Writer’s Block: Imaginary Affliction or Tangible Trouble?

I personally think that having a poltergeist in the house would provide some fantastic motivation. If nothing else, ideas for a ghost story.

I recently got into a discussion on another social network on the subject of writer’s block, and I learned that the issue of whether writer’s block is real or not is actually a point of contention. I’ve always taken the side that writer’s block is a very real thing (I’m a writer, it’s an occupational hazard), but there are many more who disagree, even to the point where I was in the minority in said discussion. I thought it was fitting for a blog post, both since I commonly write about writing and because I feel rather strongly on the subject. I should warn you readers, though: this post will get long.

The post in question was basically ten quotes from various authors talking about how writer’s block doesn’t exist, how it’s actually more like idea block and how anyone who uses that excuse is obviously just coming up with a justification for never getting any writing done and can’t possibly be writers. Some of them were quite vehement about writer’s block not existing, so I can only stand in awe and admiration at these beings of almost mythical perfection. What I wouldn’t give to go my entire career without ever experiencing any sort of trouble. Here are three examples.

All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it? -Philip Pullman

Writer’s Block is just an excuse by people who don’t write for not writing. -Giando Sigurani

I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen–whether I’m working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book–it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place. -Jeffery Deaver

Needless to say, I have a number of issues. Let’s start with Philip Pullman. Philip, I love you, I love His Dark Materials, but you’re drawing parallels between things that are more perpendicular, if you’ll excuse the wordplay. A plumber is not an inventor, he is a plumber. He has a task he needs to complete, but is provided with all the materials and the means and methods to repair what he needs to. A doctor has medical procedure, tools provided to him and rules to follow. They already know what they need to do and how to do it (most of the time).

A writer is not given everything he needs. He is given the means to bring his worlds into tangible form, but he has to make them all himself. He creates an entire world from scratch, everything from its vast histories and mechanics down to the descriptions of the smallest pebble on an out-of-the-way road. He then has to create a complete set of diverse, deep characters and place them in that world. Then he has to create an actual plot for the world, then combine that with all the other elements to make sure it’s realistic, but still without any plot holes or continuity errors. Then he has to tear it apart piece by piece and put it back together again to fix it up. Then he’ll probably do that again at least a few more times. And that’s before he even gets any beta readers.

If you’re happy about writer’s block, or you always seem to have writer’s block no matter what, then you probably just have laziness. Or you just can’t write. Writer’s block should not be used as an excuse.

Somehow plumbing and writing don’t seem so similar to me.

I disagree slightly less with Giando’s quote. It’s true that many people use writer’s block as an excuse to just… not write. People put the blame on writer’s block when, in reality, it’s laziness or whatever else that’s causing it. However, just because some people use writer’s block as an excuse doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If you don’t have writer’s block, great! I am genuinely envious. But that doesn’t mean others don’t.

Jeffery’s quote is what I can agree with, though I don’t think it disproves the existence of writer’s block as much as the post author would hope. He describes what writer’s block can be quite well, actually, and calling it an idea block also works quite well. When I get writer’s block it’s for one of two reasons:

  1. I have zero motivation. Even though I want to write, I can’t. I spend an hour trying to write, get a paragraph done, realize it’s crap, delete it, then try again. When I try to fight my lack of muse, I end up with either nothing or garbage that is later deleted anyway.
  2. Plotting troubles. Even the creator of the universe took six days to create the earth. Oh, and He didn’t have to create a history, either. He got to start from day one. When I write, I have to create multiple worlds with histories that are already established. Give us humans a little slack if we take a bit more time ourselves, yeah? Plotting is hard, and making an entire world work consistently is just slightly difficult sometimes.

Some people call writing a job, and I can agree with that. Writing is, in fact, how I make a living (along with editing). I’ve done political commentary, technical writing, published three novels and run a manuscript editing company. I’m no stranger to the world of writing and what it takes to do it. But writing is a different kind of job. A writer is the master of his world.

In the debate, the question was posed that, if a CEO of a company were to use an excuse akin to writer’s block, would he get away with it? My response was yes. Of course he would. Everyone does it, and a CEO is very close to a writer. Think about it this way. A writer creates and runs a world, a CEO creates and runs a company. Both have plenty of people to manage, a structure to create and maintain, and make sure that everything runs smoothly. So if a company owner came up and said, ‘You know what? I’m having some difficulty getting things done today,’ I’d understand. Since I happen to be in both positions at the moment, I’d cut him some slack. We’re human. It happens.

If you never start, you’ll never finish. Sometimes it can be beneficial to wing it and go crazy without preparing. The worst it can do is kill you. Wait a minute.

