Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. The condition varies widely in intensity. It can be trivial, a temporary difficulty in dealing with the task at hand. At the other extreme, some “blocked” writers have been unable to work for years on end, and some have even abandoned their careers. Throughout history writer’s block has been a documented problem. Professionals who have struggled with the affliction include author F. Scott Fitzgerald and pop culture cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. It can manifest as the affected writer viewing their work as inferior or unsuitable, when in fact it could be the opposite. The research concentrating on this topic abounded in the late 1970s and 1980s. During this time, researchers were influenced by the Process and Post-Process movements, and therefore, focused specifically on the writer’s processes. The condition was first described in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler.
Irene Clark notes that writer’s block is a common affliction that most writers will experience at one time or another. Mike Rose defines writer’s block as “an inability to begin or continue writing for reasons other than lack of basic skill or commitment”. Additionally, The Purdue Online Writing Lab says, “Because writers have various ways of writing, a variety of things can cause a writer to experience anxiety, and sometimes this anxiety leads to writer’s block. The literature seems to focus on two areas related to writer’s block: causes and potential cures or invention strategies.
Causes of writer’s block
Writer’s block may have many or several causes. Some are essentially creative problems that originate within an author’s work itself. A writer may run out of inspiration. The writer may be greatly distracted and feel he or she may have something that needs to be done beforehand. A project may be fundamentally misconceived, or beyond the author’s experience or ability. A fictional example can be found in George Orwell‘s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, in which the protagonist Gordon Comstock struggles in vain to complete an epic poem describing a day in London: “It was too big for him, that was the truth. It had never really progressed, it had simply fallen apart into a series of fragments.”Additionally, Peter Elbow discusses in his article Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience, that while audience awareness is important, an over awareness of audience can be paralyzing and can cause writer’s block.
Other blocks, especially the more serious kind, may be produced by adverse circumstances in a writer’s life or career: physical illness, depression, the end of a relationship, financial pressures, a sense of failure. The pressure to produce work may in itself contribute to a writer’s block, especially if they are compelled to work in ways that are against their natural inclination, i.e. too fast or in some unsuitable style or genre. In some cases, writer’s block may also come from feeling intimidated by a previous big success, the creator putting on themselves a paralyzing pressure to find something to equate that same success again. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, reflecting on her post-bestseller prospects, proposes that such a pressure might be released by interpreting creative writers as “having” genius rather than “being” a genius. In George Gissing‘s New Grub Street, one of the first novels to take writer’s block as a main theme, the novelist Edwin Reardon becomes completely unable to write and is shown as suffering from all those problems.
It has been suggested that Writer’s Block is more than just a mentality. Under stress, a human brain will “shift control from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system”. The limbic system is associated with the instinctual processes, such as “fight or flight” response. Because the person is primarily thinking in instinctual (learned) behaviors, creative processes are hindered. The person is often unaware of the change, which may lead them to believe they are creatively “blocked”. In her 2004 book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (ISBN 9780618230655), the writer and neurologist Alice W. Flaherty has argued that literary creativity is a function of specific areas of the brain, and that block may be the result of brain activity being disrupted in those areas.
For a composition perspective, Lawrence Oliver says, in his article, “Helping Students Overcome Writer’s Block”, “Students receive little or no advice on how to generate ideas or explore their thoughts, and they usually must proceed through the writing process without guidance or corrective feedback from the teacher, who withholds comments and criticism until grading the final product.” He says, students “learn to write by writing”, and often they are paralyzed by rules and/or insecure.
Phyllis Koestenbaum wrote in her article, “The Secret Climate the Year I Stopped Writing” about her trepidation toward writing, claiming it was tied directly to her instructor’s response. She says, “I needed to write to feel, but without feeling I couldn’t write.” To contrast Koestenbaum experience, Nancy Sommers express her belief that papers don’t end when students finish writing and that neither should instructors’ comments. She urges a “partnership” between writers and instructors so that responses become a conversation.
James Adams notes in his book, Conceptual Blockbusting, various reasons blocks occur include fear of taking a risk, “chaos” in the pre-writing stage, judging versus generating ideas, an inability to incubate ideas, or a lack of motivation. Additionally, The Purdue Online Writing Lab explains common causes ranging an author being assigned a boring topic to an author who is so stressed out he/she cannot put words on the page, and suggests “possible cures” or invention strategy for each.
As far as strategies for coping with writer’s block Clark describes: class and group discussion, journals, free writing and brainstorming, clustering, list making, and engaging with the text. To overcome writing blocks, Oliver suggests that asking students questions to uncover their writing process. Then he recommends solutions such as systematic questioning, freewriting, and encouragement.
Garbriele Lusser Rico’s concern with the mind links to brain lateralization also explored by Rose and Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes among others. Rico’s book, Writing the Natural Way looks into invention strategies, such as clustering, which has been noted to be an invention strategy used to help writers overcome their blocks, and further emphasizes the solutions presented in works by Rose, Oliver, and Clark. Similar to Rico, James Adams discusses right brain involvement in writing. While Downey purposes that he is basing his approach in practical concerns, his concentration on right brain techniques speaks to cognitive theory approach similar to Rico’s and a more practical advise for writers to approach their writer’s block.
Author Julia Cameron advocates the practice of morning pages as a remedy to writer’s block. Morning pages are three handwritten pages of free writing where the purpose is to write without the intention of using the writing for anything. It is a practice that can bring your thoughts to the surface and allow you to enter a more creative zone.
My (blocked) thoughts
Fuck you. Fuck off. Fuck. I write that a lot when I’m blocked. Just fuck, fuck, fuck. Angry fuck scrawled across the page. Just graffiti rage. In particular, fuck you to the twits that offer helpful suggestions like fad diets for the mind that suggest that self-discipline (and two weeks of grapefruit) is all that’s required to become the airbrushed author of your dreams.
What it is not…
It’s not a lack of inspiration. If anything, I am sick with inspiration. Bloated with ideas to sneer at… oh, another thing to “not finish” or even “not start”. Thank you, brain, for another one of those. They pile up like gifts from an unwanted suitor, dripping with obligation and leering expectations. Fuck off.
What it is not…
It’s not a lack of creativity. It’s not a lack of talent. It’s not a lack of confidence. Although… I have twice simply stopped writing when presented with a nonfiction project that mattered, that seemed meaningful and which I was both well-suited and in a position to write. An international story in the 80s about an art exhibitor attempting to remove the gay and lesbian parts of a travelling holocaust exhibit -and I was the only press member at an exclusive meeting with the exhibitor in which he offered an apology/explanation to the queer community, but demanded the press leave. I was in the front row with my pocket tape recorder rolling. My magazine editor (The Advocate) begged for the story, any story while it hit the big wires, Newsweek, etc. Nothing. I transcribed the tape but couldn’t put two sentences together. At the same time, a Nevada journalist approached me about a teacher so filled with self-loathing at being gay that he was allowing himself to be railroaded into prison for a crime that never happened. Someone should save him. Champion his cause. Could I possibly have cared less? That’s a point of grammar I’ve never been sure of. Could or couldn’t care less. I stopped writing for years. And decided finally that it was nonfiction that killed me/it/writing.
Second great fuck-off was when a relatively painless (although no nonfiction writing has been painless for me EVER) gig for a sex magazine that paid relatively well, asked me to do a lexicon on transgender vocab. DUDE, that has me all over it. Researched to death. Stopped writing, working with them. Whonk! Shovel to the head.
Stupid blogs were supposed to be my “creative morning pages”. Just keep writing. Anything. How’s that working for you?