Writer's Block: Fact or Fiction?
What we mean when we say we can't write, and what to do when it happens.
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As I wrote in Sunday’s newsletter, last week I experienced a mini-bout of writer’s block. It’s not that I was out of ideas, or that I didn’t know where I wanted to go with the material, or even that I couldn’t write anything at all. I simply could not seem to work on the one thing I most needed to work on: my book. For several days, every time I opened up the Word document, I felt like I was dying. The environment was no longer hospitable. The air of the thing felt choked by the fumes of burning plastic, and the longer it went on, the worse I felt. I knew what I needed to do with the next chapter, but felt wholly unable to do it.
I am no novice. I have published two books, written most of a third, and have supported myself exclusively through my writing for the past fifteen years. During that time I’ve worn several writing hats, as an author, a newspaper reporter, a UN press officer, a freelance magazine journalist, and an essayist. Throughout it all, simply not writing, because I found it hard or did not feel inspired, was never an option. When you write for a living, there can be no such thing as total writer’s block. When you can’t write well, you have to settle for writing badly, and then hope you do better the next time. Most people won’t even notice. If you’re lucky, your editor will save you.
A Curious Affliction
So what is writer’s block? Or what do I mean when I use the term? It isn’t often that I feel I can’t write when I sit down to do it, but it does happen. Still, there are plenty of writers out there who will tell you writer’s block is not real. As Neil Gaiman said, writing is the only profession to claim it. There is not, after all, such a thing as “shoe salesman’s block.” Some will even tell you that you’re not a real writer, or not a good writer, if you experience it. But with all respect to Neil, I think there probably is something a bit like shoe salesman’s block, even if nobody calls it that. It’s when something you found easy and effective—in this instance, selling shoes using particular habits, methods, and techniques—suddenly becomes ineffective and difficult.
The shoe salesman gets up in the morning to go to work at the department store, but finds an envelope on the mantel. His wife has left him. Or maybe there is no note and his wife hasn’t left, but something is off nonetheless. At work, he finds himself smiling too much at the customers, or not smiling quite enough. His mouth feels full of cotton. His suit is itchy. He’s clumsy, and keeps knocking over the boxes. The magic is gone. He’s off his game and can’t figure out why. Time after time he loses the sale.
I think writer’s block gets a bad rap when it’s used as a blanket excuse, or is presented as something that one can do nothing about. You sit down, you try to write, and it doesn’t come easily, so you give up and stop trying—it’s writer’s block! Or you don’t turn in your writing assignments because you “have writer’s block” and therefore can’t write anything at all. How can the professor get mad at you when writer’s block is to blame? I can understand why people would say this kind of writer’s block isn’t real. You can always write something, it just won’t always be very good. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, for many writers at least, writing will suddenly become very, very difficult.
The worst writer’s block I ever experienced was in the summer of 2014, when I was trying to finish my first book. I was supposed to be writing a chapter about 19th century oyster pirates in the San Francisco Bay. I was so excited about the original research I’d uncovered, but when it came time to write that part of the book, I couldn’t do it at first. It’s hard to describe or explain exactly why. I just couldn’t. Just get a quick and dirty draft down, I told myself, but I simply could not.
I fought with it for about a month, and in the end, decided to skip it for the time being. I was writing the book in order, and even though the preceding chapters were already quite polished, I let this one stay a rough and repetitive mess for a while. I wrote most of the rest of the book first, and then came back to that chapter when I felt more on top of my game, and felt like I could do it justice. It’s now one of my favorite parts of the book, and was excerpted in Scientific American. The book itself was a finalist for the Orion Book Award.
Creativity can be mysterious, but writing is far from the only field with superstitions involved. Many professions attach an almost mystical significance to when things are going well, or when they are going poorly. In sports there are losing streaks and winning streaks, and salespeople of all kinds, like our friend in the shoe department, have cold streaks or sales slumps. Poker players have a bad run. Experienced actors flub lines. Athletes choke. Fucking up and not understanding why you’re fucking up is actually pretty normal.
Writer’s block is partly just what some writers call it when they hit a cold streak, a sales slump, a bad run. You step up to the plate to write that day, and you choke. People will tell you it’s all in your head, but like, no shit. Of course it’s all in your head, but unfortunately so is your book, until you can manage to get it down on the page, and your feeling of being blocked and your book are locked in the room of your mind together, and only one will come out alive!
