This post has three parts:
Part 1 is an introduction which explains that a sizeable number of amateur and professional writers say they are blocked, but other writers say there is no such thing as writer’s block. Part 2 is a description of what happens to writers snagged by a dreadful writer’s block. Part 3 describes possible antidotes, or ways out of writer’s block that are suggested by accomplished writers.
A writer’s main concern is production of text. That production ebbs and flows. Some days for most writers the words pour out in torrents. You’re in overdrive and every word is perfect. Other days they wouldn’t come out were you to use blasting powder, but that is not writers block, but a temporary pause. When the pause is prolonged beyond the writer’s comfort zone or doesn’t end, that’s writers block.
Part 1: Introduction
Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, said, “The history of literature is the history of prolific people. I always say to students give me four pages a day, every day. That’s 3 or 400 thousand words a year.” Novelist Thomas Wolfe produced many millions of words and wrote, “The point is solely and simply to get a piece of work done at the rate of 1,000 or 1,500 words a day. If you do that—then brood, grieve, mourn, curse God, everyone and everything all you please. But get the work done.”
And writer/writing teacher John Gardner said, “Theoretically there is no reason one should get it (writer’s block) if one understands that writing, after all, is only writing, neither something one ought to feel deeply guilty about nor something one ought to be inordinately proud of.” His approach to combating writers block would be: “Write but don’t get emotionally involved.”
But those optimistic words are disturbing if you’re someone who claims to be a writer and find yourself unable to write even a quarter of an hour or produce even 50 or 25 “good” words because you’re in the grip of an impasse, a writer’s block you dread thinking may continue for days, weeks, months, or years as has been known to happen to even perfectly competent writers.
It’s easy for never-blocked writers to brag to the blocked writers, as they often do, “There’s no such thing as what you’re talking about. I’ve never been blocked.” But blocks are reported by so many writers, artists, inventors, and scientists, that blocks must exist. And it’s easy for the never-blocked writer to say, “Quit griping and snap out of it” just as it’s easy to say to a depressed person, “Cheer up.”
But a depressed person doesn’t want to feel miserable and writers facing a creative impasse are trying their best to get back to work, but just can’t. What are they to do short of resigning themselves to being unable to work or ending their career?
Part 2: Writers Block Can Be Dreadful
There are writers on every continent on earth who, whatever their native language and rules of composition, will not be able to write creatively today and have not been able to write for months or years. They worry and doubt themselves. They are discouraged and anxious. The act of writing does not excite or enchant them as it usually does. They have suffered agonies and are growing hopeless because of the dreadful misery called writers block that has taken hold of their mind, imagination, and spirit and will not let go.
To a person who considers himself or herself a writer and hopes to make a living out of the substance of their life, who has an urge to do good work, whose foremost virtue is persistence, whose very being and every ambition is to be a professional literary person for whom written expression is the light and reason of their existence, those few words–“I can’t write”– which may seem ludicrous and pretentious to anyone who is not a writer, are tragic.
When you’re engaged in creative work and have announced to the world that is what you’re doing and eyes are upon you and judging your merit, you’re up against it. You’re a pregnant woman and you’ve gotten yourself in a fix and now it’s time to deliver. No one can do what has to be done for you. There’s no going back and no possible compromise and no way out but straight through.
Your strength, courage, and endurance must come out of yourself. You try to work because work is a writer’s religion. Work gives a man or woman a chance to find their authentic voice, their authentic self, their place in society that is separate from anyone else’s and which no one looking at them can begin to imagine.
Your work room is full of the utensils a writer needs: a computer and references books and such. You’re trained to write, not in sporadic flashes of casual inspiration, but consistently, with exhausting concentration. But you can’t write a word. You fight, sweat, nearly kill yourself and perhaps do kill yourself trying to accomplish something, but you can’t. You aren’t to blame; it’s not your fault. There is simply nothing you can do, nothing great, nothing small, nothing at all. You’re knotted up. Your faith in yourself is battered and then disappears and is replaced by a dejected resignation.
You live in terror and dread of the absence of words, of needing them so desperately but no longer having access to them as you once had, of groping without effect for a good sentence, a decent paragraph, a finished text. You wait to get unknotted, but nothing happens.
Every aspect of your life suffers if this goes on long enough: your professional life, your personal life and social life and; then lastly, your love life.
Part 3: Some Possible Antidotes: What Professional Writers Have To Say
Professional writers have theories about the causes of blocks. The blocked writer may be too impatient: “I think that when you’re trying to do something prematurely it just won’t come. Certain subjects just need time, as I’ve learned over and over again” (Joyce Carol Oates). This opinion says that there are “half hour” writing problems— problems that need a half hour to be solved—and “six month” writing problems that won’t be solved in less than half a year. These writers believe that you can’t solve the problem until it has reached its allotted time.
