Does Writer’s Block Exist?

By photosteve101, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Lately, I’ve been coming across numerous writers who insist writer’s block doesn’t exist – it’s just an excuse for writers not to write. I can kind of see that point of view. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure writer’s block exists, because I suffered from it for five years.

“Writer’s block is a fabrication,” declares John Dufresne, in The Lie That Tells a Truth (a pretty fantastic book, if you’re into how-to-be-a-writer books). He goes on to insist writing is like any other job, and no secretary refuses to come in to work because of “secretary block.” And then comes a surprising sentence – maybe if writer’s block keeps you from writing, you never really wanted to be a writer in the first place, anyway. After all, we always make time to do the things we love.

Well-known blogger and best-selling author, Scott Berkum, agrees: “writer’s block is a sham.” He insists that no other creative profession – architects, painters, composers, etc. – complain about the pressures of coming up with something new the way we writers do.

But if writer’s block doesn’t exist, it’s the most frustrating non-existent disease I’ve ever had. But the kind I caught seems to be a strain only mildly related to the kind Dufresne and Berkum describe. They both state the defining symptom is not writing at all. But that wasn’t my problem. My problem was being unable to write anything good.

After all, when I had writer’s block I wrote three novellas (approximately 20,000 words each), and abandoned at least five manuscripts halfway through, not to mention those I started and abandoned after a page, or the short stories that went nowhere. The problem was that every word I wrote was trash. You know that lovely trance-like state you get when writing, when you can see into your characters’ heads and the words just flow right out of your pen? Yeah, that didn`t happen.

In other words, the high that had addicted me to writing in the first place had disappeared. Wow, interesting metaphor…

I used to love describing fantastic dresses. But after writer`s block struck my prose was reduced to: “She wore a red dress with a brown collar.” I used to love to make up fantasy worlds. But though I kept putting my characters in different settings, none of the worlds seemed real. The characters didn’t seem real. And if they don’t seem real to the author, there’s no way a reader will buy in.

Both Berkum and Dufresne insist that part of writer’s block is not just the fear of writing, but a fear of not writing well. A fear of failure. This I can agree with, because during those five years I was writing, but each word I squeezed out of my pen was so wrapped up in anxiety and doubt that my stories couldn’t stand up on their own. Every word on the page was painfully and laboriously extracted from my brain.

So maybe writer’s block comes in different varieties. My variety centered on a fear of writing badly – a fear of writing badly that caused me to write badly (paradoxically). To avoid this, Dufresne assures us that a good first draft is a poor draft because you haven’t taken risks. And Berkum urges, “Deliberately write badly, but write.”

And you know what? Allowing yourself to write badly helps.

If you’ve got writer’s block right now, check out The Lie That Tells a Truth, Chapter 3. There are some great suggestions in there. Or you can check out Scott Berkum’s post, “Writing Hacks, Part 1.”

Your turn  – do you think writer’s block exists?

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9 Comments

Filed under On Writing

9 responses to “Does Writer’s Block Exist?

  1. I love your blog Harma Mae because you ask the most interesting questions. To a certain extent, yes, I believe we can have a writer’s block. I can be zooming along as I write and words are coming faster than I can type…but then, suddenly, I come to a dead end. It takes minutes, hours or a couple of days before I can take off again. It doesn’t happen all the time…but often enough that I believe we do have times when we get detours, roadblocks or whatever we like to call them. I know you are passionate about writing and so am I….but there are just times when my brain needs a rest!!! LOL! In all honesty, working a full time job…does wear me out….so writing happens often after hours. Maybe thats why I have a block. Good post today!!!

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  2. I don’t think it exists, I can see writers having “slumps” we all do. But, writers block is “The inability” to write, and we can always do that, right?

    My mantra (i’ve said it once, i’ve said it a thousand, thousand times) is:

    DON”T GET IT RIGHT, GET IT WRITTEN!

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  3. Very good mantra! “Slump” might be a better word than “block” for what I went through, maybe.

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  4. In Acuff’s words (directly from Quitter), “90% good and published will always outweigh 100% good and unpublished.” Sooner or later, a pig with a bow on it’s still just a pig (that’s my more family-friendly metaphor to bad writing).

    As a grad student, I became adept at taking my bad writing and pushing it forward. I would type without looking at the screen because I knew how bad it was, I just had to complete it. The only time I couldn’t manage that was in the last class I took, where I chose a topic I simply did not believe in. That’s the closest I’ve ever been to an anxiety attack. Cool thing was, when I handed it to the prof next morning and said, “Please just give me a C and don’t read this,” she gave me extra time to throw everything away and start over.

    But I believe the true mark of a good writer is not that every story/poem/song/play/&c is perfect the day you finish it, but that you know how to make it better down the line. Seriously, is there any reason I couldn’t take a story I wrote in grade school and make it master’s-level awesome? I tend to believe so. Now if only I can unearth that “summer I spent as a squirrel” story….

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    • Nice of your prof to do that! Must’ve been a relief.
      I think our writing never measures up to the “perfect” image we have in our head, but you’re right, we can always make it better. Someday, when I have time, I’ll probably go back to the trash I wrote during my “writer’s block years” and see if it can be improved.

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  5. Alexia

    When I read the title of this article I thought : “What on earth is writer’s block ?” But then Wikipedia saved my life again.
    It doesn’t seem crazy to me to think architects, painters, composers struggle to find inspiration too. Those are areas in which you need to have a vision in order to accomplish something. I don’t have an example in mind but I’ve seen singers come back to public life after a long absence because they just couldn’t write anything anymore…
    In you case maybe you were putting too much pressure on yourself and it blocked you ?

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  6. Pingback: Got Writer's Block? Take Two Pulitzer's And Call Me in The Morning

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