That said, writing is indeed a job. If you’re going to be a writer, you’ve got to write. Some days you just have to accept that you won’t be at your best, but do it anyway. That can bring out something you never expected. If you only write at your best, you’re doing yourself a disservice as a writer. If you’re not feeling your current subject, write something else. Explore. Go nuts. Write random nonsense and see what comes up. Be creative. That’s what you do. As one of my characters so aptly put it when talking to a student complaining about too many restrictions:

Being creative is not always synonymous to being without restrictions, Kai. Sometimes it takes creativity to know how to use our limitations to our advantage. That is an essential lesson for life, not just classwork.
-Professor Kawamari, The Dream Sanctum

So the premise of my point of view is this: writer’s block is a very real thing. It’s used to describe those moments where the words just won’t flow, where our characters won’t cooperate and when we have trouble plotting. It’s an amusing term to describe those times when we just can’t do our best no matter how hard we try, a very human aspect to a very superhuman task. It is not, however, an excuse. If you are a writer, you will write. It’s all well and good to blame writer’s block for your lack of accomplishment on any given day, but remember, the one with the pen is you. You have the responsibility to fight past the hard times and do what you do best, even if you aren’t feeling your best. But on the other hand, to deny that writer’s block exists is silly. That would be denying an imperfection that plagues us all by different names in everything we do. Even as plumbers and doctors.

So go get some writing done. Even if you’ve got writer’s block. Listen to some music, read over your work, write something random, and go nuts. You are the masters of your worlds, and you have that power. Just don’t get lazy.

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159 thoughts on “Writer’s Block: Imaginary Affliction or Tangible Trouble?

  1. I’m glad I saw this post, well stated 🙂 I used to be one of those non-believers, and then life happened. Now I believe it is a very real thing. The tricky part is not getting stuck there, and recognizing when writer’s block morphs into an excuse when you’ve gotten used to not writing, and it’s harder to get going again.

    • I agree! At some point it just becomes convenient; every little thing that gets in the way turns into writer’s block. I think you always have to keep yourself writing, even if just a little. It definitely gets harder to get back to it the longer you wait, which you then call writer’s block, so you don’t write, and the cycle continues.

      • I’m finding blogging to be very helpful in this regard, keeps the wheels turning and the fingers nimble, even if it’s a day where I can’t face the WIP.

  2. “A writer is the master of his world.”

    I just have to say, that’s perfect. You’ve capsulated it. Most of the joy I receive from writing is from being able to create, destroy, and (sometimes) fix or alter bad endings in my fiction since I have no control over the matter in real life.

    Anyways, great post. I appreciated your thoughts!

    Aun Aqui

    • That is fun, isn’t it? I know sometimes my stories take directions I had no intention of taking them, or go somewhere on their own, but in the end I like having that control. It is fun. Though to some degree I think that I’m not a creator, but a scribe. I only write the chaos that happens in my head, and it’s as volatile and open to surprising me as the real world.

  3. I too believe in Writer’s Block. However, I also agree that the important thing is to keep chipping away, whether it’s by plugging forward badly, or by letting a project lie in a fallow period while working on something else (Be it another project, or the dishes.) My best ideas come after walking away from a long writing session, doing something practical and physical like laundry or dishes, and then the answer will magically arrive. The other side of writer’s block is probably the most exciting moment in the writing process.

    • Oh yes, I definitely agree. Sometimes I really miss writing even when I don’t want to do it, but when I get back into it, oh the joy! Especially when it’s something I’ve loved working on and haven’t been able to.

  4. I agree that writer’s block shouldn’t be used as an excuse; it’s more an obstacle that needs to be overcome. Write through the writer’s block…. write anything! I do it often! Thanks for the post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Yep! It’s easier said than done, but still a necessity. I had a few professors drill that into me, and sometimes I just fine myself writing random things. I have a random document that’s basically a ‘days of our lives’ story. No plot. No chapter. Just a few characters that I write when I need to do random. And I keep it all. I just write them when I can’t do anything else, and it keeps me going.

      Thank you though. =D

  5. Reblogged this on Qualitative Research in Education and commented:
    Daniel K offers some insights and advice on writer’s block — sometimes a problem for thesis writers as well as professional authors. Another useful source of comfort and concrete advice on the “work avoidance problem” is Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” and its sequel, “Turning Pro.” If you are feeling “stuck” — take a look!

  6. Interesting post– I was actually just thinking about how a growing audience gives me writer’s block. As my number of followers grows, I find myself stuck on what to write and much more self-aware of my words. With a smaller audience, I never felt this way. It seems like this translates to writing fiction too. Your first pieces before publication are without the pressure of expectations, but then when you’re published, people begin to expect something consistent out of you. So, I guess other people’s expectations give me writer’s block.

    • Hmm. I’m actually not sure I’ve ever felt that way. I’ve always very determinedly written my own thing. I mean I’ll take feedback of course, but I write what and how I please most of the time. I suppose there’s also the fact that I haven’t had too much of an audience before, but I digress. I just have a problem pleasing me! An artist is their own worst critic, after all.

