Fixed Mindset and Writer’s Block

The reasons for writer’s block are as varied as the people who experience it. You may have no idea which direction to take your story. You may not know enough about your characters yet. Or maybe you received some cruel feedback. 

But today, I’ll be focusing on fear-based writer’s block. The voice that, when you write a sentence, says, “This is so awful, I can’t stand to look at it,” or “I’ll never figure this out,” or “I’m terrible at this.” The kind that freezes you immediately with shame. 

What is ‘Fixed Mindset’?

The term ‘fixed mindset’ comes from Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University. Fixed mindset is a way of thinking that says that your intelligence, abilities, and skills are fixed from birth. There’s no sense in trying hard with this mindset. You’re born with talent, or you’re not. In fact, it’s a sign that you’re no good at writing if words don’t drip from your pen like literary honey.  

You can probably already see where this mindset can turn into a major pitfall for writers. Who among us has never been stuck in a story? Who loves every sentence that’s ever fluttered across their mind? Whose writing has been universally accepted by the population of the world as ‘the best ever’, especially in first draft form? Yeah, no one. 

As soon as a stumbling block occurs, as soon as writing becomes difficult, a person with a fixed mindset is likely to be thrown. After all, if trying hard to overcome obstacles is a mark of a lack of talent, then if you experience any setbacks in writing, it must mean you’re not as good as you thought. Or worse yet, that you’re just not cut out for this. 

A lack of positive feedback calls into question your worth as a human being. All criticism might as well boil down to: “You’re a fool to think you could do this.” You may as well quit when the going gets tough. If you were ‘meant to be’ a writer, then it would be easy, right? Folks with a fixed mindset can’t stand being last or worse than others. Failing or losing. Because it’s a reflection on them as a person and not where they are in the learning process. 

Fixed Mindset Among the “Gifted”

Many ‘gifted’ adults fall into this trap, since when they were children, so much came easily to them. They assumed this was because they were born with an advantage. And frankly, in some ways, they were. In school, ‘gifted’ children often do get further than those who struggle simply by being born fitting academia’s definition of ‘intelligent’. 

A gift is something you were given. You didn’t earn it. You didn’t work for it. It was handed to you. Certainly, the ability to breeze through classes that other students need to labor through is a gift.  

But once the graduation caps are thrown, thinking of yourself as gifted is a horrible setback. Gone are the standards by which children and young adults are judged. Gone is the praise from pleased teachers and faculty. In its place is a world where you must prove yourself. A place where outcomes are often divorced from talent and much more a combination of drive, skill, persistence, timing, and luck.  

If you haven’t guessed it, yes, I was considered a gifted child. Personally, I got a ton of mileage in every subject from being good at writing essays. From a very young age, my writing was a subject of admiration from the adults around me. (Hang on, this isn’t going to be tooting my own horn, believe me.) It was pretty much assumed that I would go into writing in some capacity since I liked it, and I was ‘born with a gift’. But here I am, 41, with nothing but a handful of unproduced scripts and a bunch of roleplaying posts to show for those decades past.  

Growth Mindset

So, what am I supposed to do? ‘Growth mindset’ is the opposite of a fixed mindset. This mindset says that everyone can improve. Getting published, becoming famous, getting paid, it’s all far less important than the amount of sincere effort you put into your work. You, and everyone else, are constantly learning. Failing is fine and natural. You are not your writing. Any setbacks can be remedied by working through them.  

It makes sense. If someone with a fixed mindset gives up at the first or third sign of a challenge, they aren’t going to finish their piece. Someone who keeps going will. Growth mindset reduces stress. It allows for enjoyment of writing itself to become a greater factor than some distant goal. It encourages people to go that distance. 

My Fixed Mindset

For a long time, I’ve suffered with my fixed mindset. It’s natural that I would. Once we were past first grade, we were rewarded for A’s, not for ‘trying the hardest’. Yet, even though I know the fixed mindset robs me of joy and paralyzes me, I struggle to change. Because I know that we all need money to survive. The more people love a story, the more money the author is likely to make, leaving that author more time to do what they love. A part of me still believes that writing should be so much easier, like when I was a kid and, my work was held to different standards.  

When I sit down to write these days, the first thing I feel is fear. “It isn’t easy like it used to be, and with that, it’s not fun. I’m too far back in the learning process, and it’s going to take too long to get to where I want to be. My prose is ugly, stilted, vague. I’ll only end up with something I hate. All of the promise I had as a kid is gone. I have no purpose. No meaningful effect on the world. I won’t be able to ‘live my dreams’, and with that, I’ll end up working in some mundane job for cash, never to return to that simple joy except in games.”

Can I adopt a growth mindset? Technically, yes. I can change the way I think, the way I talk to myself, my perspective. But that isn’t going to happen overnight, and it seems to me that I’ll continue to suffer through my writing as I make this tremendous shift.

Play Mindset

When I was a kid, I never felt fear in writing. It didn’t matter if other people liked it or not. I wanted to see how the story went. I was telling the story to myself first. Others only came to mind when it was finished. I wrote for the joy of it. 

We’re encouraged to turn our play, our talents, our hobbies into work, so that we ‘never work a day in our lives’, only to find out that turning these delightful activities into work can often make them miserable. Not because of the ‘other things that come along with it’ like marketing, social media savvy etc, but because the hobby you loved is now a commodity. Now writing is work. It has to be better. It must be judged. 

But I wonder if, with a tiny bit of patience, I can get back to this ‘play mindset’. Maybe I can follow a story through to the end of the first draft with an audience of me. I can forgive mistakes and quick run throughs and missing pieces because it doesn’t matter.

There’s no such thing as ‘failure’ in play. Nothing you do raises or lowers your value as a person. Story bits are allowed to make no sense, and sometimes, nonsense is the most fun of all. The only goal is self-enjoyment. You can feel joy throughout the process, yes even those sticky parts, because there’s no pressure to ‘get it right’. All stories can, and must, be edited, but oftentimes the first draft is not the place for that. Certainly, not for me.

Your Mindset

Play mindset isn’t a growth mindset. While I admire the growth mindset, it’s not something I ever had. To adopt that mindset is a daunting task, one that will take effort, patience, and a fundamental shift in my core. But ‘play mindset’, that I had and lost. That I understand. 

It’s akin to the infamous ‘love the process’, but ‘process’ always seemed so professional, so sapped of life, that thinking about it as play instead takes some pressure off. I share this in case any of you might find this way of thinking to be useful in your writing. As writers, we know how powerful using different words to describe similar things can be.

I would still love to be published, to make money from writing, to be lauded. But with play mindset, that’s just icing, the cake is the characters I get to know, the worlds I explore. When I write, I’m the very first person to experience this particular story, and there’s a magic in that. A magic I’d love to recapture.


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