Re-Thinking Writer's Block

Offering a different perspective on Writer's Block, Will Dowd suggests re-thinking it as an illness. Can writers become stronger after overcoming it?
Author:
Publish date:

Offering a different perspective on Writer's Block, Will Dowd suggests re-thinking it as an illness. Can writers become stronger after overcoming it?

Image placeholder title

Writer’s block is a serious disease. Whether it manifests as blank page syndrome or second novel disorder, the onset of symptoms is the same: an arthritic cramp in the creative faculty, a feverish spike of self-consciousness, and a peculiar amnesia that leaves the writer wondering how he or she ever managed to compose a single sentence.

Writer’s block does not discriminate—it’s as likely to strike a Nobel Laureate as a food blogger. And it seems to be contagious, judging by how readily it spreads in the humid hothouse of the MFA writing workshop.

For some the condition is fatal. In his early 30s, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was beset by a poetic paralysis that never lifted; Herman Melville was rendered effectively mute after Moby Dick; and Joseph Mitchell waged a brave but losing battle against the disease, showing up to his New Yorker office every day for 32 years without publishing a word.

 Get more inspiration to write fearlessly from author William Kenower.

Get more inspiration to write fearlessly from author William Kenower.

Some writers simply deny they’re afflicted. For decades, Ralph Ellison and Truman Capote claimed to be working on masterpieces that never materialized—even after their desk drawers were posthumously scoured. Harper Lee blamed her lack of output after To Kill A Mockingbird on an incessant stream of friends dropping in for tea unannounced. As we speak, George R. R. Martin swears he’s just distracted from completing the next installment of A Song of Fire And Ice by interviews and constant travel. “It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai,” he said at a recent film festival, “and who's passing up a free trip to Dubai?”

Naturally, so-called “cures” abound. The internet is a repository of folk remedies ranging from the slightly embarrassing (write a stern letter to your writer’s block) to the absurd (write on a merry-go-round!) to the frankly self-destructive (take up smoking). You can purchase any number of books filled with writing prompts, such as “Tell a story from the pet’s point of view” or “Write a poem set in Finland.” You can try writing naked like Victor Hugo. You can follow Dan Brown’s lead and hang upside down in a pair of gravity boots. Of course, you can always see a shrink.

Perhaps we fear writer’s block too much. Most writers experience it at some point in their career and soldier through, especially those who write for money and therefore can’t afford the luxury of taking literary sick leave. On the whole, writers are creative survivalists—they do whatever it takes to wriggle Houdini-like out of artistic shackles and straight jackets.

Some writers even rise from their sickbed with something new and strange that never would have existed had they not fallen ill in the first place. Graham Greene, who was frozen by writer’s block in his 50s, began keeping a detailed dream diary—a practice that liberated his repressed imagination and allowed him to write novels again. A selection of Greene’s recorded dreams, A World of My Own, was published after his death and offers a unique glimpse into the subconscious of the intensely private writer. He was not the only writer to recognize the upside of writer’s block. “If I have a dry spell,” Sylvia Plath wrote, “I wait and live harder, eyes, ears, and heart open, and when the productive time comes, it is that much richer.”

I suspect—or rather hope—that writer’s block is like chickenpox or mononucleosis: Once you survive it, you develop an immunity. At the very least, you come away with a faith that it can be endured. In this sense, maybe we should see writer’s block not as a plague to be avoided at all costs but as a rite of passage. Maybe you aren’t a true writer until you’ve suffered an attack of writer’s block and lived to tell the tale.

Areas of Fog by Will Dowd
writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: #StartWrite, Virtual Conference, and New Courses

This week, we’re excited to announce free resources to start your writing year off well, our Novel Writing Virtual Conference, and more!

20_most_popular_writing_posts_of_2020_robert_lee_brewer

20 Most Popular Writing Posts of 2020

We share a lot of writing-related posts throughout the year on the Writer's Digest website. In this post, we've collected the 20 most popular writing posts of 2020.

Malden_1:16

Carla Malden: Writing With Optimism and Innocence

Screenwriter and author Carla Malden explains why young adult fiction and the '60s go hand-in-hand and how she connected with her main character's voice.

writing_mistakes_writers_make_talking_about_the_work_in_progress_robert_lee_brewer

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Talking About the Work-in-Progress

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake writers make is talking about the work-in-progress.

Kelly_1:15

Greta K. Kelly: Publishing Is a Marathon

Debut author Greta K. Kelly reveals how the idea for her novel sparked and the biggest surprise of her publication journey.

Poetic Forms

Mistress Bradstreet Stanza: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the Mistress Bradstreet stanza, an invented form of John Berryman.

capital_vs_capitol_grammar_rules_robert_lee_brewer

Capital vs. Capitol (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use capital vs. capitol with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Dulan_1:14

On Writing to Give Grief Meaning and Write Out of Challenging Situations

Author Lily Dulan explains why writers have to be willing to go to difficult places inside themselves for their writing to make a positive impact on ourselves, others, and the world.

Brandt_1:14

Gerald Brandt: Toeing the Line Between Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Science fiction author Gerald Brandt explains how this new series explores the genre boundary and how he came to find his newest book's focus.