Writer’s Block


I didn’t used to believe in writer’s block. I always thought it was one of those fairy tales like Santa Claus or God or a happy marriage. Ordinarily, when fellow writers have said to me that they’ve been suffering from writer’s block, I’ve made appropriate sympathetic sounds, and all the time I’ve been thinking, “You lazy, pretentious bastard! There’s no such thing! Just pick up your pen and get on with your writing.

So, when I got struck by writer’s block last month, I didn’t bother asking for sympathy. Partly this was because I didn’t expect to receive any. But mainly it was because I didn’t need sympathy—I needed a cure for my writer’s block.

What is Writer’s Block?
I suppose we should set out a definition of writer’s block here—for those who aren’t sure what I’m talking about. Writer’s block (according to my definition) is a debilitating condition that afflicts writers, prevents them from writing and threatens their very existence.

This is more debilitating than those outside the writing world can imagine because a writer who can’t write is literally nothing. What would you call a singer who can’t sing? (I’m aware the X Factor gives us lots of different names for some of those singers, but that’s a different context). What would you call a dancer who can’t dance? The answer to both questions is that you would have to call them nothing. Fortunately for singers and dancers, there are no such conditions as singer’s block or dancer’s block. There is only writer’s block.

Writer’s block manifests itself as an inability to write. The most obvious symptom of writer’s block is that the writer can’t find the enthusiasm, inspiration or desire to write.

What Causes Writer’s Block?
Writer’s block is caused by the same thing that causes headaches or a phobic reaction to slugs and celery. Or, to put it more simply—no one really knows what causes writer’s block. It can be caused by something as simple as a trusted companion saying, “You should stop writing—you’re shit.” Or it could be borne from a host of more complex problems and issues. Arguments, upsets, a bad review or a case of the squits could be responsible. (NB—a case of the squits and a bad review are arguably the same thing).

If the cause can be identified—if a writer can remember being told something along the lines of: “Write one more word and I’ll marinade your genitals in petroleum and then flick lit matches at your groin,” then the symptoms can be more easily addressed. But if the condition just seems to come about of its own accord, treatment can be more difficult.

How Do You Cure Writer’s Block?
This is the difficult part. There is no cure for writer’s block except to carry on writing and break through the block.

It is said that Victor Hugo used to overcome his writer’s block by writing in the nude. Left alone, with no clothes and only a pencil and paper at his disposal, he is supposed to have had no alternative available except to write. I can’t seriously believe that the same imagination that produced Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame couldn’t think of something else to do if he was wandering naked around the home. However, it’s something that I have tried and I can wholeheartedly advise that it doesn’t work. The only good thing to come from that experiment is that it’s stopped me from chewing the end of that particular pencil.

Nevertheless, Hugo, Hemingway and Harlan Ellison have all stripped off (not together—I’m not trying to suggest anything dirty was going on between them) to try and inspire their private and personal muses.

Other ways to circumvent the dreaded block can be equally effective or disastrous, depending on the individual. Stream of consciousness writing works for some writers and not for others. It doesn’t work for me as illustrated by the piece below:

Ashley sat naked at his desk writing words, like those you’ve just read, and those you’ve just read, and those you’ve just read, and those you’ve just read. He stopped for a moment and stared thoughtfully at the end of his pencil. An idea crossed his mind and, since he was naked, he thought, “Well, why don’t I just try it? It’s already got a rubber on the end.”

Other methods for breaking writer’s block include the following two which I’ve diligently tried and rated below:

Getting Drunk. It doesn’t work. But it’s lots of fun. It can count as a temporary cure only because the writer is unable to write due to either being too pissed or suffering from a hangover, rather than because of their writer’s block.

Getting Laid. It doesn’t work. But it’s lots of fun. Obviously a partner is needed and most partners are not swayed into oodles of carnal enthusiasm by the chat up line, “I’ve got writer’s block—fancy a quickie?” However, as a displacement activity, getting laid comes highly recommended.

Some people say that writer’s block is a sign that you’re working on the wrong thing. These are the same arseholes that usually say, “If it don’t come easy, there aint no natural flow.” This isn’t actually advice that these people are giving—they’re simply misquoting country songs. In fairness, it can help to break writer’s block by working on something different, or approaching the subject from a different angle—but this isn’t a sign that a previous way of writing was wrong. It just means that the previous method was being hampered by the writer’s block.

The truth is that writer’s block is something akin to those random computer problems that can devastate an entire working week and then disappear as soon as the repairman sits in front of the keyboard. Writer’s block happens and the only way to overcome it is to either work around the problem or break through it. If you are suffering from writer’s block, try any of the ideas listed above, or try any of the million and one variations listed out there on the net or make up your own. But, the only tried and trusted way to get through a writer’s block is to simply carry on writing.

Ashley Lister
September 2008

“The Write Stuff” © 2008 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

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