Ah, writer’s block: every writer’s worst nightmare that strikes without notice. We can likely deal with writer’s block if we truly understand what it is. While some writers stumble through outlining and plotting, Merriam-Webster defines writer’s block as a psychological inhibition. If you don’t have the motivation, willpower, or confidence to proceed, then you’re truly experiencing a writer’s block.
But what should you do when writer’s block lingers? What do you do when you sit down to write and you’ve lost the command of the English language? You might have brain fog instead, which is a symptom that accompanies many health conditions.
As a writer who regularly deals with brain fog, here is how I understand my limits and how I still overcome the negative symptoms.
Understand the Concept of Brain Fog
Perhaps you’ve heard someone with cancer use the term “brain fog” to label issues with memory, energy levels, and thought processing. Brain fog can actually be a symptom of many illnesses and mental health disorders, such as:
- Lyme disease
- Celiac disease
- Chronic stress and adrenal fatigue
Brain fog can cause you to:
- Feel groggy or fatigued
- Think more slowly
- Mix up words or forget words
- Lose concentration and focus
- Feel depressed or detached from reality
None of these experiences is conducive to good writing sessions. If writing has become a deep burden, consider if you are having difficulties in other communicative or cognitive situations. Your writer’s block could actually be brain fog, which would suggest the presence of a medical condition that needs to be checked out by a doctor.
Only a medical professional can determine if brain fog contributes to your writer’s block. When you visit your doctor and describe your symptoms, he or she will likely order a comprehensive blood panel to rule out various irregularities or deficiencies. If your blood panel is clean, then your doctor can refer you to an infectious disease specialist or an autoimmune disease specialist to rule out other problems with more in-depth testing.
While you are figuring out your possible health issues and waiting for test results, what should you do about your brain fog and writing in the meantime? Or, what are some things you can do if you have regular writer’s block?
As a writer with Lyme disease, I’ve had to adjust my habits in order to keep writing. These adjustments may help you as well.
1. Be Kind to Yourself
Since Lyme disease can cause fatigue, brain fog, and flu-like symptoms, it’s often the first thing I think about when I get up and the last thing I think about when I go to bed. There have been many days when I have grieved for the version of myself without illness since the symptoms affect my daily activities and creative outlets like writing. I can’t tell you how often I need to be reminded to be kind to myself.
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and fellow Lyme sufferer, describes it best: “Some of the fog finally lifted, and I frantically wrote for long days, fearful that the curtain would come down again.” It took her about two years to get better and maintain some normalcy with her writing and other activities.
If your brain fog isn’t as intense, it can be tempting to go into a state of frenzy and try to get everything done. However, there is great wisdom in listening to your body; otherwise, you’ll run yourself ragged and beat yourself up when you aren’t producing like you used to. When you’re dealing with brain fog, it’s important to temporarily shift away from the pride of being a prolific writer and move toward self-compassion.
A TED talk by Dr. Kristen Neff discusses this important shift from self-esteem toward self-compassion. Many of us have been conditioned to focus on external achievements (which isn’t inherently bad), but this attitude can damage your self-esteem if you aren’t writing as much during a health crisis as you would if you were healthy.
Instead, those dealing with brain fog should develop self-compassion; worrying about writing goals will just cause anxiety and depression in a time when recovery should be the primary concern.
2. Scale Back Projects—Then Scale Them Back Again
Writers often quote the adage, “Eat the elephant one bite at a time” when they have large goals that need to be broken into smaller tasks. Even though your “elephant” may be in bite-sized chunks, the enormity of the project may still loom in your mind during brain fog.
While you may have an idea for the next great American novel, the high word count and organization can be too overwhelming during brain fog.
Since brain fog can deplete your concentration and ability with words, it’s important to “eat a smaller animal” in even smaller chunks. Look for projects with minimal word counts, like:
- Poetry contests
- Flash fiction/six-word memoirs (Arguably the most famous example is “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”)
- Personal anecdotes, like the Reader’s Digest’s 100-word true story contests
- Blog posts
Your bigger goals aren’t going to go anywhere; the idea is to keep writing in a manageable way until you’re able to cope with your health issues.
3. Do as the Nature Poets Did
Unfortunately, some people with brain fog also experience anxiety and depression. And these experiences can be compounded if you are too fatigued to accomplish numerous daily tasks. Thankfully, there is a way to combat these effects.
Walking has been shown to be a fantastic physical activity for those with brain fog; it is often included in graded exercise therapies (GET) for patients with chronic fatigue. Stanford researchers found that walking in nature can alleviate the symptoms of depression.
So, if you can’t find your words, get outside and let your mind wander. After all, Keats and Wordsworth didn’t worry about blue-lit screens with scary, blank Word documents. Your brain fog may not vanish forever, but nature truly has that special gift for clearing the mind.
4. Write on Your Terms
While brain fog may be a temporary symptom for some writers, it can be permanent for others. But don’t despair if this is your case—you can make it work! Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken and Seabiscuit, has struggled with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome for years. She suffers from exhaustion, muscle pain, and vertigo. Her symptoms are so bad she rarely leaves her home.
However, she’s been able to publish two massively successful books because she has adjusted her writing habits to work with her health. If she’s too tired to leave the house, she has her library deliver research materials to her home. If she can’t leave her bed, she phones subjects for interviews and information. If she has vertigo, she dictates as someone writes for her. These writing conditions may not be ideal, but they’re hers.
Although brain fog is a struggle, remind yourself to feel kindness toward yourself. You may have to adjust how you write to overcome these blocks, but it can be done.
Do you struggle with brain fog? What tactics have worked for you? We’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments or on social media.
- “Why Can’t I Get Better? Solving the Mystery of Lyme and Chronic Disease” by Dr. Richard I. Horowitz