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How to reframe writing obstacles
Obstacles aren't blocking your path. They are the path.
If you write fiction, you’ve probably been advised at some point to give your main character a clear goal – then put obstacles in their path. This may be particularly true if you’re a fan of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ approaches to narrative structure.
You might think of obstacles as character-developing dramatic blocks to be battled against and heroically overcome. This may make good drama – but can lead to unnecessary resistance and frustration in our writing lives. Obstacles can seem so insurmountable we just give up. But, because persistence is one of the key qualities of an author mindset, it’s important not to get derailed by obstacles. One way to do this is by reframing them.
What are writing obstacles?
Obstacles to your writing are inevitable. We all encounter them. They may include practical, financial, creative or emotional obstacles.
Practical obstacles. These could include insufficient time, childcare responsibilities (the ‘pram in the hall’), lack of a workspace (a ‘room of one’s own’), unsupportive people in your life, health issues – or any other external problem.
Financial obstacles. These are a particular type of practical obstacle: you feel you literally can’t afford to write, because you have a full-time job, or spend all your time freelancing to make ends meet. Perhaps you’re in debt, and can’t justify doing something ‘indulgent’ like writing, which may not make you any money.
Creative obstacles. Maybe you just don’t feel like writing because you’re out of ideas, or you’ve got stuck in a tricky plot point and don’t know how to progress your book.
Emotional obstacles. These are internal obstacles, and may include fear, lack of confidence, impostor syndrome, lack of focus, poor motivation, procrastination and overwhelm.
Whatever obstacles you face, it’s important to recognize that they’re part of the writing process. Obstacles aren’t blocking your path: they are the path.
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How to reframe writing obstacles
EL Doctorow famously said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” But what if your problem isn’t fog, but a massive fallen tree or rock slide blocking the road?
Instead of feeling disheartened or giving up, an obstacle in your path can be reframed as an opportunity to pause and take stock, a helpful redirection, a lesson to learn from or a challenge to be overcome. Here are eight things that may be useful to bear in mind when encountering writing obstacles.
1. Take a step back
Try to step back, and look at the situation from different angles, in different lights and through different lenses. If you’re blocked, fighting the obstacle or grinding away at the problem isn’t always helpful. Sometimes you need to pause and take a deep breath. Allow yourself time to reflect on the problem, gain some perspective and maybe discuss it with others. Then you can decide what action you want to take - rather than reacting immediately.
2. Obstacles can show you another path
If you’re stuck in traffic, you might take a side road and go the scenic route instead. A path you might not have considered or travelled along before. It may take longer, but you might also discover new things. Your pause-and-step-back can help you find an alternative path that’s not only a good workaround, but also puts you on a stronger route to a better destination.
In your writing, if you’re feeling blocked by the direction of your plot, try something else. Maybe your story or characters want to go in a different direction to the one you had planned for them. You might discover that you’re writing comedy rather than romance. A minor character may become more significant than you imagined. A subplot may become the main plot. There are many routes to a finished book. Be open to alternative paths.
3. Flow around obstacles
When a stream meets an obstacle in its path, such as a rock, it just flows around it, finding the path of least resistance. Taoism is a philosophy of flow. One of its concepts is ‘Wu Wei’, which can be translated as ‘non-action’ , or the ‘action of non-action’. It’s a state of flow, of action without striving, where everything seems to flow in a natural course.
“The very softest thing of all can ride like a galloping horse through the hardest of things.” – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Ch. 43
By resisting less, and working with and around what life throws at you, you may make things easier for yourself. Yes, of course, our plans can be thrown off course by major life events. (Maybe you could write about that instead?) But there’s always a way, always an alternative – and always something to write about. Writers gotta write – right?
Or maybe you’re just not enjoying your writing at the moment. It feels like a chore and a burden. Perhaps your path of least resistance involves a change of project – even a change of genre – to something you’ll find more fun, easy, natural and ‘flowful’. You may even come back to your original project later, with more enthusiasm.
4. See lack of time as an advantage
Lack of time is usually seen as an obstacle. But it’s one that you can reframe. Many of us think we need to have an uninterrupted week (or several) to work on our book – especially if we’re ‘binge writers’. Or maybe to wait until we can write full time. Or retire. But you’re waiting for a ‘perfect time’ that will never come. Start now.
