The Myth of Writer’s Block

I came across this quote from author Lois Lowry over on Goodreads earlier this week. Someone asked, “What is the writing process for you…and how do you get over writers block?” Lowry’s response was incredibly simple, an obvious statement that was a lightbulb moment for me: writer’s block is a go-to cop out we authors employ when we are too lazy to buckle down. (I’m paraphrasing.) Here’s what she said:

I have never suffered from writer’s block. In fact, I don’t believe in it. It’s a made-up term that has taken on some kind of silly importance. Writing is a job. Some days you don’t feel like doing your job. But there is no “teacher’s block” or “dentist’s block.” I can’t figure out why we have created this mysterious phrase, only for writers, which only means, “I don’t feel like doing this right now.”

I’m guilty of using writer’s block as an excuse many, many times over the course of the last two years spent working on this novel. And sometimes I don’t even blame writer’s block, but rather I admit to my own incapability of prioritizing. (“Last weekend was just too busy, I didn’t even have time to think about writing.”) But writer’s block is a no-questions-asked response that people sort of expect you to give at some point if you’re a writer.

Lowry is right, though.

Writer’s block doesn’t exist. You just don’t feel like writing.

When we find excuses to put off filing a big stack of documents at work –“I don’t feel like doing this right now. I wonder what’s new on Twitter…”– we call it ‘procrastinating.’ When we sit down at the computer or in front of a blank page, and the words don’t come, we call it ‘writer’s block.’ “I’m not feeling inspired. I’m blocked.” I think we believe creative pursuits operate on a different, higher plane in the hierarchy of our needs. Because writing is something I enjoy doing, rather than something I know I have to do (like getting up and going to work every day), we assume it’s immune to the same resistance that quotidian, mundane tasks present. Surely because washing and folding laundry is tedious and no where near as creatively fulfilling as working on my novel, the procrastination I experience when faced with putting away an entire basket of clean clothes couldn’t possibly be the same wall I run into when I sit down to write, only to decide the words just aren’t “ready” or “there.” It’s totally different. It’s writer’s block.

Except it’s not. It’s difficult to dig deep and find the words to put on the page; if it wasn’t, everyone could write a book a week. But while it’s hard to push through and get the writing done (the other side of the same coin: it’s easy to default to blaming the mythical trope of writer’s block), we don’t get to have the same luxury at our day jobs, because we’d find ourselves unemployed. You can’t be fired from writing a novel, so there’s no immediate accountability of a boss bearing down on you and, as a result, we’re more likely to be lenient with our procrastinating and wrap it up in a fancy name. We do our jobs because they have to be done, except when it comes to creative blocks. My mother was a teacher and my father was an architect, and neither of them ever complained about having a block in their chosen professions. “You know, I just couldn’t teach, today.” “Those blueprints just won’t come out of my head this week.”

Do your job, because it has to be done. Write, because this novel has to be written. (This is mostly a plea to myself.)

What do you guys think? Do you believe in writer’s block, and is this an over-simplified theory? Just some food for thought leading into the weekend. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

19 thoughts on “The Myth of Writer’s Block

  1. i do believe in writer’s block, or any ‘creative block’ for that matter. i think it’s a lot different than completing mundane tasks (work for a lot of people could probably be included there!). i truly believe you can’t force yourself to be creative all the time. and beyond that there are times you want to be, you really, really want to sit down and do, but the work but it doesn’t happen, nothing comes out. i also think sometimes if you sit there long enough, or keep going back something eventually does come out. so with that i also agree with lowry, it’s probably a bit over-used to justify regular ol’ procrastinating. xo

    1. I definitely think there is a difference between creative pursuits and mundane tasks. I was just trying to highlight that we are fully capable of completing tasks we have no interest in, but sometimes have a hard time muddling through the things we’re supposed to love and want to do. Does that make sense? I know there are definitely times where I’ve sat down to write and literally nothing was coming out, but instead of just writing drivel I could delete later, I wrote nothing. So it’s not that I’m “blocked” in that I physically can’t write, I just got bogged down by writing something good rather than writing something. My friend Iain said to me a long time ago, “Just get the first draft down on the page” and that way I’ll have something to go back and revise. I get stuck on having it come out perfectly on the first draft, and then I fall into a period of “block.” I think Lowry makes a good point, and this week I am totally jazzed about her theory, but I’m sure the next time I have a frustratingly empty writing session, I’ll be singing a different tune ;) xo

