May 23, 2016
WORDSMITHS WITHOUT WORDS
Examining the nature of writer’s block
JOHN J. MILLER
‘The first point about writer’s block is that relatively little has been written about it.” That’s the second sentence of the introduction to a 1991 book by Zachary Leader called — wait for it — “Writer’s Block.” The claim makes sense: The writers who might say the most about block are the ones who have the hardest time saying anything at all. They’re like singers without voices. The rest of us have no idea what we’re missing in the silence.
I became interested in writer’s block last fall — not because it had afflicted me (knock on wood), but because I had decided to reread the work of a fiction author who seems not to have written much of anything since he was in his late thirties, back when Ronald Reagan was president. Curious about his lack of productivity, I found myself on his Wikipedia page. It mentioned writer’s block. Yet the details were scant. So I decided to track him down and ask what had happened. I also began to investigate the phenomenon of writer’s block.
I approached the topic with skepticism. As a writer, I’ve had good days and bad days — but I’ve never struggled with the sheer inability to write. Many people have a starry-eyed, artsy view of what writers do. Not me. I see writing as work, and agree with Samuel Johnson (via Boswell): “A man may write anytime if he will set himself doggedly to it.” Do ditchdiggers ever acquire ditchdigger’s block? They may suffer sore backs, but they also do their jobs. Why should writers be different?
Yet I’d also heard of stage fright, and I began to wonder if it might have a corollary among ink-stained wretches. So I e-mailed a bunch of friends who write for a living, asking whether they’d ever suffered from block or knew anybody who had. The first reply came quickly. It also startled me, with its note of superstitious dread. “I refuse to discuss the subject, the way some people won’t talk about cancer,” it said. “Sorry not to be of more help. Now never mention this to me again!”
Several respondents shared my doubts: “I think it’s a condition that was invented as an excuse.” Another: “Can you imagine a healthy bird worried that it might not be able to fly? A shark worried that it might not be able to swim? Writers can write.” A few, however, pointed to known cases of accomplished writers who went through fallow periods or stopped writing altogether.
In 1950, Edmund Bergler published The Writer and Psychoanalysis. It describes the writing troubles of several patients upon whom Bergler inflicted his Freudianism. One of them, he claimed, had fallen victim to “a pseudo-aggressive covering cloak for his deep masochistic elaboration of his pre-oedipal conflict.” So it’s that kind of book. Despite the jargon, Bergler made a lasting contribution to semantics: He invented the term “writer’s block.” People have used it ever since.
A handful of great writers appear to have suffered the symptoms before Bergler named the condition. “So completely has a whole year passed,” complained Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1804; “I have done nothing!” Herman Melville quit writing novels a few years after he finished Moby-Dick, spending much of the rest of his life as a customs inspector. More recent examples include Dashiell Hammett, Ralph Ellison, and Harper Lee. They wrote celebrated novels early in life — The Maltese Falcon, Invisible Man, To Kill a Mockingbird — and then more or less stopped. Tom Wolfe felt something akin to writer’s block when he switched from nonfiction to fiction and began to compose The Bonfire of the Vanities: “I sat in front of my typewriter . . . in a catatonic state, unable to write a thing for several months,” he once explained. For him, at least, the condition was temporary.
Blocked writers don’t claim that they can’t write anything at all. The difficulty is not that their hands cramp when they try to scribble notes. Think of Jack Torrance, the character Jack Nicholson played in The Shining, the movie based on the book by Stephen King. He’s a professional writer, unable to create anything good but also prolific. Over and over, he types the same line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” That’s a worst-case scenario of blockage.
Coleridge, for his part, wrote lots of letters and essays. Yet he saw poetry as his calling and failed to produce it to his satisfaction. For Coleridge and many other blocked writers, the problem seems to be that they succumb to a kind of performance anxiety. When they write, they fall short of their own great expectations. So they quit. Or they don’t start. Or they stare at blank screens, feeling helpless.
They may be letting the perfect become the enemy of the good — or even worse, as my old boss Fred Barnes once put it, they’re letting the pretty good become the enemy of the good enough. That’s the shoptalk of a deadline-driven journalist, but there’s wisdom in it. “I write when I’m inspired,” quipped Peter De Vries, “and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” Joseph Epstein, another unblocked essayist who has written on block, suggests a solution: “Demystify writing as completely as possible,” he advises in his collection In a Cardboard Belt. “Keep the pretension level as low as possible.”
Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary, wrestled with writer’s block early in his career. He described his trial in Making It, a 1967 memoir. “Blocks are to the professional writer what jails are to the professional burglar: a ‘normal’ occupational hazard,” he wrote. He blamed his own episode on ambition and the desire to write a consequential book. The cure came in the form of a steady gig that involved writing for money rather than fame, which took “writing out of the realm of ‘psychology’ and deposited it so beautifully into the world of real work,” with its obligations to editors and the need to support a family. (More Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”)
In 1974, Dennis Upper, a young psychologist, sent a paper to the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. He called it “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block,’” and its contents included the title followed by several blank pages. An amused editor published it. “I submitted it as a practical joke,” says Upper, who now runs a private practice in Massachusetts. “Over the years, though, I’ve treated cases of writer’s block. Everybody who does creative work goes through unproductive periods.” For those who seek help but not from a shrink, he recommends reading Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.
Her book caters to frustrated writers, and so does a cottage industry of coaches and cons. Soon after starting my online research, the social-media advertisements erupted onto my Facebook feed: “Writer’s block? Get your creative juices flowing with 31 writing prompts to inspire you through the month.” It led to a website that demanded my e-mail address and promised to turn my “writing talents” into “a high-paying career.”
No single solution works for every blocked writer. Anxiety, for instance, may hurt creativity in some and spur achievement in others. “If there were a one-size-fits-all cure, I’d sell it on the Home Shopping Network,” says Alice W. Flaherty, a Harvard psychiatrist and the author of The Midnight Disease, a 2004 book on block. Even so, science offers a few insights. Medicines such as antidepressants and beta blockers can influence creativity both favorably and unfavorably. (Consult your doctor!) Alcohol tends to have a negative effect: Some writers may believe that booze relaxes, granting them a magical way with words, but it more likely turns them into lousy judges of their own work. They think they’re writing well when in fact they’ve just lowered their standards. Physical exercise helps bookworms more than they may realize. “The data on exercise and creativity are strong,” says Flaherty. “Here’s an idea: Writers should invest in treadmill desks.” She’s only half joking.
Perhaps more than anybody else, writers should recognize that writer’s block is a metaphor that suggests an obstacle, such as a dam on a river. Yet rivers have sources, and behind the conundrum of writer’s block resides the mystery of creativity. Where do ideas come from? Writers often hear this question. The smartest neurologists don’t really know much about “eureka” moments. Homer liked to invoke the muses. Others pray for inspiration. Sometimes it’s just a matter of willful receptivity: The idea for this article sprang into my head last Thanksgiving, as I enjoyed an old paperback.
What about the author of that paperback book, the writer who set me on this quest? I managed to find him. We had a cordial exchange. He’s even a reader of National Review, which was a pleasant surprise. Yet he didn’t want to talk about my subject. He still aspires to write, he said, and refuses to think of himself as blocked. He added that he feels embarrassed by it — and so I’m withholding his name.
I’m also cheering for him to conquer whatever dark gods haunt his imagination. He recently retired from a workaday job and now he has time to finish a new project. I hope it’s a genuine blockbuster.