For a long time, I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I was on intimate terms with unproductivity, to be sure, but for the most part my failure to produce was a function of laziness and ill discipline. I didn’t want to dignify my bad habits with a name so glamorous as writer’s block. “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block,” I used to say, “and lawyers don’t get lawyer’s block. If you’re a writer, sit down and write.”
I do find it helpful to be as matter-of-fact and workmanlike as possible in my approach to writing. Showing up for work is a vital skill, no matter what your work happens to be. Nevertheless, the writing process is mysterious in ways that the plumbing process isn’t. (I mean no disrespect to plumbers; I worked on a plumbing crew for a couple of summers in my youth, so I can say from experience that plumbers’ inner lives are as rich and mysterious as anybody’s.)
Around 2009, however, I came to believe most earnestly in writer’s block; I was afflicted with a case of it that went well beyond mere laziness or ill discipline. I would sit at my desk for hours, for days, for weeks, and produce nothing.
I should mention that I was under contract to write five books at the time. So I’m not talking about being unproductive in my weekend hobby. Perhaps you can imagine the shame and self-loathing that piled on top of the frustration of being a writer who wasn’t writing. If I could have paid back the advances, I would have given up and picked up my plumbing career where I had left off twenty years earlier.
In the fall of 2009, I was past deadline on two books. I don’t mean I was behind schedule. I mean the deadline for one book came and went, then the deadline for the next book came and went (also deadline extensions–those came and went too). I was supposed to be well into the third book when I took my wife Lou Alice for coffee and explained to her how much trouble I was in. She knew, of course, that things hadn’t been going well. But she didn’t know that I had been spending whole days playing online dominoes rather than working. I don’t know how much online dominoes you’ve played. It’s not especially fun and not at all rewarding. Certainly not as rewarding as, say, providing for one’s family. It was pretty humiliating to have to tell my wife what I had been wasting at her expense and at the expense of our family. Come to think of it, it’s painful to write it here–but this was a long time ago, and hopefully it will do somebody good to hear the story.
Lou Alice was characteristically understanding and supportive. Then she told me go somewhere to write and not to come back until I came back with a finished book. Friends of ours owned a cabin out in the boonies with no phone, no television, no internet, and no cellular service to speak of. I went there with a pile of books about Saint Patrick, a laptop computer, three dozen eggs, a few loaves of bread, some pizzas, and a large bag of grapefruit.
It was a pretty miserable couple of weeks. Accustomed to a household of eight robustious people, I was terribly lonesome. My sleep got all messed up. In the quiet of the cabin, I had an auditory hallucination or two. I ran out of grapefruit. But I did finish the book–a biography of Saint Patrick.
I finished the book, but I didn’t really get over the writer’s block. In the cabin I had created an artificial environment in which the pain of not-writing was greater than the pain of writing. So I wrote. When I got home, life was good again. Back in the bosom of my family, the pain of not-writing wasn’t nearly so painful. So I didn’t write.
But then I got a life-changing email from a reader. (I told this part of the story in an earlier issue of The Habit). This reader simply said that my earlier books had meant a lot to her, and she really needed this next one. She also said that she would be praying for me.
I had been thinking of this writer’s block as an individual tragedy, a kind of one-man show of heartache in which I wasn’t getting what I needed from the writing process. It was no coincidence that my writer’s block had come along when I had five book contracts. I was finally a “professional writer” by any reasonable definition. But being a professional writer hadn’t turned out to be the shangri-la I had told myself it was going to be. Up to that point, I always thought contentment with the writing life was just around the corner. When I wasn’t happy to have five book contracts, it didn’t look like I was every going to be happy with the writing life.
That email reminded me, however, that I wasn’t writing for myself, but for people who, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, needed what I had to give. That reminder broke the log jam. I knocked out the rest of The Charlatan’s Boy in a few weeks.
Saint Augustine spoke of sin as incurvatus in se–curving in on the self. Writing, if you’re not wise, invites a kind of self-absorption that never ends well, whatever area of life or work we’re talking about. Self-forgetfulness is the rarest of jewels for the writer, but what a blessing when you get it.
I get a good many questions about overcoming writer’s block, so I’ll wrap things up with a few additional thoughts on the subject, some of which count as advice, some of which don’t:
Ask whether your failure to produce actually is “writer’s block” and not just laziness.
Real writer’s block is usually a function of fear. It’s worth asking what you’re afraid of. Are you afraid that you’re wasting valuable time that you could be devoting to something more worthwhile? Are you afraid that you will somehow be exposed as a fool for even thinking you could write? Interrogate your fears. If you can say them out loud, it helps. If you can say them out loud to another person, that helps even more.
Give yourself permission to write badly.
Give yourself very small writing assignments. Nobody writes books. They write sentences.
I’m no expert on books about writing, but I found Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to be very helpful (#3 and 4 above come pretty much straight from that book). Also a lot of people have benefitted a lot from Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art, which is all about overcoming “Resistance.” It’s a little New-Agey, but if you can spit out the bones, there’s lots of helpful stuff in there.