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

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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.

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