Please help me perform an experiment. Re-read the title of this post, and ask yourself: What if somebody said those five words – “I don’t believe in diabetes” – to you? What if they followed it up with something like this? “People should just eat less sugar.”
I suspect you might consider that remark insensitive, or stupid, or uninformed, or simply wrong. I also suspect that none of you would ever actually say something like that – particularly to a person diagnosed as being diabetic. After all, it would definitely be insensitive, it would almost certainly be stupid, and it’s clearly ill-informed and wrong, as there is ample medical proof that A) diabetes exists, and B) sugar consumption does not directly cause diabetes.
Let’s try a variation. Consider this statement:
“I don’t believe in depression. People should just cheer up.”
Again, this is something I doubt most people who read posts like this would say, and for the same reasons. At the very least it would be insensitive, and the oversimplified solution it offers is both callous and unhelpful. However, the grim reality is that there ARE some people who would say this – or at least think it. Ask anybody who suffers from depression, and I bet they’ll corroborate this.
Let’s re-cast this sentence one more time, transforming it into something that a fair number of you probably would say:
“I don’t believe in writer’s block.”
I know – this is false equivalence, comparing writer’s block to actual illnesses like diabetes or depression. I’ll address that in a moment. But first let’s explore this premise a bit more. Whether you believe in writer’s block or not, I think you’d have to admit it’s a pretty common punching bag – or punchline – for many writers. Here’s a quick sampling.
Let’s start with Jodi Picoult, who proclaims, “I don’t believe in writer’s block. Most of writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.”
Terry Pratchett apparently has Jodi’s back on this. He’s been quoted as saying, “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
Writing teacher and author Natalie Goldberg says, “I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t even think it exists.”
Author Bob Welch calls it “an excuse,” and elaborates that “I don’t believe in writer’s block any more than I believe in ‘plumber’s block’ should the guy fixing my pipes suddenly find the going difficult.”
Continuing with that theme, author Roger Simon, currently the chief political columnist of Politico, drives the stake a little deeper: “Why should I get writer’s block? My father never got truck driver’s block.”
These are all clever, pithy remarks – brimming with confidence and making it pretty clear that writer’s block is just not something that happens to REAL writers.
Um, except for when it does. To writers including Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, J.K. Rowling, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, John Fowles, Henry Roth, Ralph Ellison, and Keith Cronin, among others. (I know, I know – to quote Big Bird from Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the others.” But I digress…)
All of these writers have been known to battle writer’s block at some point in their careers. And surely at least some of them qualify as real writers, wouldn’t you agree?
So okay, maybe you’ll grant that writer’s block does kinda sorta exist. Maybe. Kinda. Sorta. And only for other people, of course – not you.
But wait a second, you say – diabetes is an illness. So is depression. Writer’s block – real or not – is not an actual illness. Nor is it anywhere NEAR as serious as either of those illnesses.
I’ll grant you: that’s a true and reasonable retort. I’ve already copped to the fact that I opened this post using false equivalence, to heighten the impact of the comparison I was making. So let’s try an example that for some people is less clear-cut.
“I don’t believe addiction is a disease. Some people just make bad choices, and calling it a disease just legitimizes the concept of addiction and excuses their behavior, when it all comes down to a person being weak – or even immoral.”
I personally know people who believe this. Hell, it’s a concept I struggle with at times. And it’s particularly easy to believe when the person in question DOES make lots of bad choices. Even easier if they’re being a dick about it.
But even then, even if you believed that, I doubt you would say that to an addict’s face, outside of a heated confrontation or intervention. If you were just having a pleasant conversation with somebody and they mentioned how hard they were finding it to quit smoking, I doubt you’d launch into a lecture on how weak they are – not if you wanted that conversation to continue to be pleasant.
Yet people think nothing of responding to a writer who mentions they are struggling with writer’s block with a dismissive, “Oh, I don’t believe in writer’s block.”
Really? Gosh, thanks. Very helpful.
As a writer, I find this block-shaming even more perplexing given the knee-jerk empathy we often show to other writers, in the name of being “supportive.” In countless interactions I’ve witnessed, both face-to-face and online, the first response to many writers’ complaints is usually an expression of sympathy and commiseration, often accompanied by an attack on the assumed “real” source of the problem – which interestingly enough never happens to be the writers themselves. Don’t believe me? Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
- When writers get a rejection, the agent or editor is clearly an idiot. Hell, the whole publishing model is a flawed (and probably corrupt) system of arbitrary gatekeeping.
- When writers get a bad review, the reviewer is obviously an illiterate jerk with some kind of agenda. And they probably smell bad and wear ugly shoes.
- But when writers get blocked? They’re just lazy, and making excuses by complaining about a problem that many people claim doesn’t even exist. And others are happy to pile on, blithely proclaiming their disbelief in the problem itself, or proudly sharing that they themselves never experience such a paltry problem.
So what’s your point, Mr. Sensitive?
I’m glad you asked, Mr. Subhead. My point is this:
Words matter. As writers, we should know that better than most.
I submit that even if you don’t have this problem – even if you don’t believe in the existence of this problem – maybe you should think twice about how to respond to somebody else who does claim to have this problem.
Think about it. Are there any other times when you think an appropriate response to a person sharing a problem with you is to tell them you don’t even believe the problem exists? (And if so, do you maybe find yourself not getting invited to many parties? Just askin’.)
I hasten to add that writers are not alone in this kind of response. Particularly in these politically polarized times, one of the ugliest sentiments I’ve seen repeatedly expressed could be boiled down to this:
“If *I* don’t have the problem, it’s not a problem.”
I frequently see this philosophy demonstrated in discussions about racism, police treatment of minorities, sexual harassment, sexuality and gender issues, birth control, immigration, religious discrimination, and more.
To me, it’s an attitude of both ignorance and entitlement. And it doesn’t do a damn thing to help.
We can do better
So the long-winded point that I want to make to the kind of people who read WU posts is this: We’re better than that.
I’ve been an artist my whole life, my sensitivity to the power of artistic expression emerging at a young age. I’ve felt tuned into things that seemed to elude many people around me, and at times that made life more lonely and – if you believe in that sort of thing – depressing. For me, the Internet changed all this in a big way, by offering me a chance to find kindred souls literally around the world: other people who were as passionate about – hell, maybe even addicted to – their artistic pursuits. The WU community is a shining example of that shared virtual kinship and its power to educate, unite and elevate each other – as writers and as fellow human beings.
So I’m calling on that kinship to acknowledge an opportunity to be better about something. Something that may not seem like a big deal to you. But something that I guarantee IS a big deal to somebody else. With that in mind…
Let’s lighten up on the writer’s-block-shaming, shall we?
It doesn’t help anybody, and it can hurt them – even when that is absolutely not your intent. A simple step would be to pause before responding to somebody who brings up writer’s block, and ask yourself two questions:
- Would I say something similar to somebody suffering from a problem that I take far more seriously?
- Will this reply actually help them?
Those two questions will help, believe me.
How about you?
Did this post make you think? Or am I just being a whiny snowflake? I invite your input, even if I’m not gonna like it. If I’ve shown nothing else in my WU posts over the years, I hope I’ve demonstrated my willingness to be called wrong. I’m keenly aware that I haven’t seen this viewpoint expressed often, so I write this knowing there’s a very good chance that I am NOT preaching to the choir here.
So please chime in with your candid thoughts about writer’s block, or my call for increased sensitivity – really, anything but diabetes. ‘Cause I just don’t believe in that stuff.
And as always, thanks for reading!
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