But there’s another part to it too, and this second part is where you’ll find the key to defeating it. It has to do with understanding how you, as an individual writer, function as a creative entity. It’s about learning how best to operate the machinery of your own mind.
Writer’s Block: A Taxonomy
Under the umbrella of what we call writer’s block, there are actually a number of interrelated writer’s block subspecies. Although this is probably not a complete list, these are: Fear, Perception Fatigue, Lack of Readiness, Creative Cramp, Perfectionism, Rust, Wrong Turn, and Scribo Interruptus. All of these can produce the symptoms of writer’s block: a blank page, a bad draft, ill moods, thoughts of quitting, or a writer lying on the floor in anguish.
Let’s take a closer look.
Fear. This is when you can’t write because you’re scared to. You’re scared you’re not good enough. You’re scared people won’t like it. You’re scared of the material. You’re scared it won’t live up to your own expectations, or the expectations of your editor. It is the fear of replacing the hypothetical fantasy of your idea with the inevitably flawed reality. Fear pulls a hood over your eyes. It has a tendency to blind you to what you’re actually doing or not doing. The mind fills with static and sludge, and you may not even notice that you’re no longer trying to write what it was you’re supposed to be writing. You stop without quite realizing you’ve stopped, and may have no idea what’s really going on.
Perception Fatigue. This is a common phenomenon in the visual arts, but it applies to writing just as strongly. When you’re working on a drawing or painting, after a few hours you lose the ability to see it objectively. The parts of your brain that process visual information actually tire, and you have to take a break. Sometimes, the longer you look at something, the less you are able to see it clearly. With painting, you need to step back, to get away from the canvas for a few hours and then look at it again. You need to see what it looks like when viewed from across a room, or use that old trick and look at its reflection in a mirror, which suddenly reveals all its flaws. Perception Fatigue happens when you’re too close to something for too long, and can no longer trust your own senses. Is this bad, or am I just sick of it? Is this good, or does it not actually fit well with the whole?
Lack of Readiness. As the name suggests, this is when you try to write something before you’re ready. You haven’t done enough research, or you don’t have a firm grasp on the material. You can’t write a nonfiction chapter about 19th century oyster pirates if you don’t know anything about them. (This can be a tricky one, though, since it is also possible to research a topic too much.)
Creative Cramp. Sometimes things just go sideways all of a sudden, usually during bouts of intensive work. You suddenly find yourself obsessing over one paragraph, and can’t seem to make it sound right. You spend three hours working and reworking the same five sentences to no avail. You feel like you’re going mad. You can’t move on until you fix this one thing, but you can’t seem to fix it.
Perfectionism. As David Foster Wallace said, “if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” This is what happens when you think, consciously or unconsciously, that if it’s not going to be perfect, why bother. To write a shitty first draft is intolerable. To read over the shitty first draft you’ve already written is even worse. Perfectionism is always the enemy, but if you’re suffering from Perception Fatigue, you may not be able to tell the difference between Perfectionism and “just trying to be good enough.” This is also closely related to Fear.
Rust. This condition can collect on a writer after a long time away from a project, or away from writing in general. Sometimes however, Rust can collect surprisingly quickly, in just a matter of weeks or even days. The gears won’t turn. The windows won’t open. You’re stuck from lack of use.
Wrong Turn. This is when you can’t proceed because you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere further back. You’ve lost the plot, often quite literally. You need to recalibrate. You can’t seem to write the next part, because it’s not actually the part you should be writing. You have to go back and figure out where it is you went off the rails.
Scribo Interruptus. This is what happens when you were on a roll, in a flow state, but it got interrupted, and now you can’t quite get it back. You expect to be able to work with the same kind of momentum you had before. When you can’t, you get frustrated. You fail to accept that the flow state you were able to develop is gone, and that a new one must be created, the way you did with the previous one in the first place.
So what is a struggling writer to do? In the next post, we’ll talk about how best to address the different kinds of writer’s block.
What is it like when you get blocked, and what helps you to get out of it? Share in the comments below.
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Someone on Twitter just added that in sports this is called The Yips, and shared this link to a podcast episode. So interesting! Definitely worth a listen https://overcast.fm/+d4CzzzskI
“Of course it’s all in your head, but unfortunately so is your book.”