      • That gives me hope that maybe it’s a temporary thing then– just always weirds me out when I realize how many people are reading what I write, (and not even saying it’s THAT many, just enough to make me think twice about what I put out there). What I write outside the blog world is different, it doesn’t feel so public, even if ultimately it could be. But, I definitely agree that we are our own worst critics, thanks again for the thought-provoking post.

  7. As evidenced by the responses hereto, your post illustrates how everyone has to find their own way with “writer’s block.” Believe in it, don’t believe in it, call it something else, dissect it’s roots, accept it and work through it, etc. For me, writing is an outlet for creativity, happiness, insight, pain, frustration, and the like; I work through what I need to by writing through it. Some of that ends up being shared, and some of it is just for me. Whatever works. And if it is work, then one should have a reasonable amount of time off from it to rest and relax as with any work, no? Thanks for the post!

  8. This is what came up once when I added a new post on WP. “Nothing cures Writer’s Block except writing. It’s a form of literary constipation. Just read more roughage.”Great Post.

  9. Roshni says:

    Awesome post! I loved it, absolutely! I’m passionate about writing, too. And have, obviously, experienced bouts of writer’s block. I loved the points you listed. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  10. I have to agree with the existence of writers block. Personally I think the writing process just like any other artistic endeavor has many different ways in which people can go about it and some may be more susceptible to being blocked. for example one artist may throw a bucket of paint on a cat and call it art, another may do the same but take the time to consider how the color with interact with any exposed areas of of cat and choose the color based on that in effort to make their statement, yet another may take the painted cat put it on a canvas and allow its movements of lack there of become the art or lastly someone might decide to paint the cat as a portrait in scene presenting the animal in particular pose and making a statement about cats in general and not actually throw paint on it at all. I see writing as a process of building a story so there are times when I’ve become blocked at points where I’m deciding what’s to be the next piece to the story or if I need to go back and re-work part of a story, or how I’ll make specific references or examples in a piece as an “inside joke” aim at a specific kind of person reading what I’ve written, or rewriting because I’ve gone off on a tangent and feel I’m loosing track with my stories premise. However some people can just type out whatever comes to mind without all the crafting, for those people I’m sure their blocks are few or non-existent once it is that they’ve decide what to write about. While I’m sure there are people out there even more active in their re-writes and editing than I am.

    • I like that thought… it definitely depends on the individual and what they want from their own work. What some might call garbage, others might thoroughly enjoy. I know that I can be extra picky with my own work, so even if I AM writing, I will hate what I’m putting on paper.

  11. At first, the idea of professional writers (though I wouldn’t call them mythical beings; just people who work consistently) not believing in Writer’s Block shocked me.

    But I suspect, in retrospect, that perhaps it’s simply wishful thinking. They are such hard workers, creating worlds and conflicts and narratives, that the idea of writer’s block is de-motivating to them, and all that chipping away they do loses meaning.

    It doesn’t, in my opinion. It adds meaning.

    • Wishful thinking, perhaps… I’ve seen a lot of people call it a battle over the definition rather than its existence. Either way, I like the idea that it adds meaning.

  12. Very inspirational! Thank you!
    Writers are a group of people that don’t really have much in common with any other profession! Their work/job is really unique in that way.
    Now I should get writing… 🙂

  13. filthylittlethief says:

    A great collection of thoughts and quotes on the idea of writer’s block.
    Since I do not write for a living, I worry not so much about the terminology but admit that it’s mostly laziness that keeps me from writing.
    The worst thing for me though, motivationwise, is actually reading something very, very great and beautiful. Something that makes me think: Why the hell should I be writing, too? I will never achieve this greatness. Insert writer’s block here.
    Oh well, this self-pity phase ends luckily after only a few days, but still. Being awestruck by other writers is what I fear most.

  14. I thought it was widely assumed that ‘writers’ block’ was just a snappy way of saying ‘ideas block for people who are creative writers who must therefore come up with their own material (as opposed to sign writers etc), which is not always an easy thing to do’.

    ‘Writers’ block’ (literal) would refer to a blocked pen. Or perhaps a writer choking on some peanuts.

    Or any kind of brick shaped paperweight.

  15. I believe in writers block- but i agrre, it is normally just lazyness, or lack of motivation/ideas.
    when I used to get this problem , i would stop it by writing the same thing I had been struggling with, but in a different way- like taking one charaters point of voew rather than another. It seems to have worked, I rarly suffer from it now!

    • That is a fun thing to do. Sometimes I just love writing random nonsense from the points of view of random characters. They don’t even have to be short story material, just random stuff. It’s writing something new with the added benefit of really helping me get to know my characters well.

