You Only Think You Have Writer’s Block

Piece of paper with the words "can't think" written on it.“I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe writers get stuck. One absolves responsibility. Admitting your stuck means you can fix it. […] Writer’s block is a sympathy card. Only writers could be so inventive as to come up with it.”

Neil Gaiman, Book Reading in Austin, Texas


The New Year ushers in the usual resolutions: eat healthier, exercise more, watch television less. For writers, though, the time period typically involves some commitment to a writing project. They aim to finish a novel or other manuscript before 2018 comes to close.

A good resolution, but it peters out as often as the standard diet-and-exercise ones do. The bleak February days arrive, and the writer stumbles to a standstill. When asked how their first draft is progressing, they hem, haw, and eventually mumble something about writer’s block.

Writer’s Block is a Lie

Writer’s block, however, may be an insufficient justification. Neil Gaiman certainly thinks so, and he isn’t the only one. Dean Young also opines that writer’s block excuses the writer from the work.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, writing well is very easy; it’s writing horribly, the horrible work necessary to do to get to writing well, that is so difficult one may just not be willing to do it.

Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness

Richard Hugo says much the same thing in The Triggering Town. He remarks that the ease of one piece of writing comes only by slogging through the difficulties of the other poems, chapters, et cetera.

If you write often, perhaps every day, you will stay in shape and will be better able to receive those good poems, which are finally a matter of luck, and get them down. Lucky accidents seldom happen to writers who don’t work. You will find that you may rewrite and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second. If you just sit around waiting for the easy ones, nothing will come. Get to work.

Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town

If all three men bemoan writer’s block as a “sympathy card” or avoidance strategy, it seems like more writers would dismiss the malady and get back to the business of writing. Writing, though, doesn’t always respond well to willpower (or castigation) alone. Writers get stuck and wander when the words come piecemeal, if they come at all.

How to Overcome, Hmm, Writer’s Block

Fortunately, Gaiman and others provide some advice for the “stuck” writer. Gaiman urges writers to continue writing: “Always be writing. If you’re stuck on one thing, work on something else.” Anne Lamott offers similar advice in Bird by Bird.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

It helps, too, to get away from the writing for a bit. The words need to settle. The writer also requires a little distance, a little time, to reach a state of objectivity. Once reached, he or she either continues working on the draft or destroys and rebuilds.

Young might be a bit harsher. He’d say to sit down and slog through the work, an idea said much more explicitly by Chuck Wendig.

It’s work. It’s not always pleasant work. Sometimes it invokes a deep, almost psychic pain — an anxiety that blooms into an acid-spitting flower corrosive to confidence and craft. And yet, the words are the words. They only matter when they manifest. And you’re the magician that summons them into existence — their manifestation is on you and you alone. Nobody said it would be easy. Nobody’s saying you have to write thousands of words per day. You write what you can write. But that verb is still in place: write. Whether you write ten words or ten-thousand, they still involve you taking off your pants, setting your coffee onto its coaster, petting your spirit animal, then sitting your ass into the chair and squeezing words from your fingertips until you collapse, unable to do any more. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. Not now.

It only matters that it’s done.

Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds

Hugo offers a more conciliatory measure, suggesting that writers trust the process—i.e., the hard work put in on earlier drafts materializes in the ease of a future one. Ira Glass somewhat echoes the concept with his “gap” illustration; to bridge it, the writer (any artist) must hone their craft diligently.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Ira Glass, “The Gap

Writer’s block may exist. Then again, it may be caused by writers’ inventiveness. If that’s true, and even if it’s not, then the only thing for it is to write about something, anything, maybe, even, a current case of writer’s block.

Image: Alyssa L. Miller (Creative Commons)