Plateaus and Writer's Block
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Throughout every creative process, eventually you’re going to reach some kind of standstill. It could just be for a day, or a week… But sometimes that standstill can last for years, and even worse, some people just give up on that creative pursuit entirely. If you’ve never experienced a plateau or a block, or somehow never will, then that is an incredibly generous hand the universe has played you. For the rest of us, let’s go deeper.
What is a plateau?
Plateaus can be hit in any creative pursuit, as well as physical pursuits, like fitness and weight loss. We’ll be talking about the former. Whether you’re a writer, a dancer, a musician, a painter, any art can reach a point where you feel as though you aren’t making progress anymore. I’d describe a plateau as a feeling of stagnation that lasts for maybe two weeks or more.
My experience has been like this: You’ve stagnated. Even if you can Do the Thing, it feels empty or frustrating, or both. You’re not doing anything different, or you’re trying to but it’s not working, and something needs to change. I’ve been hoop dancing for around seven years now, and I’ve had my fair share of plateaus with it.
The first two years were fantastic. I was hooping every day, I was learning new things. Not only could I feel the progress, I could see it. Then there came a point where I wasn’t learning anything new, I couldn’t hit that feeling of ‘flow’ where you just...are absorbed in the dance and the muscle-memory. I felt like I wasn’t moving forward at all anymore and became frustrated. Eventually I stopped trying to even practice. I had to take a break. Looking at other hoopers and their videos was frustrating and damaging to my self-confidence as a hooper. I felt like I would never reach those heights, and I couldn’t turn away from the lure of Others—what others were doing, their progress, their skills.
So I took a break. For over a year, I didn’t touch the hoop at all. I didn’t even think about it. And then the day came where I did pick it up again. Just to play, not to judge. I realized it didn’t matter what Others were doing, or where they were in their journey. I didn’t have to think about the big picture, that is, the ultimate goal of where I wanted to see myself in terms of skill. How could I possibly reach for a goal like that and not feel overwhelmed? I began to think in baby steps, and found that I had a block where my ‘ego’ just didn’t want to sit down and take the time to learn new moves, because I was unconsciously afraid of the frustration and failure that comes with practicing new skills and not mastering them right away.
I’m not a master hoop dancer by any means. It’s a hobby, but I still want to improve—for myself, because it’s fun. Feeling your body move to music, letting yourself go, is a really profound experience that I don’t want to give up. Having that desire helped me to eventually come out of that plateau, and helps me when I hit one again.
When it came to making music, though, the frustration was too much to bear. I love the ukulele, it’s an adorable instrument. I can play a few songs, but the idea of creating anything ‘new’ was unbearable. Perhaps it was that unconscious fear of failure or ‘not good enough’ that drove me to give it up, but a lot of it was of not knowing where to go next. It still hangs from my wall, waiting for me to pick it up again, and maybe I will, but I’ve decided it isn’t a priority right now. And that’s okay.
All of this is to say, there are no right or wrong ways to feel plateaus, and only you can find out whether you should keep going, or step back, or let it go. My experience is not the Only experience, and what you might experience with one art might not be the same for another art. I encourage you all to share your experiences with me in the comments!
When it comes to writing, I’ve found that there are plateaus, and there is writer’s block. They can be two sides of the same coin, but they can exist separately too. I took a four year break from writing back in 2011. I was dealing with mental health issues and I just hated everything I wrote. I had ideas but they were no good. I had stagnated, my writing definitely wasn’t getting any better, and I had no energy left to deal with it. I’d view that as a plateau (among other things), not writer’s block.
Now that I’m back to writing and am able to analyze it from a better perspective, I’ve come to find out how to deal with both writer’s block and my plateaus. That isn’t to say I don’t get frustrated anymore from them, of course. Thankfully I haven’t experienced a writer’s plateau in a long time. But with writer’s block, for me it kind of sounds like this: I just can’t write! I have no ideas. All of my ideas are crap. What about Others…? And this feeling will last for the day, or maybe several days, but eventually I’m able to get back to it.
Sounds an awful lot like a plateau, right? They can both be dealt with similarly. I just feel like my writer’s blocks are more about getting stuck for ideas, or where to start, more than feeling like I’ve stagnated as a writer as a whole. I also feel capable of breaking through the block faster than if it were a plateau—and a plateau isn’t necessarily about not being able to write! You just feel like it’s not getting any better, when you know it could get better, but how?
How do you deal with writer’s block and plateaus?
I think everyone is going to have their own way of dealing with their blocks and plateaus. You’ll have to tweak and create ways that work for your specific situations, so my ways may not work for you. But please don’t be discouraged, there is hope!
When I’m feeling a block while I’m trying to write something new, instead of not writing at all, I’ll start brainstorming on another document. I’ll make new worldbuilding for that universe, or briefly describe ideas that I want to happen in the scene, or flesh out characters to try and get a grasp on the universe I’m tackling. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go write something else for fun in a different universe, or a scene I’ve been thinking of. Just because I may not be writing in my current Work in Progress, or am only worldbuilding or writing something that might not even make it into the book, doesn’t mean I’m not writing at all. Every bit that you write, or skill that you practice, is important for your development as an artist, it’s all progress, even if it doesn’t look like it.