  2. you know what, i think what lowry said is true to a certain extent. i’ve never considered myself a “natural talent”, so i’ve always been a big proponent of good ol’ hard work. i think there is a lot of growth that comes from dedication. discipline. consistency. BUT i’m not sure that the most inspired work happens this way. i think the best work comes from passion. STILL, when passion isn’t free-flowing, sometimes you need to just write (even if it ends up deleted or crumpled up in the trash) just to keep the habit or as we say in running, to keep “the bounce in our legs”. work isn’t always easy or fun or our best, but by sticking with it, your are always moving forward in some way.
    you going to be sharing another excerpt soon? i hope? :)

    1. I feel like there’s no way to say this without sounding condescending, but I swear I’m not trying to be: I am fascinated by your self-description of “not a natural talent.” I obviously disagree with you (I read your blog, girl, you’re not fooling me ;) but there’s definitely something to your approach of just doing the work. Keeping “the bounce in our legs.” I love that. And now I promise I’m not trying to come off as full of myself, but writing has never really been an effort for me. It has always just come naturally, which, for better or worse, means I really struggle when I hit a wall. I know I can write like the wind, so it’s frustrating when the words don’t come. Even if it ends up deleted or in the trash, I really do need to learn to commit and keep the forward momentum going. Thank you for that metaphor, Lucinda. You’re as wise as Lois Lowry! xoxo

      Man this comment makes me seem like an asshole from start to finish ;)

      1. haha! no it does not! i wasn’t the least bit offended by any bit of you comment. i understand that everyone has their own way of doing things, mine just takes 10x longer than it does for others! :) anyway, you got my main gist which is PROGRESS, by any and all means. now go get ’em, tiger!

  3. Je ne sais pas si le “writer’s block” existe ou pas ! Mais je crois dans l’énergie, l’inspiration…parfois on peut être plein d’énergie, les idées fusent dans la tête et autre fois je suis à plat ! En tout cas, dans mon cas parfois je sens un blocage et quelques fois je ne peux pas m’arrêter de créer. J’imagine que ça doit être un peu pareil pour les écrivains. En tout cas, je te fais confiance, tu va finir ton livre! Bon weekend et travaille bien ;) xo

    1. Quelquefois je pense qu’il existe, le “writer’s block,” mais maintenant je pense que j’etais paresseuse. Mais je ne sais pas. Chaque semaine il y a un autre nouveaux idee pour les ecrivains, par comment ecrire un livre. C’est un mystere, je pense. Mais j’aime bien ce conseil, et actuellement ca marche pour moi. Demain? Nous verrons. :) Bon weekend, Eva ma chere! xo

  4. Lucky her!

    I agree with everyone else here, ‘creative block’ is a thing, that’s also why people have muses for creative things but not for teaching or dentistry or whatever.

    There is a different kind of trance that happens with writing or drawing or whatever than with regular jobs, because it comes from a different place. It’s not the sort of thing you can get training for in the same way.

    But yeah, I agree that when I feel like my muse is away, I indulge a little bit and take advantage of the situation.

    But for someone who’s a writer to not be able to relate to bouts of unproductivity to the point of saying that it’s not a thing? That’s kind of hard to believe, to be honest. This woman must be some sort of machine.

    1. That being said, if it helps motivate you, you should totally adopt it as a mantra. Just as long as it doesn’t make you feel bad about not always being as productive as she claims to be. Sometimes hearing about other people’s productivity when I’m not doing so well brings me down which in turn makes me when less productive. You know, because it makes me been like maybe I shouldn’t be doing it if it doesn’t come naturally.

      1. “Sometimes hearing about other people’s productivity when I’m not doing so well brings me down which in turn makes me when less productive.” To which I say: Nora Roberts has published over 200 books, and Fitzgerald only published four. It took Donna Tartt 10 years to write “The Goldfinch.” There is no universal measure of productivity. Don’t be so hard on yourself, girl! xo

        1. I wish that I was talking about quantity of things produced. For me, productivity is total time spent working, whether what I’m doing is good or not. I sometimes neglect my dissertation for weeks at a time.

    2. Oh I definitely should have prefaced all of this by saying, “THIS WEEK, this advice sounds totally sound and impossible to argue with!” Because that’s the thing about writing, for as singular a pursuit as it is, there sure are countless other people going through the same thing, all with their unique perspectives on the matter. So, right now, today, this is speaking to me as a way to get over the hump of not-writing. But you’re right, and I’ve never heard a dentist speak about teeth the way writers speak about their craft :)

      What you mentioned about “not getting training for in the same way” is really relevant to me right now, because the majority of January I was seriously contemplating going back and getting a Masters in Creative Writing, to sort of lend some legitimacy to my desire to write full-time, unpaid. But Jamal asked, “Is that really something you can learn in a classroom?” And while the statistics about the number of published authors graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop would say otherwise, typically being able to write (and write well) is something that you’re either born with or you’re not. You can learn skills that can enhance what’s already there, but you can’t take someone with zero capacity to write a half-decent sentence and make them the next Hemingway.

