A Brief History of Writer’s Block

Writers hesitate to mention the "b-word.”

Posted Jan 12, 2020

While writer’s block has no doubt existed since the days of cave people, the much-dreaded psychological syndrome did not receive much attention within literary circles until the latter part of the 20th century.  As the writing process was closely scrutinized after the flourishing of the self-help movement and the rise of a therapy-oriented culture in the 1970s, the notion of a block became a primary concern.  Writers hesitated to even mention the "b-word,” afraid that it, like impotence, perhaps, would become a self-fulfilling prophecy merely by acknowledging it was a possibility.  (“Dry spell” was a bit better.)

If asked, most writers claimed blocks never happened to them but, in hushed tones, confessed that the affliction had struck someone they knew.  Psychological theories for the condition abounded (fear of failure, fear of success, or an immobilizing degree of perfectionism, for example), but it was most likely that the writer was simply unclear about the direction his or her project should go.  Before they began working every day, writers were known to employ a variety of routines to ward off what was sometimes referred to as the “noonday devil.”  Hemingway reportedly sharpened twenty pencils as a ritual to discourage the onset of a block (and would stop in mid-sentence at the end of one day to make it easier to start writing the next), for example, and Willa Cather habitually read a passage from the Bible to court her own muse.

What was perhaps cruelest about writer’s block was its tendency to make a surprise attack on its victim.  Writers would go through their normal routine and begin to work but, a couple of hours later, realize that there was nothing there, at least nothing one would ever want to share with another person.  More coffee was needed, the writer might conclude, but after two, three, or four cups, still nothing.  Panic could then set in, as the fear that one’s literary tank was empty intensified.  Moving to a new location was the next likely step, followed by a shifting of pen to mechanical device or vice versa.  Eliminating those variables from the equation and still no results, writers were prone towards taking a break, whether that involved reading a newspaper, having a snack, or doing some jumping jacks to get the blood flowing.  Virtually no method of breaking the spell was ruled out.  More desperate, therapeutically informed writers were known to go out into the woods and scream as loud as they could, such a release able perhaps to purge the evil spirit from their literary soul.

Fran Lebowitz, who had had considerable success with her two collections of essays, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, became the poster child of writer’s block in the early 1990s.  After the latter was published in 1981, Lebowitz experienced a decade-long block, making her as famous for her “not writing” as her writing.  Lebowitz had begun a novel but had completed just the first chapter by 1993, a remarkable lack of progress by any measure.  “I am profoundly slothful,” she candidly told The Paris Review, not something one was likely to hear from an author with a couple of hits.

Interestingly, Lebowitz found not writing more demanding than writing; the former was psychically exhausting because one was expected to be doing the latter.  A small percentage of writers welcomed a block as it gave them permission to stop working and do other things.  Seeing friends, going to the movies, watching television, or just catching up on sleep were rare delights for writers who normally put work in front of everything else.  “The well’s gone dry on me often enough that I recognize that one way to fill it is to relax and participate in life instead of agonizing because I think I have nothing to say,” explained one such writer, making the most of her forced time off.

Writers who had recovered from the noonday devil offered advice so others would not have to experience the condition.  One possible solution was to jot down whatever one did over the past twenty-four hours simply to put one’s brain into writing mode.  Once in that state, the blockee could transition into more creative territory, a sensible way to ease the fear of the blank page.  Another way was to pretend to abandon the idea of writing a whole book.  Knowing that there were two hundred or more pages to fill after writing the first one could be paralyzing, making it a useful trick to start with just one word or sentence.  Such an approach was especially effective for novelists who were petrified by not knowing the direction their stories would go.  Most novels were in fact not fully developed before the writer began work, reason enough to be content with starting small.  From a little spark of an idea, kindling (characters, situations, locales) could be slowly added followed by heavier logs (plot twists), a more manageable way to tackle what was a monumental task.

Like people struggling with addiction, blocked writers often fell into the trap of promising themselves they would work “tomorrow,” denying that they had a problem.  When tomorrow came and no words appeared, however, they convinced themselves they were just not in the mood to write, also like those with an alcohol addiction who would just not be in the mood to quit drinking.  As those with any kind of addiction, confronting the problem head-on typically would not lead to a successful resolution.  A more subtle approach to exorcise the literary demon was required, one which enabled the writer to free himself or herself from the loss of confidence that undergirded the inability to construct a sentence or paragraph.  One good way was to eliminate any and all forms of self-criticism during the creative process.  No idea was a bad idea if words appeared on paper, making it a good rule to not allow oneself to revise, correct, or edit a first draft when experiencing a block.  Unlike doctors, writers did not have to get it right the first time, something the latter kept and should continue to keep in mind if the pressure gets to them.