If I can’t write at all, and that frustration is mounting, I’ll just step away. It’s okay to just Not Do the Thing if it’s causing you mental anguish or seemingly unendable frustration. I’ll go do something else, like watch a show I’m interested in, or play video games, or take a walk outside or sit by the window with some water or tea. Taking care of yourself is an amazingly refreshing course of action. It can take you from feeling like an unmovable rock to a flowing river, and even if you don’t feel as though you can write after recharging, at least you’ve taken steps to take care of yourself. Because in the end, without your health, where are you?
Whether it’s a block or a plateau, when I feel like I have no ideas for something new to write, I really love looking at my Ideas document. I’ll either start writing down little snippets of ideas that I’d like to write in the future, or even flesh out some of the ideas I’ve already written down. Sometimes I’ll write down scenes from my dreams, or other scenarios I’d have liked to see from either my own work, or someone else’s work, be that a book or show or what have you. I think the biggest take away is that you don’t think of these ideas as novels. Don’t just say, “I’m going to write a book about this,” because it will really sap away your motivation, at least for me.
Looking at my ideas and allowing myself room to play with them, to mould them and shape them, to have no expectations of them (at first) but to enjoy them, is an important key to continue writing for me. I find that so long as I’m writing, I’m improving, no matter how quick or how slow. I like to tell myself that I want to tell a story, but that doesn’t mean it has to be for anyone else but me, and that takes the pressure off.
When you’re able to write but feel like you can’t stand what you’re writing and it’s making it really hard to continue, I find that “Doing Something is better than doing Nothing” is a great mantra to use. You can always go back and edit later! Just get the words down. But again, it’s okay to do nothing when you’re at your limit. Try not to be hard on yourself.
Like with writer’s block, I find that taking a break from writing for a little while is beneficial during a plateau. I’ll consume media of all types that interest me and try to pay attention to the stories told there, and even ask myself, what is it that I like about this story? Why are these characters interesting? By looking at the media you consume and asking yourself these kinds of questions, it can help you to go back to your own work and ask yourself if you’re telling the kind of story you actually want to tell. Some people swear by writers being avid readers, and while I say we should continue reading, I think that all media that tells stories are good enough to keep us inspired and to learn how to tell stories well. Video games can be amazing storytellers! Absorb yourself in something that you’re actually interested in. If you find the classics boring, don’t bother reading them, you’ll only frustrate yourself further.
Definitely be open to trying new things. Pick up a new hobby, or even go back to an old project you may have abandoned. Try writing in another genre, or reading a genre you’re not familiar with. Perhaps that new skill you learned about, or developed for yourself, can be used for a character in your story, or even in the plot as a metaphor. Try rewriting a scene from a different character’s perspective, or say the setting for a scene is fantasy: try making it sci-fi, or contemporary. You could also consider collaborating with someone on a project together, whether something small or something bigger, it’s up to you. Trying something different is important in helping you change your perspective, which will help you improve as an artist.
Just don’t forget about discipline. It doesn’t sound fun, but it’s beneficial to learn how to be your own coach, your own cheerleader. It’s so easy to want to give up when you keep beating yourself down, when you could be lifting yourself up instead. The little things are important—especially the little things: so you only managed to write 100 words? 10 words? Hey, that’s x amount of words more than you had! That’s great!
Try not to think of the Others, or any other external factor that could possibly be impeding your writing/skill and making you feel as though you’ve grown stagnant. What about this skill/art matters to you, and what are your expectations that you can control? What is it that you feel is lacking, or where you’re falling short? Search within yourself and find those barriers, pull them into the light and try to improve on them. You don’t necessarily have to be rigorous to be disciplined, but you can’t expect others to help you out of your plateau entirely. Having a like-minded community can absolutely help, and I encourage being a part of one—the main reason I’ve continued to write, and how I’ve learned a lot of this attitude/behavior, is because of the amazing friends and like-minded individuals I’ve come to know in the writing group I’m in. Absolutely reach out! Art does not have to be lonely. Still, inevitably, it falls to you to keep writing/practicing your skill, to keep learning, and to keep growing.
As for being creative in this pandemic… PLEASE take care of yourself first and foremost. Don’t feel as though you have to be productive or have to be creative just because you’re stuck in your house or have more ‘free time’. So many people are experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty during these trying times. I can’t imagine not being stressed in some form or another right now. If being creative helps to ground you, then by all means, be as creative as you can. But just don’t pressure yourself if you’re not feeling it right now. It’s okay to take a break, and it’s more than okay to take care of your needs.
How do you experience writer’s block, and creative plateaus? How do you deal with them? I’d really love to hear your examples and experiences in the comments below! Please like and subscribe to my blog, and I’ll be seeing you next time. :) Be safe out there.