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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