You’re Not Special Enough to Have Writer’s Block

Slovenly, hopeless Eddie Morra tries to overcome his indecision and fear over his novel with medicine. The pill will instead cause him to get a haircut.

I sometimes wonder if Writer’s Block (the capitalized version, the chronic condition) was invented by pop culture. If your main character is The Writer (the capitalized archetypical version, not the human being) then all he does all day is sit and look at things. To give him a dramatic purpose that looks interesting he needs a conflict, and what’s worse than – by God – not being able to perform the very function you’ve been put in the story to perform?

Writer’s Block as portrayed in pop culture is perfectly embodied by Bradley Cooper’s character Eddie Morra in Limitless – unkempt, dirty, drunk, inevitably bouncing a ball off the walls, staring uselessly at a waiting computer, and lying to strangers in bars about the book’s progress (the anonymous confession making the lie all the more pathetic). In other words, those who suffer Writer’s Block are simply waiting, but nothing is arriving. The writer who is not blocked is also waiting but something does arrive: inspiration, usually a bolt of artistic fire right from the gods above. For Eddie Morra, the external intervention comes in the form of a pill. For Jack Torrance in The Shining, it comes as a malevolent ghostly hijack, actualizing the Writer’s worst fear that the otherworldy lightning may be evil instead of productive. In all cases the Writer’s Block condition is relieved by something other than the Writer.

This, of course, bears no resemblance whatsoever to actual writing (the lowercase version, the human action). Writers don’t wait, they do, which makes them no more special than anyone else who does things – plumbers, baristas, pet groomers, dairy farmers. Writers make decisions; to sit down and focus, to turn on the computer, to deliberately create a specific thing. Writers who can’t write are being accosted by the same things that accost anyone who can’t make a decision, things like being distracted by the fight you had with your parents the night before, or fear that the end product will be terrible, or even regular old Lazy-Sunday-I-Don’t-Want-To-Do-Nuthin’-itis. I just took an hour away from this piece to make another pot of coffee and look at some tech blogs under the false pretense that I might buy an iPad, for no reason other than that I didn’t want to finish this paragraph. How much nicer it would be to say that it wasn’t my fault! How nice it would be to blame it on a special condition that only afflicts me.

Slovenly, hopeless Jack Torrance was much better off when he was blocked.

Indecision comes from self-consciousness, the misapprehension that you are important and that your decisions matter and have weight. When you can’t decide which movie or restaurant to go to that night, or where to take a vacation, or which career path to choose, you’re panicked at the thought of choosing the “wrong” path, the less fun, less lucrative, less satisfying path, and you are forgetting that if any of these options turns out badly you will either double back and try again or just make the best of it. The paralyzing fear that your book is going to be terrible is silly. You can always write another one, and no one is paying attention as closely as you fear. You’re free to waste a night – A week, even! A year! – working on something that winds up unreadable. You were still alive while it was happening, still hosting dinner parties and riding your bike and reading to your kids. You have another day, week, and year, to try something else.

Part of the myth of the Writer and his uniquely sad Blockage is rooted in the perception of writing as an occupation, and this is where my analogy to plumbing breaks down. Plumbers, of course, can push themselves through a day of work even if they don’t feel like it. The result might not be their best, but the work will get done. Writing, on the other hand, though potentially lucrative, is an endeavor rooted in the spirit and the soul, not so much a job with goals dictated by someone else. You’re sharing yourself, your impressions and observations, your feelings, your opinions; it’s not something that can happen well if your mind isn’t wholly present, because it’s something that only exists in your mind.

This puffing up of Writer’s Block has bred some of the most terrible and pervasive advice to young writers: to write every day no matter what, to bash through your indecision and just do it already. But do we give the same advice about all the other things we do during a day? Do we advise people to eat when they aren’t hungry, or to call their families when they have nothing to say, or to shop when they have no money? You have to write because you want to. It’s not a task that must be done but a part of your day that you need (or don’t) depending on the day. You can’t write with brute force, and I promise that you won’t like the results when you do. Writing that comes from frustration isn’t good at pretending it’s otherwise.

The best thing to do when you can’t make a writing decision is to just remember that you don’t have to – it’s not that important. Go see a movie. Water your plants. Toss a frisbee. Live your life. Writing – that mystical process of observation and recording – is always happening in the back of your head. At some point soon, you will decide to focus it, to put it down on paper. It will be work, but you’ll enjoy it, the way you enjoy the “work” of fishing or cooking. Whatever choice you make will be fine – nobody is watching, nobody cares, and you only have to decide to do something, not everything.

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