The Precipice: Write On or Fall Back?

I’ve often received two seemingly contradictory pieces of advice as a writer when I face a problematic section of a manuscript and feel like I can’t go on. So I thought, what better way to try and tease them apart than to blog about it?

Think about those days when you absolutely can’t write another word. You know you’re supposed to. It’s part of your writing schedule. You’re on track to finish this draft if you just get your butt into that chair and do it. You even  know what’s supposed to happen in the next scene, so it’s not really writer’s block, but something is stopping you from putting pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard.

Smarter and more experienced writers than I have suggested two strategies to deal with this situation:

1/ Push through the pain and write on. The fact that you are resisting moving forward means there’s something worth digging into there.

2/ Give yourself a break. Maybe your writer’s well is exhausted and you need to take your mind off it and refresh your writing brain.

Both are good pieces of advice and both can work well in the appropriate situation, even though they seem contradictory. I suspect each works in certain situations, but not others, and I have trouble knowing when to move forward versus when to give myself a break. If I’m prevaricating over something I’m scared of writing, I probably need to take the first approach (move forward) but if I’m confused about what happens next, I probably need a break. The risk is that if I confuse the two situations and give myself a break when what I’m facing is fear rather than confusion about what happens next in the story, I might continue to give myself break after break and never finish.

How does a writer know which situation is which?

Sometimes if I force myself to sit and write for 20 minutes however washed out I feel, it becomes obvious pretty quickly whether my brain needs a rest or whether I was only scared. If the 20 minutes turns seamlessly into two hours without me noticing the time flying by, I was likely in the first (fear) scenario, but if I literally can’t write another word after five minutes, chances are that I was in the second (exhaustion) scenario.

What do I do if I can’t even get as far as sitting down to write for 20 minutes?

Maybe I need to ask myself the question: Do I know what happens next in my story?

If I do and I’m simply resisting writing it, chances are I’m facing fear rather than exhaustion and I need to make myself sit down and do it.

If I have no idea what the characters are going to do next, chances are I need to refill my creative well before I write anything.

Has anyone else ever faced this “fight or flight” conundrum with a particular scene, chapter or story? Any other good tips for how to deal with the problem?