Yes, Virginia, there is a writer's block
I’ve been meaning to write about this one for a while. It’s been scratching at me, like an uncut tag in a new shirt. Maybe you’ve seen some version of it.
Writer is asked how she deals with writer’s block in an interview. Or maybe he is writing a book about how to write, he has some insight to share. How to sound original? Why not say something bold, something unexpected, something no one has ever said before?
“I don’t believe in writer’s block.”
Then we get the explanations. It’s a failure of discipline. It’s an unwillingness to deal with the difficult moments in writing, with the messiness. It’s a lack of courage. Or most recently, in my inbox, I find out it’s a mere pose, an affectation, a competition to be the most miserable.
Saying you don’t believe in writer’s block because you’ve never had it is like saying you don’t believe in cancer because you’ve never had it. How would you know the reality of someone else’s experience? If someone has never had writer’s block, I’m happy for them. I also don’t think they are much of an authority on the matter.
I found the post in my inbox particularly interesting though. It’s from a writer whose work I appreciate, and the first part of is beautifully crafted. And I agree with him that it’s worth trying to enjoy our writing, that there are many harder and more miserable things we could be doing with our time. But how can he, or anyone else, judge whether a writer talking about their block is making it up?
For what it’s worth, most of the people I’ve known with blocks keep pretty quiet about it. The shame is usually unbearable. I’ve had writer’s block because I didn’t yet know what my project was really about. I’ve had writer’s block because I had internalized some stupid criticism that came at me at some point, and didn’t have the confidence or strength to deal with it again. I’ve been blocked because the material I was writing about was too personal, too raw, too traumatic to get at, and yet I knew that it was precisely what I needed to write about to make it through. I’ve had it because I was sick, or because I was tired. And you know what I didn’t do in any of these cases? Tell a lot of people about it.
But there’s another fallacy here I want to write about, something that’s trickier to spot. The fantasy in the “I don’t believe in writer’s block” pose is that someone who is writing can do so because they are disciplined, and courageous, and patient, and vulnerable enough for the work. And this is not strictly true. People can write a great deal without getting at anything very hard. In some of my periods of block I have seemed wildly productive to others, because I was only blocked on the most challenging, most important, most personal project, the one where the most was at stake.
People can write entire books without telling the truth.
At least three times in the past few years I’ve read a memoir in which it was clear that the author was trying very hard to avoid addressing a deep wound. They couldn’t completely repress it — it kept popping up in their work in small ways, it was in fact at the centre of their story — but they did not want to or could not bring themselves to write about it. Do they owe me their blood? No. But it doesn’t stop me from noticing they’re bleeding and pretending everything is ok.
In terms of writerly productivity, these authors did everything right. They finished their books, published them, and moved on to the next project. In the cases I have in mind, the books did well — they were praised in reviews, hailed by people online, sometimes translated. I know other readers saw the gaps I did, but most people are too polite to say: “this could have been better.”
Writing doesn’t always equal courage. You can write an awful lot without wading into messy, uncertain territory. In fact, it’s easier that way. Write about the stories you’d tell at a cocktail party to strangers, find a form you feel comfortable in, let ‘er rip. I did that once, and the essay that came out in a few days, with almost no need for editing, was my most successful so far. It was anthologized in Best American Essays, shortlisted for an award where the shortlist is already a big deal, and still gets assigned to high school and university students all over the US. I may never again equal it, at least in terms of the external markers of achievement. But now when I read it all I can see is how much I was hiding behind jokes and turns of phrase. It wasn’t a dishonest essay, but it wasn’t honest either.
Writer’s block is real because people say it is. It has no objective reality outside people’s heads — all that’s necessary is that people feel they have it. That doesn’t mean we have to treat it like a mystical curse. I think we should, in fact, be curious about it, because it is linked to some of the most challenging aspects of artistic and intellectual creation. And here is where I get a little suspicious, because I wonder why someone would want to pretend something so interesting is not real. Is it, perhaps, to avoid coming close to what’s hidden by the ceaseless flow of words?
I have an essay on living life in survival mode in the latest issue of The London Magazine. This is an international collaboration — I originally wrote it in English, but it first appeared, in Romanian translation, in Scena9.
The great thing about writing is that if you’re too tired to write, you can write about being tired. Hence my very sleepy column for the TLS this past month.
Also at the TLS, I review Ian Mortimer’s new book on change in the Middle Ages.
Thanks for reading the process! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.