Unless you have a contract for several books (and a big advance!), you don’t need to write full time. Most writers don’t. Have a full-time job that’s getting in the way of your ideal writing life? Try to see it as an advantage rather than an obstacle. A job, or other daily commitments, put you in the world and give you life experience to write about. Spare a thought for those poor writers who have nothing but their own company and a blank page, day after day!
Do you ever find that, when you do have time off to write, you struggle to get started and find motivation? You procrastinate endlessly, because you have plenty of time. Parkinson’s Law is the old adage that work expands to fill the time available - and it can work against you. Constraints can be good for creativity.
Don’t let busyness with other tasks hold you back. Write in the gaps, and start small. Your lack of time may help you focus – and you might be surprised by how much you can write in a short time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day - and most of us can find 10 minutes a day to write.
5. It’s not a race
Obstacles frustrate us because they slow us down. But you’ll get there in your own time. Donna Tartt takes 10 years to write a book. The late, great Hilary Mantel spent many years researching and writing her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. There’s something to be said for ‘slow writing’, rather than churning out a book or two a year (though there are, of course, pros to that too!)
But it’s not a race. As The Supremes (and, indeed, Phil Collins) once sang, you can’t hurry love. And you can’t hurry creativity either. Go with it, be patient, try to be consistent – and enjoy the process. Your book will take its own time.
6. Not all writing happens on the page
If obstacles slow you down or stop you from writing, even if only temporarily, remember that writing isn’t just tapping away on a keyboard. Writing takes place in your head. Use the break from your Word docs or Scrivener files to exercise your imagination.
Daydream about your story world, think about your characters’ lives, ponder your plot. Think about your book at the bus stop, in the doctor’s waiting room, at the school gates. Take inspiration from the people you meet, the places you go, the circumstances of your life. Take notes on your phone. When you return to your writing desk, you’ll have lots of new ideas – and you may have solved a plot problem or two.
7. Approach obstacles with a growth mindset
Try to see obstacles as learning opportunities. If you have a fixed mindset, you may be tempted to give up at the first sign of trouble, taking it as confirmation that you’re just not cut out for the writing life.
If you have a growth mindset, you’re more likely to see setbacks and obstacles as opportunities to learn and grow. Reflect on what you can learn from the obstacles you face. Become a problem-solver, and look for creative solutions to your obstacles. Learn what you need to from your obstacles – and see them as part of the process of becoming a writer.
8. Reframe obstacles as challenges
Make a mental shift from having an obstacle to having a challenge - or even an opportunity. Obstacles can feel like a full stop – but challenges are short term things that you can overcome. Here are some examples:
Practical. If your work or living situation is challenging, what changes can you make? Can you request a change to your working hours, or write during your commute? Can you communicate your need for some ‘alone time’ with your family, so you can write? How about taking the opportunity to redesign your writing space as a ‘distraction-free zone’?
Financial. Are financial worries making it hard for you to focus on writing? Would some funding help? For example, if you’re in England, you can apply for an Arts Council England ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ grant. (Other funding bodies are available elsewhere).
Creative. If you’re feeling really blocked in your writing, particularly at a technical level, taking a course or joining a writing group may help you get going again. You can also find some other ideas for overcoming creative blocks in my earlier post How to unleash your creativity.
Emotional. If things like fear, impostor syndrome or lack of confidence hold you back, there are plenty of resources out there that can help (including, hopefully, this newsletter!). Social support from other writers can also be enormously beneficial. Writing can be isolating – but it takes a community to create a book. Join a writing group, or meet up with a writer friend to compare notes and share experiences.
Approach all this with an open mind, and try to see obstacles as challenges that you can overcome, work around or work with – rather than catastrophic career-ending roadblocks. Don’t allow them to derail you.
Focus on your goal - not the obstacles
Life gets in the way, and you will face writing obstacles. However, they shouldn’t become your focus. Remind yourself why you want to be an author, get clear about your goal - and focus on that instead.
“As you go through life, let this be your goal: keep your eye upon the doughnut, not upon the hole.” – Dame Edna Everage (among others!)
I recall that much-missed philosopher Dame Edna Everage once saying: “As you go through life, let this be your goal: keep your eye upon the doughnut, not upon the hole.” Good life advice for anyone, and a useful maxim for us to bear in mind as writers. Try not to obsess over your writing obstacles. Move on, around and through them. Use them, if you can. Reframe rocks in your path as stepping stones to a brighter future. And keep your eyes on the prize: a published book!