There’s (Almost) No Such Thing as Writer’s Block. If There is, This’ll Cure Ya.

writer's block

Not long ago, the concept of writer’s block didn’t even exist. But once the term was created in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, those of us who write glommed on to it like nobody’s business.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear: Serious psychological issues can make it very difficult to write, and I don’t mean to trivialize these (nor am I qualified to address them). Sadness, fatigue, physical pain, and substance abuse can get in the way of being able to write, and this post won’t address these either. Finally, when parts of a writer’s life are in deep disarray, it can be hard to compartmentalize writing and get down to business as an author, and I certainly don’t have a complete solution for this, either. But if your blockage problem is less deep-seated, this advice might help you kick your writer’s block out of the way.

Let me put it this way.

You don’t get “eater’s block.” You’re either hungry enough to eat or you’re not.

You don’t get “pushups block.” You’re either motivated to drop and give yourself twenty or you’re not.

You don’t get “mopper’s block.” Either mopping the kitchen is worth doing now or it’s not, and if it’s not, you’re consciously choosing to do something else with your time.

Which brings me to the thing about writer’s block. To the extent that the phenomenon even exists, it’s a highly unhelpful concept for those of us who are authors.

Not too many years ago, the concept of writer’s block didn’t even exist, at least not exactly. But once the term was created in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, and the concept popularized, those of us who write – or need a reason not to – glommed on to it like nobody’s business.

No longer were we lazy, unmotivated, fearful, etc. We were “blocked.”

I think the secret to overcoming writer’s block is to look at what the blockage really means, in plain, unromantic language. And what it really means is probably one of the following:

“I don’t have a deadline for this particular writing project so I am not going to work on it right now.”

“I’m scared of writing so I’m not going to write right now.”

“I’m feeling lazy, so I’m not going to write right now.”

“That marble pound cake in the pantry is calling to me, so I’m not going to write right now.”

And so forth.

All of which are sort of valid excuses. But you should call them what they are.

Sometimes writing is a glorious, effortless gift from the muse. Sometimes it’s like doing squats, something you have to get through if you want some sort of result. You don’t get to choose which form writing is going to take at which time. You do, however, get to choose how to react when the writing feels like a painful physical workout. You can say “oh, I’ve got writer’s block” and give up. Or you can realize that nobody enjoys doing squats, or writing that feels like squats, and most of all, nobody enjoys starting to do squats. Since that’s the case, and since you won’t be able to get to the next glorious session with the muse without getting through this, you might as well get down to it.

Spotlight on the “no deadline” problem

For me, one big source of what masquerades as writer’s block is the problem of not having a deadline. This often preys on me on weekends and other days when there are no looming due dates on my schedule. On such days, I know, on the one hand, that I need to write because it’s good for my psyche – true – and because, ultimately, I will need the fruits of my writing labor for upcoming projects. On the other hand, there’s nothing due on Monday and there are conflicting priorities to attend to: pointless ones, like checking Facebook, and meaningful ones, like hanging out with the family, or getting the bills paid.

The hour-a-day solution

The solution for the no deadline version of writer’s block is simple, and is far too infrequently practiced. It’s the one I learned from the great Ann Patchett: stare at a blank screen with no Internet connection for a solid hour. I can all but promise you that the muse will visit you, probably within that hour. If not, then certainly tomorrow, within the second of your dedicated hours. And if you can’t devote an hour a day to your writing, then, well, take a good look at why that is. It may be a problem, but it’s assuredly not writer’s block.

When fear causes the blockage

Fear, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article is one of the most common reasons for not writing. Here are some of the shades of fear that writers encounter, and some solutions.

  • Fear of the project being too big, beyond your abilities, or another similar concern. This is a very common issue. And the solution to this is Annie Lamott’s great Bird by Bird approach. Don’t try to write the whole thing, and certainly don’t try to write the whole thing perfectly. Instead, you give yourself permission to write a small part – a page, a paragraph, a chapter – and to do so poorly at first (Lamott is famous for advocating “shitty first drafts” as a liberating technique).
  • Fear of completion. Again, quite common. Some writers fear completing their book/story/article because once they do, they will no longer have their constant companion (the writing project), and, probably even scarier, their work will be out there to be judged. One solution for this, at least a partial one, is to tell yourself that as soon as this project is done, you will, Trollope-style, immediately start on the next one. There are other flavors of completion fear as well: for example, maybe if you finish the piece you’re working on, you’ll need to figure out how to shop it, or how to use WordPress so you can post it, or find a designer for the book cover. All of which can masquerade as writer’s block until you call yourself on it. The solution for most of these mini-fears is to recognize them and thus end the masquerade.
  • Fear of falling short. One concept understood by seasoned writers is that great writers don’t publish only great work. I’m not saying you should intentionally publish bad work, and, as anyone who knows me knows, I myself write, rewrite, re-re-write and so forth before I put anything out there. But it is helpful to understand that even if you publish something that is a “failure,” so to speak, it’s not you who failed, it’s that one piece that failed. Great writers publish great work, good work, and poor work; legends in their own minds don’t publish anything. Because as long as they don’t publish, they can’t be judged.
  • You don’t learn to write by not writing

    The biggest problem with writer’s block is this: You can’t learn to write by not writing, you only learn how to not write. Like most things, writing is something that is learned best by trying. Yet, tradition looks at writing as something that is improved by waiting for the muse to visit, during which waiting time you’re not doing a damn thing to move your writing forward.

