Is Writer’s Block Real?


I have a writer friend, Wendy, who has been suffering from the worst kind of writerly affliction: the dreaded writer’s block. She tells me she’s stuck in the quagmire, sinking slowly, grasping at air.  

Writer’s block is a daunting creative challenge. You can’t find an idea anywhere. You can’t make any progress on your work-in-progress. You have a physical aversion to sitting down at your desk. Your desire to write has evaporated like a puddle in the heat.

It’s not only writers who get the block. Other artists, of course—painters, sculptors, musicians. But all of us get the block. Accountant’s block: the numbers aren’t adding up. Teacher’s block: I can’t get them to learn anything. Businessman’s block: no strategy seems to be working. Lover’s block: I can’t love anyone these days.

The one I’m most familiar with is writer’s block. I know what Wendy is going through. There’s no single cause. Boredom is a contributor, if you’re just not that interested in what you’re working on. Or maybe you’re suffering from perfectionism and you can’t get past the first few sentences. You might be facing external pressures or you’ve put unrealistic expectations on yourself. Or you’re racked with self-doubt: not good enough, not producing enough, how dare you consider yourself a writer—all that ugly stuff.

We talked about which of these factors might be harming her writing psyche. She said it was mostly feelings of self-doubt. I was afraid of that. Self-doubt is the hardest one to overcome, even for someone like Wendy, who by any measure is an accomplished writer: published books and articles, a writer of poems and song lyrics, and decades of professional experience. She’s also very good at crafting the perfectly-worded customer complaint email.

Overcoming self-doubt is a mountain of work that requires a lot of muscle. You have to challenge your negative thoughts and beat them back, and in their place make room for your strengths, achievements, hard work, and other evidence that contradicts self-doubt. You have to stop being so hard on yourself and instead show yourself some compassion.  You have to knock off comparing yourself to others and start celebrating your own growth. That adds up to a lot of reframing and positive affirmation.

“I’d almost rather have writer’s block than go through all of that,” Wendy said.

Yeah, it’s tough. Then I suggested that maybe there’s no such thing as writer’s block, and in fact the lack of ideas, progress, and motivation is simply part of the writing process. Of course you’re going to have setbacks. Of course the well runs dry during a drought. You’re going to endure tough hours, days, weeks, even months.

I reminded Wendy of a favorite quote of mine from a favorite writer of mine, Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad). She said, “I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, cliched writing, outright flailing around.”

I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, cliched writing, outright flailing around.

Jennifer Egan

Wendy’s eyes widened. We both understood. We knew about having to traverse the rocky terrain of our own very bad writing in order to arrive at a place of any good writing.

It’s not just the willingness to write badly, but accepting the inevitability of it. I’m not saying that putting up with bad writing is an elixir for writer’s block, but it isn’t snake oil either. Writing badly allows you to show up and work, and keep working until something worthwhile emerges, which is what Wendy said she was going to try.  

I asked her what she was planning to work on. She wasn’t sure, only that she had to start writing again. So I pulled out another quote from a favorite author, Charles Bukowski, who said, “Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.”

Get to it, Wendy.

P.S. Yesterday was Charles Bukowski’s birthday. I have one of his poems, “The Laughing Heart,” framed on a shelf above my desk. Here it is, read by the incredible Tom Waits.  

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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