I’ve heard writers talk about writer’s block as though it’s this mystical illness you can contract if you even think too long about writing. Like—I have a cold, so I can’t breathe through my nose. I have the chickenpox, so I can’t stop itching. I have writer’s block, so I can’t write.
I’m not buying it.
Writer’s block, at least in this sense, does not exist. Sure, there are things that make writing more difficult—and I’m going to get to those in a minute—but there’s no affliction that makes it so you literally can’t write.
I mean, unless you’re in a coma or dead or something. Then sure, you literally can’t write, but in those instances I think calling it writer’s block is underselling the obstacle a bit, yes?
What writers really mean when they talk about writer’s block is that writing is suddenly harder for them to do than it once was. It’s harder to sit down and put words to paper. They’re uninspired. They don’t feel like it. The words just won’t seem to materialize.
Words don’t materialize on their own. You make them. Sometimes it’s easy. Often it’s really, really not. But again, unless you’re in a coma or otherwise physically incapable of putting words onto paper (or into a digital document) then you can write.
So no, I don’t think writer’s block is real.
Except that I do.
Because using writer’s block as a catch-all term for having difficulty with writing is describing a real experience that almost all writers face at one point or another. For some of us, we may even face it often. But if we are to soldier on with this writing thing it’s very important to make that distinction between what we can’t do and what we struggle to do. If it helps, imagine what it would be like if writing a novel was a 9 to 5 job you got hired to do. Your boss would not take writer’s block as an excuse and I’m betting, faced with the pressure of having to write in order to get food on the table, you would manage to put those words to paper, even when it was hard.
Beyond distinguishing impossible from difficult, I think it’s important to talk about writer’s block less as its own phenomenon, and more as a category of things that make writing difficult.
Writer’s block is not a disease we catch with no apparent cause. There are reasons writing gets difficult and only by diagnosing those specific reasons can we really work past them.
For instance, last year I stopped writing because my husband was going through cancer treatments. I didn’t stop writing because I didn’t have the time or the ideas stopped coming. I stopped because, mentally and emotionally, I was not in a good place and had a hard time bringing myself to write. Would it have been impossible? No. There are many people who write through hard times. It wasn’t that I couldn’t. It was that I let writing take a backseat to other things going on in my life. That, I think, is understandable. Everyone has a right, even a responsibility to take care of their health first before anything else. It wasn’t “writer’s block” that stopped me from writing. It was stress. And that stress needed to be dealt with before I could start writing again.
But is taking a mental health break going to solve writer’s block in every circumstance? Absolutely not. I have also felt blocked in moments where I hadn’t outlined my plot properly and didn’t know where to take the story next. The solution? Not taking a complete break from writing, but going back to my outline and brainstorming before continuing on.
There are probably as many different causes for writer’s block as there are writers and at least as many solutions. But we can’t find the solutions if we’re being vague and calling it “writer’s block.” Figure out what’s really going on: Stress, poor time management, under-plotting, a loss of interest in the current project, etc. Then, and only then, can you truly move past your block. Be specific in your diagnosis, and the solution will become more apparent.
So, what do you think? Do I have it wrong and writer’s block is totally a real affliction with no apparent cause and no discovered treatment? Have you experienced block? How did you get over it?