Express Yourself

The Limiting Belief Behind the Worst Kind of Writer’s Block

Shame is probably the biggest obstacle for writers. Here’s how to confront it.

Quirky photo symbolizing writer’s block. Person sitting at typewriter with a bunch of crumpled paper.
Quirky photo symbolizing writer’s block. Person sitting at typewriter with a bunch of crumpled paper.
Photo: Drew Coffman/Flickr

I’ve had a lot of lives as a writer. I started out as a poet. At 26, I was in grad school for fiction. By 29, I freelanced personal essays and worked as an editor at an alt-weekly, writing art criticism. At 31, I wrote my first book, a memoir. By 33, I was writing widely on gender and culture. At 34, I wrote my second book, a reported memoir. By 37, I’d tried my hand at my first episode of television. And now, at 40, I’m working on my first feature film script.

Some people might accuse me of lacking focus, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge of learning new formats to tell stories that interest me. I was a voracious reader and film nerd growing up, but the pain of not seeing myself, a trans man, in the narratives I loved both taught me how to find myself in every part of the human experience and compelled me to find ways to make men like me legible and visible in the stories we tell as a culture.

Though I consider myself relatively productive, and despite achieving a lifelong dream of making my living as a writer, I realized a startling truth this past year in the quiet of the pandemic: Writing often makes me miserable. Like, really miserable.

I began to examine how this could be true, and a pattern emerged: No matter the project, the exact same mental loop-to-loop ensnared me every time. I’d get excited about an idea in theory, but as soon as I sat down to get to work, I found myself inundated with dread. What the hell was I doing? I had no idea how to write _____ (about art/a book/sports movie). Soon, the feeling of dread morphed into a paralyzing nausea. When I dug deeper, I found a single, consistent factor: Shame. How does shame sound to me? Something like: I don’t know how to tell a relatable story! My life experience is completely foreign to most people. I’m incoherently strange. I should just stop embarrassing myself by even thinking anything about me is relatable.

Gnarly, right?

What is shame, exactly? At its core, shame is a painful and profound belief that there is something fundamentally “wrong” with us and, therefore, that we are “unworthy of love and belonging.” This sense of “wrong-ness” is different from guilt, which is an often-healthy and pro-social sense of regret over a specific behavior. Guilt can be addressed with behavioral change, and with dignity for all involved. Shame insists that we are unredeemable or fraudulent.

When we feel shame, we shut off our instincts and intuition in a desperate and doomed search for “belonging.”

Shame is the most limiting of all limiting beliefs, internalized via abusive interpersonal scripts (via parents, partners, teachers) and/or cultural bias (sexism, racism, transphobia, and so on). I believe most artists internalize toxically negative self-talk merely by living in a culture that clearly doesn’t place much monetary value on art. But for writers marginalized by culture (like, say, trans people) or with a history of trauma (child abuse survivors, like myself), shame can be a silencing form of social control, reenforcing oppressions past. It is a primary ingredient in “imposter syndrome.” It is also, as the prison researcher and psychiatrist James Gilligan wrote in his seminal 1996 book, Violence: Reflections on Our Deadly Epidemic, the root of all violence.

Shame is a toxic stew of worthlessness, powerlessness, and smallness that results in a feeling of profound disconnection from our own humanity and, therefore, humanity generally. It makes for terrible writing. When we feel shame, we shut off our instincts and intuition in a desperate and doomed search for “belonging.” Shame makes our characters flat, our prose guarded and stale, our brainstorming stilted and fruitless.

Shame doesn’t want us to ever finish that book, or screenplay, or essay. Shame would very much prefer to keep us as small as possible, because shame operates in scarcity, and scarcity says there are already enough stories in the world. I believe it is, quite simply, the most destructive force on the planet.

Shame is hard to talk about because, paradoxically, it feels shameful to even admit ever struggling with it. But the lie of shame is separateness, and the more I’ve been open about my own challenges, the more I’ve had hushed conversations with fellow writers about their own horror-worthy self-talk. It became clear to me that the only way to face my own toxic scripts was to be open about them. Vulnerability, after all, is shame’s most effective antidote.

Over the last year, I’ve made it my mission to eradicate shame from my writing life at every stage of my creative process. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Brainstorming

All writing requires ideas, and all ideas require generative mental energy and a lot of refinement. I have yet to meet a writer in any format I’ve worked in who has truly been hit with a fully formed concept from the jump. And I’ve also yet to meet a writer who has sustainably beat themselves up from conception to publication. Writers who succumb to shame scripts usually talk themselves out of writing. I certainly have.

Which isn’t to say that torturous days aren’t part of the writing life, but the old adage “writers write” is annoyingly accurate. Writers write. People who aren’t writing aren’t writers. It’s a practice, not a goal. Shame, in my experience, is the fastest way to end that practice. And the best way to stop shame at this stage is to notice it.

How? Meditation helps me. I meditate for 10–30 minutes every morning, and I watch my thoughts. I am especially mindful of a few dangerously potent ones (any rendition of Nothing about your stories are relatable to “normal” people is my personal sign to stop and pay attention), as they can implode an entire day’s work. Next, I write down the shame thoughts and try to identify their source, reminding myself that shame has been used as a form of social control for generations. Who benefits from me keeping myself and my work small? Whose voice have I internalized? Does that voice line up with my own value system? If not, can I convert my fear into compassion for myself? Can I expand that compassion to include, even, the person or people who have passed this harmful thought on to me, like the virus it is?

When we feel part of humanity, our creativity is infinite.

Good writing is based in compassion, the other antidote to shame. If I can find that part of myself, I blow on it as you would a fire, growing the flame.

