The Writer's Block Blues
According to Wikipedia, Writer’s Block “is a condition in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown.” My favorite word assistant, Dictionary.com, says it’s “a usually temporary condition in which a writer finds it impossible to proceed with the writing of a novel, play, or other work.”
Though the affliction has probably been around ever since humans began carving letters into mud tablets (known as Cuneiform, circa 3500 – 3000 BC) the term Writer’s Block is relatively new. Credit for coining the phrase goes to psychiatrist Dr. Edmund Burgler in 1947. His root-cause explanations are very Freudian and I’ll leave it to you to look them up if interested.
Non-Freudian explanations include physical conditions stemming from illness or injury that afflict the brain causing an inability to communicate through writing. This is called Agraphia. My suspicion is, for those who choose to be authors, that one’s rare. Whatever is keeping us from writing, it’s tied to more immediate issues, like procrastination, mental preoccupation, or lack of inspiration.
Good writing’s hard to produce, folks. It just is. Often, and I will admit I’ve done it more than once, it’s easier to watch Netflix, read a news website, or catch up on our favorite blogger’s latest post than it is to write. Also, it’s hard to be creative when outside forces like relationships, bills, or the Coronavirus, are pulling our minds away for our work. Finally, creativity is dynamic. It ebbs and flows. No artist, be they a painter, musician, or writer, can be “on” all the time.
The big question is what to do about writer’s block. Google the term and you will unleash an avalanche of advice. Rather than rehashing all of that here, a task that wearies me to contemplate, I want to share the one thing that always seems to work for me.
I write through it.
Yes, a lot of…OK…most of what I churn out during these bouts of writing malaise gets scrapped, but that’s fine. Even writing bad prose helps clear the blockage and suddenly what I’m writing doesn’t seem so bad any more.
There is some sound scientific basis for why this works. It goes back to the old left-brain’s creative / right-brain’s analytic stuff we learned about in high school. Neuroscientists, when monitoring brain functions of Jazz musicians, discovered that skilled guitarists often begin with a right-brained, analytical approach to solo playing or improvisation but, when more comfortable, that is, they get into the groove, or as they gain more experience, that analytic playing transitions to become more creative, natural, and fluid (1).
Another team of researchers discovered that maximizing creativity is a two-part exercise. The first stage is to produce a large quantity of output. They’re findings suggest that most of this output is not very high in quality. However, after taking a break for as little as twenty minutes or as long as ten days, revisions and new ideas dramatically increase in quality (2).
All I know is that writing through it works for me. I might take a break from my WIP to write a short story. I might toy around with outlining a future project that I’ll never revisit. Maybe I’ll skip ahead in the story to write a scene that has been replaying in my head for days. I’ll go back and find where it fits into the narrative later!
Sometimes, I stick with my WIP and slog through, going back and cutting whole chapters and leaving them on the editing and revision floor. It isn’t time wasted because, in the end, the blockage clears and I generally am blessed with a period where my writing is fun, inspired, and productive.
So, if you’re struggling with Writer’s Block, try to just keep writing. Maya Angelou put it this way, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
I’d love to hear how if this approach works out for you. And, if you have a Writer’s Block tale to tell, leave a comment. Let me know what you have done or possibly are doing.
2. March 2019 issue of the Accounting Review.