    Now, there is certainly such a thing as not being inspired. Or not having the right plot twist or ending yet. And sometimes, there is no question, this benefits from a break. “Sleep on it” is a very valid creative technique, and “walk on it” may be an even better one. But just just because you don’t have the right Hollywood ending, or are at a loss for the perfect word or phrase, or haven’t come up with your “I’ll have what she’s having” showstopper, it doesn’t give you a pass to wallow in so-called writer’s block. There’s still plenty of pushup-type work to do: Working on your plot. Refining your existing sentences. Organizing your existing paragraphs on the page. And, no, checking your Facebook status updates isn’t part of this any more than it is for an athlete who temporarily can’t work one part of his body due to a muscle strain.

    Get to it.


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  1. I love this article – most of the “cure for writer’s block” posts I’ve seen have focused on berating the writer for not just putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, but I found these tips and perspectives very helpful! And I had no idea writer’s block didn’t exist until 1947 – definitely something worth remembering next time I want to claim having it.

    • Thanks, Kaylin.

      It didn’t have that name til then, but it did have a big life from the 1800’s onward (once people started thinking of writing as “waiting for the muse”). Prior to that, it wasn’t really a much talked about issue.

  2. I have “cleaner’s block.” I don’t mean the piles of books all over the floor that make vacuuming it a bigger deal than it would normally be, I mean there are certain areas (like the narrow space between the vanity and the wall in the bathroom) that don’t get cleaned because I can’t figure out how to clean them. And that’s what writer’s block is for me: not an unwillingness to write (though I have that, too) but an inability to get a story past a particular point.

    Oh, and I get “needleworker’s block,” too. I like to sedign my own patterns, and sometimes projects will sit around for years because the pattern isn’t working out the way I want it to and I set it aside hoping I’ll figure out why if I let my subconscious stew on it for a while.

    People may not have bothered to name it, but it’s there.

  3. I love the historical information. Now the phrase, Writer’s Block, carries meaning and allows me to deal with it in a much more grey-matter way. It also gets me off my dead derrière by providing me with a grasping point to engage or wrestle it to the ground – to be my servant. Nothing like knowing your enemy if you plan to take it on. Thank you for this insight. Victory is nigh.

  4. But what is it then, when you sit at the keyboard for hours and you just can’t see the story you want to write? I never associated writer’s block with fear or pain or laziness or doubt. I associate it with drawing a blank on how to proceed with a story. Maybe it’s not having a clear enough idea of what you want to say. But whatever it is, the words I want are not appearing on the keyboard; I have the characters all ready, but the plot is not coming together in my head. That’s why there’s no story there. And I can turn off the internet, the television, and every other distraction; I still can’t get the plot together. If that’s not writer’s block, what is it?

    • For whatever it’s worth:
      I let my characters talk to me about what is going on (in my head) while I’m doing other things. Sometimes you find out that there is something going on that you did not consciously realize.

    • Well, I am a nonfiction writer. So I am not an expert on plot. And I do agree that elements of a story–nonfiction or fiction–will come to you at the darnedest time and not necessarily when you want them to.

      But I don’t know a lot of people brave enough to stare at an empty page for an hour a day. Those who do, tend to get things moving.

  5. Interesting! I really like how you address fear. I have had true writer’s block only once (so far); in high school, when I had to write about Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t, and I was a child — too young to understand or articulate why. Fortunately, my teacher understood. I do, too, now. If I had understood, at that age, why I was so disturbed, I would have been able to write.

    That’s why I think your section on naming and acknowledging your fear is so very helpful.

  6. Micah, Thank you! so! much for this post, your encouragement. I only started writing poetry last year, I love it, I feel I have found my voice and expression, over the last few months I am questioning myself, my confidence has got low because I haven’t felt the inspiration for the flow of words, odd words flow out naturally, so this article has really! inspired and encouraged me and reminded me time spending writing is what is needed, not waiting for inspiration to hit me. It’s a difficult time, I have changed job which is a stress, which has an effect, but my writing is so! precious to me. All very! best wishes, Kim

  7. I’ve written poems & essays on this very topic. I don’t buy into the writer’s block idea. Give me a pen & a blank sheet of lined paper, and I can write. Give me a word, a single word, and I’ll give you a poem, an essay, or a story. Just write.

  8. For the first time I learnt what writer’s block means. But I still have no idea how to get on the subject to keep on writing. I think I need inspiration to motivate me to write.

  9. This is brilliant.
    My muse usually comes when I’m riding my motorcycle along rural roads. Unfortunately by the time I get home, the ideas have evaporated into the ether. I really should pull over and jot them down in the moment.

    • This is very interesting. There is something different about the inspiration that comes when part of your brain is occupied by something that is somewhat rote, like driving. Please don’t respond, however, by starting to write things down while you’re riding!!!

  10. Finally, somebody publishes what I have long believed.

    Writer’s block is simply not wanting to write.
    There are many good reasons for not wanting to write.
    Mr. Solomn touches the salient bases. Most reasons are self deception.
    A professional writer with a deadline and a family to feed often has to write something when one would rather go fishin’, but professional writers are rarely blocked when hunger and eviction set in.

    Among the people I know, the writers who suffer block are wannabees who want to be writers, but they do not want to write. Because they don’t have anythng important enough to them to write about. I can’t imagine the Rev. Martin Luther King having speech block.

    I hate writing. The isolation drives me out of my mind. But I cannot not write. Not writing is worse isolation.

    My rule is that good writing is easy to read. Making it easy to read is the most trying effort I have ever suffered. My eyes bleed. But as long as it does not read quite right, it is not blocked.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree mostly, for most people, most of the time. Just be sure you see the caveats at the beginning of the article.

  11. If you have the “no deadline” problem, start setting deadlines! Tell other people about your deadlines and make them hold you accountable. If you’re the only person who knows your deadlines they might as well not even exist.


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