The never-ending repetition of regular writing (going over a text seventy or eighty times, for example) may cause a block because you’ve become saturated with the piece or with the routine of writing itself. Your mind is bored sick and tells you, “I am damned tired of this” and refuses to write. I’ve had that happen many times. Get away from the work and come back to it rejuvenated.
Poet and essayist William Stafford believed that “writing block” was caused by having standards that are too high for your abilities. The answer, he said, is to lower your standards until they are no longer too high. He adds, “It’s easy to write. You shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing.” It’s well-known that it is senseless to pursue goals that you lack the abilities to reach. Lower your sights until you develop the abilities. Work on something else.
The writer may be blocked because he or she has nothing worth writing about: “I question the assumption behind writer’s block, which is that one should be writing all the time, that at any given time there is something worthwhile to be made into a poem” (Louise Gluck).The solution if this were the reason for the block would be to find something worth saying. Then the block would disappear.
Historian Barbara Tuchman thought that blocks are caused by organizational difficulties; that the material was “resistant” or that she didn’t adequately understand it, and it needed rethinking, additional research, and a new approach.
Annie Dillard, author of The Writing Life agrees with Tuchman: “When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things:
Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split in the middle—or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse and you do not know about it yet.” Try an entirely different plan.
I have found too after decades of serious writing that when I am about to make a mistake a subliminal alarm goes off and my mind and motivation to continue on that course shut down and will not let me continue until I go in another, more fruitful direction.
One of my blogs describes a technique for overcoming writers block that makes use of the person’s mental imagery that may be useful. A second post describes an atypical block.
Curiously, two opposite strategies each may be effective antidotes to writer’s block. One is to simply persist. Sit down at the computer every day and hack away without any self-judgment. Don’t worry or get anxious or depressed. Do this until your block cures itself. Another way is to completely cut off your involvement with writing. Don’t allow yourself to think about it. Forbid yourself from sitting down and writing at the computer or by hand. Don’t talk about writing. Do that for a specified period of time you set for yourself–ten days or two weeks. At the end of that period you may feel so deprived that you will develop a new enthusiasm and energy that may help you get on track again.
© 2020 David J. Rogers
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17 responses to “The Misery of Writer’s Block and Possible Antidotes”
That is very clear and I found some useful ideas.But it I stop for too long I find writing poetry very hard.Then I will write something even if it’s not very good so as not to make it even harder.Sometimes I’m trying this and that all day and in the evening it will all come ok and a poem will almost write itself
I don’t know though how it is when it is your job and you need money
I would be anxious then
Katherine, Thank you very much for your comment. I think your method is a good one.
I think professional writers have to learn to control their anxiety about money, their reputation, and other forms of success. Some high-strung writers will be nervous about those things their entire careers, but others learn to be dispassionate ane confident at the same time. Ater all, worrying is not going to contribute anything to solving the problem. Some writers (and other artsts) learn this and others never do.
I hope you are feeling good today.
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Thank you,David.I doubt if I’d have had the confidence toae earn a living that way and doing maths ar Uni was the opposite!I have read Stephen King’s book on how to write which is a biography and they were so poor he couldn’t buy penicillin for the baby and just then he got a deal and good money.I like him very much.He got married and had babies very young and struggled along his path… all unplanned
Struggling authors is a very common story. Some go on to be quite famous and successful. I wrote a blog about Raymond Carver. At times he was very poor and had many difficulties.
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Stephen King was really poor.I like his book on writing and I like him too!
I’ve never read him, although I’ve thought of doing that. Thank you for your comment.
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I have not read his novels but since I read his book on writing I feel I love him.It is partly biography.He had a tough childhood and worked his way through college.I think you would find it very interestinv,,David xx
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Great post David! I feel I can relate at this time in my life. Pulling back on judgement or hopes and dreams for the writing helps. Taking the pressure off.
Thanks for writing such an in-depth post about it.
I’d like to stare on social media but couldn’t see where I could do that.😁
Sent from my iPhone
Joanne, thank you for the kind comment and for taking the time to stop by. I think it is possible to be passionate yet dispassionate at the same time–passionate about the writing process of making a work and dispassionate about what happens to the writing after the work is finished (such as will it be published, etc?) I think this comes with writing maturity and doesn’t happen over night. Here is a link to a post I wrote that I think you might find useful in regard to this subject. https://davidjrogersftw.com/2015/03/12/non-attachment-the-solution-to-an-artists-or-writers-problem/
As for sharing on social media, at the bottom of my post, after the links to my two books, you will see “Share this” followed by buttons for various social media. It is just above the “like” button.