Then I commit to writing down at least five versions of every idea I’m exploring, as fast as possible, and without the critic. If I have successfully eradicated shame from this part of my process, I find that a floodgate opens. When we feel part of humanity, our creativity is infinite.

Writing

Writing requires us to put ourselves out there, which makes shame a fantastic foundation for writer’s block. What is a better reason to not write than that you’re a fraudulent piece of shit who is fundamentally separate from all other living creatures? The ego, in my experience, loves to use shame at this point in the process to spin the lie that it’s just protecting you from the humiliation of everyone else realizing how terrible you are.

As with brainstorming, I’ve found it incredibly helpful at this stage to chart and interrogate the origins of this script. My last book, Amateur, about the relationship between masculinity and violence, took a near-daily effort on my part to overcome the very real social shame of exploring what it means to “fail” at being a “real man.” Because I am trans, I am especially aware of the transphobic ways I am not seen as “real.” Still, the shame attacks I experienced while writing it were especially baffling given that the premise of the book itself is that all men are in a constant state of failing at masculinity, or trying to prevent that failure. I repeatedly had to remind myself, despite all of my reporting, that shame was the reason so many men fear standing up to more toxic ideas about manhood. The only way out was through — and for me, that meant writing the book.

I eventually did finish and publish Amateur, but it was a painful process. To combat shame, I’ve learned that consistency of practice and creating guiding values are most effective for me. I try to work every day at the same time, for 3+ hours at a stretch so that I can get past a wobbly start, if necessary. I create concrete goals at the start of every session (finish a draft of the outline, write to the end of Act I, and so on) and I force myself to stay on schedule, even if I have doubts about the quality of my work.

Revision is part of writing, perfection isn’t.

If I truly feel “blocked,” I freewrite for a set period of time (usually 30 minutes), then return to the job at hand. I write down, in one sentence, what underlying value or idea drove my desire to create this project, and I return to that sentence every time I feel stuck. If I’m still in a shame loop, I call a friend, read a book, or go for a walk. If I take a day off, I always come back the next day.

If I’m still stuck, and I don’t mean this flippantly, I take it up with my therapist. In writing, a shame-based creative block is a vitality block in general. It’s likely that if I can’t write, I also can’t connect in other parts of my life — and that means I need to get some help. There’s no shame in that.

Revising

I love being edited and collaborating on my work, though I know for other writers, shame might be especially present at this stage. The best way to separate shame scripts from compelling feedback is to (as always) know what your shame scripts are so you can interrupt them, and to see editors and readers as teammates, genuinely interested in supporting your vision.

That’s why it’s crucial to develop an antenna for who succeeds and fails at that endeavor. I think in terms of resonance: Nothing emerges from a creative process in perfect form, so helpers who understand the spirit of what you’re doing will have suggestions that resonate with your bigger ideal. Return to your guiding value: What question or passion drove this project? If the feedback you’re getting reflects the themes and enthusiasms undergirding your idea, they’re likely useful. Use them.

Similarly, walking away and re-reading your own work a few days later with clear eyes will highlight for you areas that aren’t quite working. Good feedback aligns with your own sense of where you need support, and that sense will only develop if you commit to seeing your work as separate from you, imperfect in the best way, and absolutely worthwhile. It can be humbling, but developing clarity around your own strengths and weaknesses and continually improving is what makes writing a rewarding practice.

Reception

There are few experiences more painful than sending work out into the world and receiving no response — except perhaps being misunderstood. It can be very easy, for me at least, to hammer myself with shame when my work doesn’t land. If I am not careful, I can easily slip into nihilism: I am mad at the world for not “getting” me, and then at myself for not being “legible.” Though real structural issues might undergird my concerns, I can tell it’s a shame thought versus a real social critique by the repeated presence of one word: Me, me, me, me, me.

Shame is all about that “me,” where writing, good writing anyway, is not. What helps me when I feel shame at how I am (or am not) received is to first notice the story I’m telling myself, usually some variation of: I put myself out there for “nothing.” I investigate the humiliation I feel at this “failure.” But before I can fall into a malaise, I begin to ask gentle questions. What is failure? (Failure, for me, is failing to try. Shame is really good at helping me fail in that regard.) Have I done the best possible work I could? Have I serviced the story, have I sought feedback, have I improved my craft, have I told a deeper truth?

Almost always, yes.

Shame doesn’t want me to ask those questions, because shame itself exists so I do not. Vulnerability, on the other hand, requires bravery (action in the face of fear), and a constant drumbeat of risk. Sort of like life. If you can commit to that honest effort, and to understanding and documenting how shame infects your own process, shame will alchemize before your eyes into — get this — love.

Shame, after all, is a fear of disconnection. To connect despite that fear isn’t just life-affirming — it’s sublime. The irony is that shame can block you from recognizing the connections you already make with your work. I am lucky to receive thoughtful letters from readers regularly, and I return to them over and over again, like a spell or a communion. These letters are my reminder that confronting the shame that holds you back can liberate more than just yourself.

Shame, after all, is a fear of disconnection. To connect despite that fear isn’t just life-affirming — it’s sublime.

I see shame as a collective violence, a force attempting to cleave me and my work from our shared humanity — from you, from life itself. I find that if I can tune into that shame empathetically, the most beautiful underbelly lies beneath its toxic story.

That’s the final step, by the way: Wherever you feel shame, recognize it as a call to action, a reason to mine the richness hidden just beneath. Where there is shame, there is cover for a deeply human story — and where there is a human story, you will always find readers, your fellow humans, searching for just that story, waiting to be seen.

Writer exploring the relationship between gender, culture, and history. Most recent book: Amateur (Scribner). Essays/reporting: NYT, The Atlantic, GQ, more.

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