never lingered, and typically I could diagnose and eliminate the cause pretty quickly. As a result, scribes’ age-old nemesis never really intimidated me.


Flash forward to 2018. For the first time, I found myself unable to put words down on paper, and I didn’t know why, or what to do. I felt lost. I felt voiceless. It was the start of the hardest 4 years of my life thus far, and there wasn’t a single hack that could fix it.


I distinctly remember the evening that began my prolonged bout with writer’s block.

It was a Friday Night in February

I had just received the proof for my third book, Lost Prince of Nevaharday, and I was itching to crack it open. The anticipation for this novel exceeded my expectations. Special preorders sold out within less than 48 hours, and the feedback from beta readers and my editor was unanimously positive. Already, plans for book signings were in the works, and the only word to describe it was magical. I thought nothing could shake me from my joyous peak.


Then the phone rang.


Your father is in the hospital.


They found a mass in his brain.


We don’t know what it is.


We don’t have any answers.


How quickly can you catch a flight home?


I narrowly caught a next-morning flight and spent several agonizing hours making my way to the hospital. The rest became a rollercoaster of emotions as my father went through brain surgery, a biopsy, and a devastating diagnosis.


He had an aggressive form of primary CNS lymphoma. The odds of surviving this form of cancer were grim, with a 5-year survival rate of 30%. He was immediately transitioned from the ICU to oncology, where he spent many, many months fighting for his life.


Somewhere in the midst of it all, I experienced an overwhelming cavern of grief, followed by some internal wall that dammed the flood of tears. It was too much, so I tucked those feelings down deep; deep into a hidden place where they could not find or break me.

Perhaps if my father’s diagnosis was all that had happened, I would have been okay.


Eventually, my dad’s treatment worked. He survived cancer, and he is still in remission today. Maybe I would have weathered that frightening period and, when the good news came, would have felt safe enough to exhale, feel what I was feeling, and move forward.

But that catastrophic family event was only the beginning.


Weeks after my father’s diagnosis, the company I worked for eliminated my job without explanation, and without notice. I found myself creating a freelance business overnight to make ends meet, which I managed to do quite rapidly.


A few months later the man I had been dating for a couple of years decided to part ways with me and take his life in a different direction.


Murphy’s law seemed in full force. He moved out, and my financial responsibilities doubled. Still, I persevered. I’d always been capable of surviving whatever life threw my way. I thought I could handle it all.


A stroke of luck came my way when a reputable research company recruited me as a consumers, culture, and marketing research writer. The offer was too much to pass up. Great pay, great insurance, great benefits. Finally, life would feel stable again.


I accepted the opportunity, eager for the new chapter. But when I started the job, something felt off. I thought it was burnout. I’d been working incredibly hard running my own business, and carrying so much in the process. Perhaps I needed a vacation.


Fast forward almost a year later, I received news that my grandmother had died. Something shifted inside of me when I heard the news. I started having heart palpitations. They would come on suddenly and with a fierceness I didn’t understand. Weeks went by, and they grew worse until it felt like I was having a heart attack 24/7. My chest felt tight all the time. I struggled to breathe.


Eventually, I took myself to the hospital. They held me for 24-hour observation before handing me a diagnosis: severe anxiety. I was given medication while signing a paper confirming that I would look into therapy.


I did. I actually found an amazing therapist on the first try, and she worked closely with me to uncover and understand what I was experiencing, as well as find ways to cope with it and grow from it.


But it wasn’t an overnight cure. Throughout that process, I struggled to write at work. I spent many late nights in tears trying to create the content I was paid to create, but extracting each thought and putting it cohesively down on paper felt like enduring surgery without anesthesia.


For a couple of years, I met regularly with my therapist. My mental health began to improve, but my voice remained elusive. This gift that had been a part of me since childhood had slipped out of my possession somehow.


I ended up applying for and getting promoted into management where I was responsible for hiring, training, and developing writers and editors. It was a necessary reprieve as I took a much-needed break from writing, and much-needed time to heal. But throughout that long process, the fear of never being able to write again haunted me.


I thought this passion and outlet I’d known and cherished for most of my life was gone.

What Does This Have to Do With Writer’s Block?

You may be thinking, “Elli, that’s not writer’s block. That’s a mental health crisis.” And yes… yes it is. But stick with me here. There is a writer’s lesson in all of this.

It wasn’t until this year that I found myself able to sink back into writing. I can’t overstate how incredible it was to find that voice again and to feel the magic that happens when you string the right words together. It’s hopeful. Exhilarating. Liberating!


Looking back, I now realize that silence is not the absence of something lost. It’s a sign. Sometimes we may go through seasons where we can’t find the right words, no matter how desperately we try — and that’s okay.

Writer’s block isn’t a mysterious nemesis that creeps into the place where you hide your muse and takes it captive. It’s simply a blanket term for whatever is holding you back from putting words on the page.

Most of the time, the cause of your writer’s block is not as dramatic as the story I just told (I hope it never is). But it is always something.


Perhaps it’s a plot hole in your story or a noisy writing environment.


Maybe it’s paralysis caused by fear, perfection, or an overly busy mind.


Or it could just be a sign that you need to walk away for a bit, clear your head, and indulge in something creative in order to get back into the right headspace.


Whatever it may be, you know the answer. It may take a little introspection, but you can uncover what’s holding you back. When you realize that, the demon called Writer’s Block loses its strength. Because at the end of the day, it’s not an unseen force working against you. It’s just a signal that something is standing in the way of the words you’re trying to say.

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