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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.