Don’t Buy the Myth of Writer’s Block

“Writer’s block is bunk.” That’s not exactly what acclaimed mystery author Loren D. Estleman recently said at a Michigan writer’s conference, but it’s close.

The problem with even using the term, he said, is that it’s a supremely unhelpful way of saying something very basic and ordinary: you’re stuck.

I totally agree. When you say you have writer’s block, you turn a minor problem into something major like depression or even cancer. Suddenly you’re beset by a grave affliction. When writers say they have writer’s block, a normal, unremarkable part of the writing process becomes debilitating.

I’ve felt this way through my thirty-plus years as a published author, through 22 books in many genres and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that we all get stuck sometimes in our work, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published 60 books. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means we haven’t worked something out, we haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe we’re headed in the wrong direction.

I do what Estleman suggested, and what I’ve advised my creative writing students over the years: I leave the writing alone and don’t obsess about it.

You’re stuck? Don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious to figure out. Work on something else or don’t do any writing at all. Focus outward: the gym, a movie, dinner with your spouse, drinks with some buddies, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, going out, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that will absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck is connected to secrecy and revelation. It can mean we’re afraid of what we want to write, afraid of revealing too much about ourselves (or someone else), afraid of what people might think. That fear of exposure is shame, or the dread of shame. Calling it writer’s block confuses the issue, disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a small industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because the culture loves stories about blocked writers like The Shining, there’s a perverse kind of glamor associated with this “condition.” It’s dramatic, it’s proof of how serious a professional you are. And hey, writers are crazy anyway, so of course they can’t do their jobs.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of texting, “writer’s block” connects with non-writers much better than when you say, “I’m working on my book, it’s going great and I’m having fun.” You risk sounding arrogant. Saying you have writer’s block brings you back to earth. It comforts people who don’t write, because it confirms their perception of writing as drudgery and even torment. But why should it be that way?

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4 Responses

  1. “Give the problem to your subconscious to figure out” is very good advice, in my experience. I’ve had some of my best ideas and insights while riding a bicycle.

    Back when I was a writer, I once had to come up w/ plots for a magazine serial, like a book outline w/ hooks or cliff-hangers every month. My front door needed painting, and by the time I was finished, so was the plot.

    I think this works better when your hands or body are engaged but not your mind. I believe Agatha Christie once said she got good ideas while washing the dishes, and so have I (tho I’m not drawing comparisons!).

    • Absolutely! But even turning to something else that involves your mind (like another project) can free you to resolve the problem. That’s why I often work on more than one project at a time, and am currently writing four books–a first for me. 🙂

  2. I absolutely agree with this post. I have always “sneered” (in a mild and covert way) at those writers who describe themselves as suffering from writer’s block. Yeah, we all get stuck. And its not really a big deal. As you say, go do something else for awhile and it will come to you. But then, I’m not writing “great literature”, and maybe that’s different. I wouldn’t know.

    • Thanks!

      It doesn’t matter what we’re writing, and I’ve heard writers of all genres, complain about how much agony they go through because of being blocked.

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