| Don’t Write Alone
Notes on Craft Don’t Call It Writer’s Block
It’s rare to hear writers—especially more established ones—claim that term in public.
I used to quit writing once or twice a year. It often happened after I’d been submitting my short stories, trying to figure out which journals were worth the fee, searching my work for the preferences explicit in the guidelines or implicit in the previous selections. Then I would sit down to start a new story, and the ideas that came seemed so bad they shamed me. When I tried to pursue them, the writing clanged and screeched, and I shut it off quickly, afraid of damaging the equipment, of further impairing my imagination. After a while, my old stories started to seem beyond my capabilities, and I wondered about the writer who had produced them. Who was he? How had he done it? Bewilderment gave way to frustration and despair, until I finally concluded that whatever it took to be a writer, I must not have it anymore. So I quit.
And then the ideas would start to flow. Sometimes they came so fast my fingers could hardly keep up. I could see the action, hear the characters, sense the ending. Everything seemed suddenly effortless and amusing. I would laugh at myself for getting so discouraged and remind myself to have more faith next time. But the next time it was always the same.
Before long I started to recognize this pattern—the quitting, the breakthrough—and when I got stuck, I would deliberately think, Well, I guess I give up! and wait for solutions to appear. But it never worked because it wasn’t genuine. My sense of expectation remained, keeping my mind in a clench, and so the writing I put down still lacked the light, automatic quality I’ve come to recognize as the sign that it’s going well.
The mechanics behind this process are simple enough. Submitting my work required me to stop imagining the story and start analyzing it, which wrenched my brain out of its creative mode. I’m an analytical thinker by nature, so it was an easy transition, but once engaged, the analytical part of my brain would not desist until I convinced it there was nothing left to analyze. The only way to accomplish that was to really, actually, in my heart, quit. At that point, my analytical mind surrendered, and the creative mind, its submissive sibling, could come back out to play.
In a word, you could say I was temporarily “blocked,” though it’s rare to hear writers—especially more established ones—claim that term in public. In fact, I’ve found that many writers are fond of saying they don’t believe in writer’s block. “I disavow that term,” Nobel Prize–winner Toni Morrison said in an interview with the New York Times Book Review . In a BuzzFeed interview, Judy Blume claimed that for her “there’s no such thing as writer’s block—don’t even say writer’s block.” Rumaan Alam, author of Leave the World Behind , told Lit Hub , “Writer’s block is a fiction.”
I’ve found that many writers are fond of saying they don’t believe in writer’s block.
Their contempt, I think, has more to do with the term itself than the condition it describes. It’s not uncommon for writers to get stuck or have fallow periods. The objectionable part is the undertone of magic and mystery suggested by writer’s block , the way it makes the condition seem like a spell cast by a villain rather than an ordinary part of the writing process. Writers work through their own causes and cures the same way they work through their dialogue, plot, and revision. One way to spare yourself that work is to claim you’ve fallen prey to writer’s block.
“The concept is suspiciously glamorous,” Joan Acocella editorializes in “Blocked,” her historical investigation of the concept for the New Yorker . “The term itself,” she adds, “is grandiose.”
Even so, Acocella found that writers have been describing the condition since as far back as 1804, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge bemoaned in his notebook that he had written almost nothing in a whole calendar year, feeling “an indefinite indescribable Terror” whenever he tried. Subsequent examples abound, perhaps most notoriously with F. Scott Fitzgerald, an enormous talent who shot to fame in his early twenties and then flamed out very publicly, undone by alcoholism, marital distress, and mercenary pursuits. His later inability to write anything but pulp prompted newspapers, psychologists, and other famous novelists (even Fitzgerald himself) to develop theories portraying it as an ailment. The term writer’s block , however, wasn’t coined until 1947, several years after Fitzgerald’s death and during the rise of psychoanalysis in America. Edmund Bergler, the term’s inventor, believed the condition was self-inflicted by writers who were still enraged that their mothers had withheld milk from them in infancy.
Today, the psychology of creativity offers more reasonable explanations, as Dennis Cass describes in “How to Get Unstuck: The Psychology of Writer’s Block” from Poets & Writers . There’s mechanized thought, for example, when a pattern puts you in a rhythm that is afterward tough to break, like writing dialogue and then being unable to switch to description. There’s functional fixation, when a lifelong pattern limits the range of possibility you’re able to see, like a short story writer who feels incapable of meeting the demands of a novel. You might have trouble with divergent thinking or convergent thinking; you might experience the natural limitations of the innovative or of the adaptive thinker. But Cass’s ultimate point is that conquering writer’s block requires diagnosing these ailments through better metacognition. In other words, more analysis!