  16. Think we all get a bit blocked from time to time, usually means we need to take a break and write something different. May have said before somewhere here that I write sonnets when the WIP gets stuck. Sticking to the rhythm and strict iambic pentameter somehow free other bits of the brain to work on something else.
    Works for me anyway.
    Never stuck for ideas really. If anything, the reverse is true and they’re a bit of a nuisance, too many arriving at once.

    • Hmm. I can relate to the idea thing, but not the poetry thing. I do like rhythm and all, but I never liked writing poetry with assigned syllable counts. I think it’s a resonating dislike of the poetry unit in AP and Honors literature…

      • I know a lot of people who feel like that, which I think is sad. Hate it when things are ruined by dissection and over-education. Think I had Robert Frost dinned into me too much because I have trouble with him.

  17. This is a great post. I know writer’s block is real, because I not only love to write, I HAVE to write. So getting blocked on a story really sucks because I feel the need to finish it, but the ideas don’t come. It’s not an excuse because all day long it’s in my head. Sometimes I wish I could be normal and just read books instead of having the pressure to write them. But sometimes, a profession chooses you. And I agree with you about the plumbers and the doctors. They have guidelines and if followed things work out. As a writer, you can do everything right and be awesome at your job and still never get published. Or pressed. But you did – congrats on that. 🙂

  18. Writer’s block has never been a problem for me when drafting. I have “editors block.” I hate rewriting, and yet that seems to be all I do these days. It took me a year to draft my current trilogy, but I’ve been editing it for over a year, and I’m still on the FIRST BOOK. Man, I would SO much rather be drafting. *Sigh* Back to editing.

  19. And before this I thought it was abnormal to take at least 8 hours (not exaggerating) to write a short blog post. Today is one of those days when I have plenty of ideas but cannot quite express myself for nuts. 😦

  20. terribogard says:

    “It’s an amusing term to describe those times when we just can’t do our best no matter how hard we try”

    I think that sums it up. If writers said, “I’m off my game today” instead of “I’m suffering from an external case of writer’s block”, the situation wouldn’t be so dismissable.

  21. This is a true masterpiece! We all have our moments when writing seems impossible. The true test for each of us is what we do during those moments. I take a legal pad and go someplace then write at least two pages or more if it begins to flow. It is not the quality of the work that counts during these moments but that you do the work through the block. I most often do not use anything that comes from those trips but at least I write something and that makes me feel better.
    Thank you for all your ideas and help.

    Randy Fasig

  22. Some really interesting thoughts.

    Personally, for me the writer’s block kicks in when my great ideas don’t work out the way I’d planned, and I don’t want to put any more of my great ideas down on paper, in case I ruin those as well!

    • For me it having to many of the ideas at the same time. I can’t get a focus on which one I am supposed to be working on. You are right though it makes it more of a challenge after it hits paper. I keep something for the headache on hand just for those times.

  23. I don’t think writer’s block is an imaginary affliction. Much like your Calvin & Hobbes cartoon demonstrates, it’s a state of being. I may not write much, but there are times when I write *nothing* because the ideas are just not there. I can be uninspired and that feels pretty tangible to me.
    Lovely post to be FP!
    Cheers,
    iRuniBreathe

  24. Writer’s Block can be a very real affliction. The more we have at stake in writing, then the more paralyzing writer’s block can be. And it can be paralyzing. The key here is finding ways to break it.

  25. I really like that you looked at this from so many angles. I never really thought of writers block as something to ‘maneuver’ around, as such. My issue is always the confidence in what I am writing. Perhaps it is time to learn to push past it until a time when I am a better judge of my own work? I am glad you posted this when you did. Great post.

  26. Hi Daniel: As I mentioned in my previous comment, I’d post my ghost-type story. It’s up now under the title “Weekend fiction from Cat – “News from the vortex”.

  27. Hi Danie: The refrigerator was replaced with an “energy efficient” model about two weeks ago, yet the noises still persist, so obviously they weren’t from a 15 year old refrigerator. Now if whatever makes those noises would only think to bring me a cold drink when I want one, I wouldn’t mind so much 🙂

    Cat.

    • Haha. That actually sounds pretty exciting. I used to think there was something weird in my house, but it wasn’t actually true. I’ve wanted to visit a place with definite activity ever since. Yours sounds nice. 8D

      • Bit of background: this is a seniors’ apartment building about 15 years old, so I would think there isn’t a unit here that hasn’t had someone pass in it. Possibly what I’m hearing and seeing is a former tenant. Whatever it is, it leaves me alone, but I’m serious about the cold drink idea 🙂

  28. its gone 3 am and i have writers block. though i do agree that calling it idea block could be a good move. already it focuses the mind from an awkward acceptace that my writing is blocked to a mindset that im just looking for an idea. time to crack open a beer and see what happens! thanks.

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