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Writer’s Block: Fact or Fiction?

Writer’s block. Whether or not you’re a writer, as a creative person you know what it feels like to be paralyzed by the page, the canvas, the studio — completely unable to move forward. Whether you feel bereft of ideas and inspiration or are simply unable to realize an existing project, banging your head against your creative work doesn’t ever feel good.

As a creativity coach, I can tell you that the best protection against writer’s block is to show up and do your creative work every day, on schedule. (Those of you who are doing NaNoWriMo this year know that you don’t have the luxury of being blocked.) The force of habit is a powerful antidote for creative paralysis.

But sometimes a block does seem insurmountable. You show up, install your butt in the chair, and gnash your teeth for two hours. You find yourself doing anything and everything aside from your creative work. You spend so much time doing “research” on the web that you can’t even remember what you’re researching. Suddenly you find yourself reading about how yellow was an exceptionally popular color among Latvian car buyers in 1982 and realize just how far you’ve sunk.

Now, if you’ve been procrastinating for months/years, then you’re not doing your work at all, which is a different topic. But what if you are doing your work, merrily rolling along, and then one day — BAM! — you can’t dredge up so much as a line of prose or a square inch of canvas? What’s going on? Should you plow on through with your eyes closed, or give yourself space to percolate and breathe?

I was struck by these two contrasting views of writer’s block:

Toni Morrison: “When I sit down in order to write, sometimes it’s there; sometimes it’s not. But that doesn’t bother me anymore. I tell my students there is such a thing as ‘writer’s block,’ and they should respect it. You shouldn’t write through it. It’s blocked because it ought to be blocked, because you haven’t got it right now.

Thomas Mallon: “My prescription for writer’s block is to face the fact that there is no such thing. It’s an invented condition, a literary version of the judicial ‘abuse excuse.” Writing well is difficult, but one can always write something. And then, with a lot of work, make it better. It’s a question of having enough will and ambition, not of hoping to evade this mysterious hysteria people are always talking about.”

What do you think? I’ve generally been of the mind that there’s no block that can stand up to the bulldozer of a 500-word daily quota. But in recent months, I too have had days when even 500 words were impossible. I had to wait out torture at the keyboard (literally, on my wordcount log, I wrote “hours of torture” next to my piddly 62 words for the day). Thankfully, those periods pass and invariably I return to flow. Still, more often than not, I think there’s a danger in giving writer’s block more credit than it deserves. It becomes too easy to shrug off our work when it gets difficult. Of course it’s difficult; it wouldn’t be worth doing if it were easy, would it? Hitting an uncomfortable patch doesn’t mean that we need to put a “gone fishing” sign on the door and tell ourselves to wait for the muse to return.

As Jodi Picoult put it, “Writing is total grunt work. A lot of people think it’s all about sitting and waiting for the muse. I don’t buy that. It’s a job. There are days when I really want to write, days when I don’t. Every day I sit down and write.”

And one of my favorites, from William Faulkner: “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”

What’s your view of writer’s block? Where, in your opinion, is the line between being at a creative crossroads and merely giving in to another excuse to avoid your work?


11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have been thinking of you all day today. Just posted a long post on the Laundry Line and the word count satisfies a few days’ worth. I find that diving in to another medium keeps my words flowing and available. If I play with color a bit or collage, if I journal with no intention to count my words, but only to capture the day, then things open up inside me and I take off.
    I love to use visual cues- to describe what I see on my walk or use words to capture how I feel about a social issue-there are so many jumping off places when I pay attention to my daily life. I often just start making lists of things. And, of course, there is doodling.
    Writer’s block is not a problem for me.
    Time. There is a challenge.

    I love your posts!
    Much love, Suzi

    November 15, 2012
  2. I often find that once I start, something usually comes! However on other days I write, re-write, re-write again and it still doesn’t sound right. On those days I realise that I need to re-centre my thoughts. For me, a bit of meditation and time out revitalises and puts me back in touch with words 🙂 Faye

    November 16, 2012
    • Thank you, Faye! I think we do need to be careful about separating editing from writing. This is why a word-count quota works for me — keeps me focused on output, rather than futzing with the words I’ve already created. Meditation is huge too, I agree — a daily mediation practice is vital to my creative work. Great to hear from you!

      November 16, 2012
  3. I believe there is usually a self-enlightening reason for writers’ block. If we are lucky, we can deduce the reasons, address them, and keep on writing. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes it takes a little distance before one can see the truth of what is going on.

    During my last semester of senior year at college, I came down with the affliction, and could not, for the last three weeks of school, write the weekly short story for the creative writing class I was taking. I was beside myself – I needed the one credit to graduate. This was back in the days when Tufts did not allow women into the engineering school, which was one of the places I’d have preferred to be – nor Harvard into their school of architecture, where I often gazed longingly through the huge glass windows to the rows of enormous drafting tables inside. This would have been my first choice, had I been free to choose (and had the qualifications of course). Instead I was taking the traditional path intended to make me a good teacher of young children.

    I received an incomplete, didn’t graduate, and eventually wound up in theater arts instead where I thrived. It was almost ten years before I made up that last credit and graduated. By then I knew what my passions were, and had the courage to act in my own best interests. The writes’ block had forced me to think out of the box – to really listen to myself and not to all the voices shouting at me from family and society. It had my back, so to speak, and helped me be true to myself. It was my best friend at the time, though I fought it all the way.

    November 16, 2012
    • Fascinating, how we resist — your story illustrates how there really is no “good” or “bad.” It is what it is. You couldn’t finish that course, and something that made more sense to you came along. A primer in “trust the process…”

      November 16, 2012
  4. I get writer’s block all the time but I now have enough projects that if I can’t write on one, I can usually write on another and it keeps me going. I think consistency very key!

    November 16, 2012
  5. I think giving anything a lot of credit, in turn, gives it power, and power can be scary. We only want to post what we deem ‘worthy’ and there are so many days where I write an entry and think ‘ugggh… no good’ … so yes, we give writers block too much power, but creativity can be decimated by making it a job also.

    November 18, 2012
  6. About a month ago I made a snap decision to start writing something on my blog every day. I’ve had one writer’s block (my mind was completely blank) during that time and after that I refuse to get them again. 🙂
    Because I’ve made a commitment to write this daily blog, I fear that if I do get the writer’s block again, I will force myself to write something I don’t think is good enough, and that I definitely don’t want to do.
    Thank’s for this post, it was inspiring!

    November 22, 2012

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