For me, the biggest obstacle to writing well is, paradoxically, wanting to write well—it provokes precisely the kind of analysis that defeats me. Down go the first few words of a sentence, and because I care about them so much, I’m already examining their quality. Are they appropriately vivid, muscular, suggestive? Oh no, a cleft construction! The analytical mind cranks up its motor, and the rest of the sentence, not yet written, goes hazy. Even if Cass’s cognitive principles are valid, looking for them engages the analytical mind the same way, and to the same effect. Does this passage exhibit mechanized thought? Oh no, functional fixation! This kind of rational straining is itself an impediment to creativity. It might allow us to explain our blockages, but not necessarily to write our stories.
I prefer a more behavioral approach. Isak Dinesen advised, “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” It’s a beautiful nugget of wisdom, but to achieve it, you have to find a way to kill the hope, which in turn kills the despair. For me, quitting works wonders, but it’s awfully hard on the soul, and I can’t trick myself about it. I have, however, found several useful methods for tricking myself into believing that the writing doesn’t matter, which has the same effect. It helps me relax, stop caring whether I write well, and unlock the creative side of my brain.
The trick is to remove the associations that make the writing seem important. Once I get deep enough into a story, I start to care about how it turns out. When I open the document that contains it and put the cursor in place, my analytical mind warns me that whatever I put down better be good. I can feel it in the halts and hesitations as the words go down, the frequent use of the backspace key. So I open a new document and start with a few words to reassure myself how casual a place it is: “Okay, so, what I see next is maybe . . .” or “Okay, so, what are the possibilities for . . . ?” I keep the tone conversational, unwriterly, and I always go through a few maybes, a few possibilities—whatever comes to mind—until the analytical mind gets the message: just brainstorming here, just taking some notes, not writing . Its clench releases, and the ideas start to flow.
This doesn’t work forever. After a time, I start to develop expectations even in the new document, and then I feel the same halts and hesitations. So I close my computer and open a cheap notebook. When this stops working, I carry my notebook away from The Desk, where The Writing is supposed to happen, and set myself up on the futon or in the backyard grass. When that stops working, I’m usually ready to return to the computer to type into blank documents again. Around and around I go, eluding the block—not by performing metacognition but by avoiding it. At every stage, my only goal is to find behavior that downgrades and informalizes the writing, which helps strip away my expectations, wrench my attention from the future product, and embed me in the imaginative process. The heaviness lifts, and my mind opens.
The trick is to remove the associations that make the writing seem important.
When I moved from short fiction to novel writing, I became especially adept at orchestrating these strategies. For four years my creative mind romped happily through various drafts of my debut, The Step Back , but afterward, the submission phase awaited me like a Monday morning. For two years I teased and synopsized the novel, offered comps and suggested audiences, evaluated editorial tastes and reconsidered my approach, and after it was accepted by Ooligan Press, I spent another two years revising, negotiating titles and covers and blurbs, generating marketing visions and publicity opportunities, promoting the novel and discussing its appeal. (Did I mention it’s available now ?)
It was the longest, deepest analytical phase I’d ever experienced. Toward the beginning I still had enough wherewithal to churn out a handful of short stories, but by the end, I was considering the submission phases as I geared up for a new novel, trying to aim it toward marketability. When I started writing, of course, I was shocked and distraught to find myself stuck. My ideas seemed preposterous, my prose horrid. In set the frustration, the despair, and then the rest of 2020, a litany of disasters I don’t need to recite. By then I was hopelessly blocked but hardly cared. Writing didn’t seem very important. I even wondered if I was done with it for good.
Around this time I was evicted from my home office, which became a nursery, and relegated to the backyard shed. It was where we kept the bucket of deck stain, the asbestos-clogged Shop-Vac, the broken rocking chair, the mildewed kids’ pool—the things we had no room for, didn’t use, and didn’t want to think about. It seemed like an appropriate place for my writing desk. And having it there did, in fact, make me feel a sense of freedom from old projects and expectations—it was exactly the kind of downgrade that helped convince me my writing wasn’t important.
I started to write for an hour a day, and at first it was difficult and jarring. After sixty minutes I was glad to give up. But I felt heartened to have put something, anything, on the page. All of it was awful until I tried a scene about evacuating from the deadly wildfire a dozen miles away that had blotted out our sun, shoving in a couple characters from my last failed novel, not caring if it failed again. The wildfire, however, seemed perfectly suited to expose and complicate their issues, and the words came pouring out. I could hardly type fast enough. Overwhelmed with joy and relief, I shouted into the backyard shed, “This is fun!”
That’s when I understood that I hadn’t really quit. I’d just finally convinced myself I had.