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Is Writer’s Block a Form of Self-Protection?

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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.

A friend of mine, after having some success as a writer, stopped writing. One thing that’s astonished me since I’ve started publishing is how many writers give up — some after graduate school, some after publishing a good bit of work, some after successful books, some after failures, and some after finding a field they prefer.

This writer stopped writing many years ago and he claimed not to miss it. Honestly, his life was rich in many ways and busy, and it wasn’t hard to believe that he wasn’t pining. He went to therapy to get some tools on how to deal with some other things in his life. His therapist happened to be trained in Internal Family Systems, and they dug into the work together. Writing never came up. He worked on things that activated him in ways that made him feel vulnerable and out of control. The therapy proved useful, and, finally, one day, he told his therapist that he felt like writing. It seemed to come from nowhere, an old desire bubbling up.

Sometimes self-protection exists within the writer as a loud cacophony of snarky and cruel inner voices. The thing is that they’re well-meaning. In fact, they exist to protect. One of the refrains this writer seemed to tell himself was that he didn’t want to write; and if he didn’t want to write, he didn’t have to be disappointed when he couldn’t write, due to his busy life. If he didn’t want to write, he didn’t have to send his work out and get rejected. Writing was dangerous and so was simply wanting to write. He didn’t identify with the term writer’s block because he wasn’t blocked. He wasn’t blocked because he didn’t want. He was safe inside of that rationale for a long time. But once he dealt with other things, he didn’t need to be safe. He felt that he could allow risks on the page and in the business of writing, too.

I’m no expert in Internal Family Systems, but my friend explained it a little something like this. When the inner critic tells the writer that the work isn’t good enough so don’t even try, the critic is trying to protect the vulnerable part of the writer from being activated by a fear of failure. The writer needs to thank that voice for its concern and then reassure the critic that the warning, though well-intentioned, is unnecessary. The writer needs to make it clear that he can write and will survive.

Once self-protection is no longer the order of the day, the need for self-expression can come to the fore. But here’s the thing. The need for self-expression was there all along – trying to be good, trying to be a quiet engine, hushing its own want, pacing the ribcage like something that’s only truly alive when allowed to be feral.

It’s our job to unlock the cage, to sniff the air for danger – yes, of course – but then, let loose, to roam.

Does this ring true to you–whether you’ve experienced a form of block or seen it play out in others? Share your stories in comments.

For further reading: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk [2]

About Julianna Baggott [3]

Julianna Baggott [4] is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of a six-week Jumpstart program to get writers generating new material [5] and Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series; listen to the first episode is available, for free, on SoundCloud. [6] Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website [4].

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