Writer’s block is something I fear. After my readings when we open for questions, people often ask if I’ve ever had it and, when I say no, they ask what I’d do about it if I did. It’s not something I would think about much at all if it weren’t such a strong cultural concept. It’s called “writer’s block” as if it’s unique to writers and, possibly, inevitable. At one of these readings, I was sitting on a stool and imagined falling off, hitting my head, and being struck by writer’s block. I was terrified. Writing doesn’t need me; I need it. Could I be freed of that need one day by a blow to the head? Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be free of it. Writing for me will always be part-disease, part-cure.
And so I think about writer’s block a lot for someone who’s never had it. One thing I’ve realized is that it isn’t unique to writers, is it? Athletes suffer from some like-conditions, especially, it seems, baseball players. They get “the yips,” often messing up the simple plays like Mackey Sasser’s trouble with the easy throw back to the pitcher. In other fields, it’s simply called burn-out, and I’ve certainly seen writers who need to recharge, especially after major works. And, of course, writers stop writing for many reasons just as specialists in other fields lose interest in work they once found rewarding. But the word “block” indicates a thwarted desire. That’s what makes it scary – the engine is still running but the car is stuck.
John Dunne’s famous definition of writers’ block is “a failure of nerve.” It does take nerve to write. It’s a bold act, sometimes quite wild, and, to see a work through its often brutal process from-nothing-to-something requires commitment; it can also simultaneously be a glorious ride.
That said, I don’t like framing writer’s block as failure. There are times when writing – the time and space for self-expression – seems dangerous and/or frivolous. There are times when a writer is overwhelmed with life, maybe even trauma or profound grief, when the page is impossible. The writer, recently reeling from a difficult experience, can be too vulnerable to open up. The writer can be so necessarily focused on survival that writing can’t be rationalized.
It strikes me that writer’s block can happen when the need for self-protection is stronger than the need for self-expression.
Self-protection is an undeniably strong instinct. And if a writer is going through a traumatic period, writing can seem like a luxury. But writing has been a proven tool to help put trauma in the past where it belongs and it can help people – not just writers – rebuild and envision the future.
But self-protection for writers is a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s not about trauma – or not an obvious one. [Read more…]