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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Don’t Be Passive, Get Active!

By Rosanne Bane

Besides content, what do the following phrases have in common?

  • I have writer’s block
  • I’m blocked
  • I am experiencing writer’s block
  • I’ve got writer’s block
  • If you’re a writer, no doubt you’ve experienced writer’s block
  • I’m always distracting myself; I must be blocked

Don’t see it yet? Take a second look at the title of this entry and look at the phrases this way:

  • I have writer’s block
  • I’m blocked
  • I am experiencing writer’s block
  • I’ve got writer’s block
  • If you’re a writer, no doubt you’ve experienced writer’s block
  • I’m always distracting myself; I must be blocked

That’s right: all of these phrases are passive constructions. (Grammar reminder: Technically, passive voice is one where the grammatical subject receives the verb’s action; pragmatically, you can identify the passive voice when a sentence employs a form of the verb “to be” – is, am, are, was, were, have, had.) Not all passive voice constructions are wrong (this sentence is an example of the correct use of passive voice), but the active voice is more concise and direct. One of the problems with passive voice is that it’s not clear who’s doing what.

One of the reasons writer’s block is so persistent is because we almost always use the passive voice to talk about it. As long as you have writer’s block or you are blocked, you can’t see what part you play. Writer’s block just happens. You’re passive, you’re a victim.

When you shift from passive to active voice, you can see what you can do to transform the resistance you feel. Let’s delete the qualifiers and change the last example “I’m always distracting myself; I must be blocked” to the active voice: “I distract myself; I block my writing.”

Now you can see what you do to contribute to, if not outright cause, resistance. And when you can see the cause, you can see the solution: Stop distracting yourself, stop blocking yourself.

If you’re not sure exactly how you can stop blocking yourself, take a closer look at what you do to block yourself. If you had to describe what happens when you feel blocked, but couldn’t use the phrase “I’m blocked” or any other passive construction, how would you describe the experience? Here are two common examples:

  1. I think about all the ways I could fail, psyche myself out and decide to go do something safe like empty the dishwasher.
  2. I tell myself I need a clear desk to write and spend whatever time I have moving paper around instead of putting my thoughts on the page.


  1. Refuse to think about failing. For just five minutes, imagine the positive outcome you want, then write and do whatever else you can do to move closer to that positive outcome. Remember you don’t have to do it all today, but you do need to do something. Finding something to do is an excellent cure for writer’s block.
  2. Learn to ignore clutter and write on a messy desk. Eventually you realize that the belief “I need a clear space to write” is a convenient excuse. Or take your writing to another location like a coffee shop or library where any messes aren’t yours to clean up. Or get a box and shove all the clutter on the desk into the box. (I call this the 30-second solution. Later, you remove stuff from the box when you need it, put it where it belongs when you’re done with it, and toss anything left in the box after a month.)

If you accurately and truthfully describe in the active voice what you’re doing when you feel blocked and still can’t see a way to transform that experience, please send a comment or go to my website www.RosanneBane.com where you can send me a private email and I’ll respond with a couple of possible solutions. 

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2 Comments on “Don’t Be Passive, Get Active!”

  1. JIll Barker March 2, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    Hello Rosanne
    I teach Creative Writing and I also struggle to write. Thank you for these insights. I’m curious to know whether you are UK or US based.
    Thanks for the blog


    • rosannebane March 2, 2010 at 10:13 am #

      You’re welcome Jill and thanks for your interest. I’m in Minneapolis, MN.
      As a fellow teaching artist, you might want to check out an article I wrote for writing teachers in the Creative Writing: Teaching Theory and Practice journal. You can find it (and other interesting articles) at http://www.cwteaching.com/#/issue-2/4539147501
      The article is intended to help teachers understand why our students resist writing and ignore our best advice about writing and how to help students move through the resistance.


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