      Now I’ve gotten off track.

      I think what my biggest takeaway is from this bit of advice is that it doesn’t have to be amazing writing, but I need to write anyway. I can edit uninspired writing, but I can’t wait forever for the perfect pages to appear, you know? I need to be less lenient with my blatant procrastinating. It might suck to force myself to write through a “block” but the job needs to get done. xo

      1. Yeah, the other thing that I realized since writing this is that unlike the other professions the woman mentioned, the writing you and I do is writing that we do only for ourselves. We can choose to do it or not, if we don’t, it won’t affect anyone’s life. You can’t say that about a lot of jobs. We don’t have anyone to keep us accountable. I mean, we might, but I know that the deadlines my advisors set for me are a way to help me and have nothing to do with them. I think that that’s part of the reason writing is so hard for so many people.

        School can be good, but I agree with Jamal, you can get what you would get from school through other sources. It could be helpful, but it could also stifle your creativity, and I think it’s hard to tell what effect it will have. Of course it would make it easier to actually publish something because you would make a lot of connections in the writing world and your advisors could help you get published. But I don’t think that you absolutely need that. The kinds of ways in which I think school can be helpful is less so in acquiring skills to write well and more so in having a community who is going through the same highs and lows as you, having someone to keep you accountable, having someone help you develop your ideas or pitch the book once it’s done or help you out of slumps. Different people need and want different things from school, obviously, and I definitely agree that you’re a great writer and are not likely to benefit from school in that respect (of honing your writing skills).

        Ugh, my comments are always too long.

        The reason for my previous comments was that, what she said triggered in me the reaction that, if I have writer’s block, it means that I really shouldn’t be doing this, I’m not meant to be a writer so it’s time to give up and try to find something that will make me want to never put it down. For me, it’s discouraging and it makes me feel bad about myself and I have to think about the fact that everyone goes through slumps no matter what they end up doing and how passionate they are about it and how much they love it in order to bring myself back up. It makes me doubt myself and my decisions, which makes it even harder for me to be disciplined in my writing. So, I wanted to just say that you can do whatever you want to do even if you do have writer’s block because it doesn’t mean that you’re on the wrong path. She probably doesn’t even imply that but I guess I’m insecure enough about my lack of discipline that I find it in a lot of things.

  5. If only I could equate laundry with writing I’d be more prolific than Isaac Asimov. Although there were times during The Human Brain that I would have rather scrubbed the stains out of your baby clothes by hand.

    1. If only I could equate laundry with this novel, I’d have finished it by now and it would be folded perfectly without wrinkles. Or whatever the laundry analogy equivalent is for writing…xo

  6. I totally think you (and Lois Lowry) are right about this. You made a comment on one of my blog posts awhile ago that said that instead of saying “I’m too busy for…” you say “xyz is not a priority” and it’s helped me to be more honest with myself. This quote is almost the same thing for me. Honesty, even if it hurts

    1. Huh, you know, I never even made that mental connection, but you’re so right. It’s a variation of the same thing. I really have only ever applied that advice I shared with you to calling my grandmother more frequently, but I could easily apply it to writing, too. Damn, it does hurt to think “writing isn’t important to me.” Thanks for blowing my mind a bit, girl. xo

  7. oh, tricky one. I don’t believe in writer’s block either. but it’s not as simple as just sitting down and doing your job either. there are days and weeks where even though I may write every day, nothing useful comes out of it. I still write. but it’s frustrating. and I think that can happen to everyone. not writing at all is a different story. and we all know how many writers don’t write. ever. and call it writer’s block. but that’s an altogether different issue. so I say let’s discuss it separately. I think it can happen to the best of us to jump from one essay to another article to little writing exercises because nothing quite flows. because we’re not dentists or teachers who essentially do variations of the same things over and over again.

    1. I know there are obvious creative differences between teeth cleaning and writing a novel, but until you mentioned it, the repetition of the acts didn’t occur to me. In theory, writers do the same thing every time they sit down to write, just like dentists do essentially the same thing with every patient, but it’s vastly different. There is no step by step guide to writing a book he way there is to, say, extracting a molar. Huh. It’s sometimes an uphill struggle getting anything meaningful down on the page, and everyone deals with it in one way or another, but I think writers (and creatives) are viewed as “sensitive souls” and so it’s easier to blame it on a mythical idea. It fits with the romanticism of the job. xo

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