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Academic Coaching & Writing

IV. What Really Is Writer’s Block?

Sep 22, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

Writer’s block is a term you’ve probably heard often. The amazing and confusing thing about writer’s block is that people apply the term to  drastically different experiences. For many, “writer’s block” means a frustrating but temporary stall in their progress. For some authors, though, the phrase looms nightmarishly large, and describes a recurring and debilitating struggle to move ideas from their mind to the page. So, what really is writer’s block?

Under the pressure of deadlines, almost everyone—from students to professors to creative writers—has experienced some degree of writer’s block. Yet, there is disagreement about whether writer’s block is a dysfunction—a severe breakdown in the normal process by which authors turn ideas into articles, stories, and books. The fabulous and tough-minded novelist, Ann Patchett, in her minibook published by Byliner, The Getaway Car, goes so far as to describe writer’s block, as “a myth . . . invented by people who either don’t want to work or people who aren’t ready to get an idea down on paper.” Patchett worries that the idea of writer’s block has become a kind of a “Get Out of Jail Free card” for authors desperate to avoid the hard slog of writing demands.

Patchett’s dismissal of the seriousness of writer’s block sounds harsh. Writer’s block is, after all, a serious subject of research by psychologists and educators. But her extreme view about writer’s block raises an important question. Should we understand it to be a pathology—something akin to an illness or breakdown in normal healthy functioning? Or, is writer’s block a frustrating but typical part of the normal process of writing? To continue with the medical analogy, we see something as a disease or health problem when it causes dysfunction in ordinary physical, mental, or emotional activity. But some physical conditions that cause pain and even temporary dysfunction are also aspects of growth and development. Consider how adolescents, for example, are struck periodically with mysterious pains in their legs or arms as they go through growth spurts. These growing pains are not a disease, though they can be acutely painful.

Writer’s block, thus, points to a fascinating paradox. I believe it is an undeniably real phenomenon. But in many cases, it’s a phenomenon exacerbated by perception.

I’ve worked with authors who felt severely stuck and worried that their block represented some innate deficiency in themselves or an insurmountable obstacle. For these authors, the term “writer’s block” seemed to say something about their own identity. The possessive ‘s’ in the term “writer’s block” may subtly imply that the block is something the writer owns, something intrinsic to his or her identity. However, when I talk with these writers about their process and experiences in greater detail, I notice their difficulties are almost identical to those many other authors have described to me. The striking difference is that the other authors perceive their difficulties as more or less normal, rather than abnormal. There may be nothing out of the ordinary when one experiences a “writing block”—a term cultural anthropologist and writing theorist Keith Hjortshoj wisely prefers to “writer’s block” (Understanding Writing Blocks, 2001). Without the possessive ‘s’ which implicitly links the block to the individual writer, the dreaded phrase sheds much of its stigma. The bottom line is that authors’ perceptions of the fundamental nature of writing blocks greatly impact their ability to overcome them. In other words, what you expect—both of yourself and of the process of writing—actually makes a huge difference in your ability to move past blocks.

As I see it, writing blocks are phenomena that strike when an author feels pulled equally in opposite directions by two competing and powerful forces: fear and desire. With desire to write pulling in one direction and fear of writing pulling in the other, the writer is literally stuck, unable to move forward. Almost all authors experience this dynamic at some point in their career. Though the severity varies a great deal, blocks are usually triggered by fears strong enough to hold the writer back from a profound desire, even a real need, to produce a manuscript. The next blog in this series thus discusses how authors can decrease anxiety and rob fear of its power to block their writing progress.

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