David, this is a marvelous, mindful post. Your insights are always amazing. “it’s easy for the never-blocked writer to say, ‘Quit griping and snap out of it” just as it’s easy to say to a depressed person, ‘Cheer up'” is a spot-on comparison.
Ray Bradbury’s advice is something I always enjoy. There’s something so down-to-earth and personable about his words of encouragement. Although it’s far beyond my aspiration. A single page in a day is a rare surge of writing for me. And this year…
You are so, unfortunately right that “never-blocked writers to brag to the blocked writers, as they often do.” Most years I participate in National Novel Writing Month (write 50,000 words of a novel within a single month, from scratch, but advance planning is okay). My first year was the only time it produced good results. Otherwise, most of that 50K is not words I could keep for the story. Yet a “new” woman (not young, but new to writing seriously and extremely “knowledgeable” [if you get my drift] about all the teachings of “how to write properly”) claimed to have written well over 100,000 words in that month, when even the best rarely produce 50,000… I admit that I very uncharitably had the thought, “I wonder what she could possibly vomit onto the page to come up with 100K words in a month.” LOL, I do have an unkind moment now and then. But I digress.
I think the impatience you mention in part 3 applies to me too. A couple of years ago I realized that my problem isn’t really “block” but the inability to focus that comes from my anxiety issues.
Thanks for this post. It’s a keeper, definitely bookmarking. Hugs on the wing!
Thank you for your comment Teagan. I am often impressed by how much you write. You get so many comments and you answer them all and sometimes your answers are long. In addition your posts are so long. I recognize you’ve written them over a long period of time, but your writing is “talkative.” I don’t know where you get the patience and time. Also, you must have a great memory to keep track of where your stories are going–what you’ve already said and where you’re going in the text. That’s a skill.
When I was writing Fighting to Win and Waging Business Warfare under tight contractual deadlines I wrote twenty hours and day, slept four, was always sleepy, for three years, and the words poured out of me. Nowadays I write most every day, but never under that kind of pressure. I get an idea for what will be a five thousand word piece and work on it intermittently while at the same time writing shorter and longer pieces–a number of them at the same time, never being in a hurry. My only concern is that the writing be the best I can do. The time it takes is not important. At the end of six months I have more work done than I could have imagined, with lots of what I hope is good stuff to send out.
Whatever you write I enjoy. More than many writers your voice comes out of your writing loud and clear, so I have a good idea what you would be like if we ever were to meet.
This is a test sentence to see if you receive? Bloglovin and WordPress…I am confused again…
Hi janet. I received your test sentence, but I didn’t receive any other comment from you. And this time we didn’t find it on spam, so I’m not sure what’s wrong. I don’t know anything about Bloglovin. My posts just automatically show up there.
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Good morning David, OK I signed in again and so let’s see if this work.
I really enjoyed this post and I for one do believe in ‘blocks’ be they be writer’s blocks or painter’s blocks…and they are indeed painful.
The things that stuck out for me in your post were – ‘don’t get emotionally involved’ and how every aspect of your life suffers if a block goes on for long enough.
Very hard to not get emotionally involved although I have found things that help me to move through these periods and allow me for the most part to come out stronger and with more creative thinking.
I love the concept of using mental imagery, which as a painter I do – and that has carried through into my writing.
Most importantly, and I agree with this 100% it takes strength, courage and endurance to get out of a block and move forward. I find that walking in Nature, reading, visiting exhibitions, and so on does help a great deal. The important thing is to just do it, even if it means writing the same lines over and over again for a half an hour a day…..it can un lodge things and set the mind in a different direction.
I also find that painting and writing feed one another….so if I am stuck with my painting…writing takes over and visa versa and so maybe it is a good idea to have other disciplines to tap into.
I do hope that you and the family stay well….looks like we are going back into another lock down situation….I certainly won’t be going to Portugal this month….maybe November, but how knows. one day at a time. x
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I love your approaches to artists’ and writers’ block–shifting to the other mode, walks in nature, and “just doing it.” That is very wise and the voice of experience.
When I said, “Don’t get emotionally involved,” that refers to the fact that when people are blocked for a long time, they become anxious and think they have lost their talent and may never recover it. It’s so much better to be calm and confident that eventually the problem will end.
We hear the news from UK and know that another lockdown is possible. We in the U.S. never had a complete lockdown, and that’s one of the main reasons we have such a big problem.
Stay well, and thank you very much for your comment.
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I have just read your next post and will be commenting over the weekend. Wonderful stuff. Yes, we are in a mess here…people started to relax and get into large groups, mostly generated by alcohol and here we are. This virus does not intend to take any prisoners! Stay well and safe. Janet:)
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Thank you,Janet. We are having the same problem here. Irresponsible people endangering the lives of many other people.
Always good hearing from you. I look forward to your comments on the post.
You too–stay well and safe.
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