My Writer’s Block Rant


(Please note that I’ll be away from my computer and won’t be able to respond to comments. I’ll trust my fellow MWers to comment on my behalf.)

The other day I gave a talk at a local book fair. The talk was on point of view and also touched on character, voice, narrative, etc. I read passages from several of my books including Rules of Ascension, Robin Hood, the new Thieftaker book, and my as-yet-unpublished urban fantasy, and then picked each passage apart explaining why I used that particular point of view character and that particular voice.

The talk was well-received, and the Q and A that followed was lively and interesting. Naturally, the questions quickly turned to the types of “How-do-I-get-started?” and “How-do-I-finish-my-book?” questions that we try to answer here at MW on a daily basis. And that was fine, too.

But eventually, during a discussion with one young writer, “writer’s block” came up, and as always I went on my writer’s block rant. I’m away from my computer for a little while, taking a much needed break. And so this is going to be a short post. But I thought I would repeat my WBR (Writer’s Block Rant) for you here. It goes something like this.

In my opinion, writer’s block does not exist. Writer’s block is a fiction (as it were) created by the same people who believe that writers sit around all day doing nothing, waiting for inspiration to strike; the same people who believe that if you’ve published a book you are instantly Successful and a Millionaire; the same people who believe that they “have a novel in them” and that if they just had the time to sit down and write it they would be enormously successful themselves, even though they have no training, no track record, and no desire to do the thousand little things that writers do everyday to make their books as good as they can be. In other words, this thing known as “writer’s block” assumes that writing is easy. The concept itself is founded on an illusion. Think about it. “Writer’s block” posits that writing a story or book is supposed to be one simple, flowing, uninterrupted process of creation. If in writing said story or book an author becomes stuck, or struggles, or finds that the words aren’t flowing, that author has — gasp! — Writer’s Block!!

Horse dung. Writing is hard. Really, really hard. The creative process for any writer — any artist, really — is filled with struggle, with false starts, with bursts of creativity followed by exhaustion and periods of inactivity. There are days when I am enormously productive and other days when I fight for every word. There are times when I can’t write at all, or if I do, the material I put out simply sucks. It’s not that I have writer’s block. There is no such beast, I tell you. Those fits and starts, which the rest of the world might see as an affliction, are simply the throes of the creative process. It’s not writer’s block. It’s writing.

And that’s really all I have to say.

David B. Coe

13 comments to My Writer’s Block Rant

  • Tom G

    I’m suffering from a terrible case of writing right now. LOL

    Great post. I can’t disagree with a single thing. I don’t have writers block, I am in the thoes of an unproductive period.

  • Right on, as usual, David. And I love the explication of the myth that writing is merely the transcription of something that leaps Athena-like right out of your head and onto the page. The idea that everyone has a novel in them leads to that most dreaded of literary categories: the autobiography of a nobody. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been approached by someone who is writing or has written a book based on their (mildly interesting but pretty unremarkable) life and wants to know how to get published and hit the big time. When I start to warn them of the odds against any kind of success with this sort of book (who buys autobiographies of people they’ve never heard of) I get wounded looks along with that misleadign maxim. “But they say everyone has a book in them,” they say. “And that’s usually the best place for it,” I reply (in my head, because in the end I’m kind and sort of an enabler).

  • Well put, David.

    I tend to think of it as feeling stuck. Therefore, it is my responsibility to get un-stuck. Reading helps. MW posts, too.

    Hope you have an enjoyable break!

  • Over time I’ve learned that so-called Writer’s Block falls into one of two categories. Either it’s a) everything you’ve described so well in this post or b) growth as a writer. Sometimes when you’re about to make a major leap in your writing ability, your brain seems to stall for a short time as it reorganizes things which can feel like writer’s block — at least, that’s what has happened to me in the past. Either way, the end result is the same — there’s no such thing as writer’s block.

  • David, I hope you are having a wonderful time! I’ll add in one other version of writer’s block. The I’ve-taken-a-wrong-turn-in-my-plot-and-now-I-must-rethink-rewrite-redo it. It isn’t writer’s block for me, any more than any other time that you and the others have mentioned. It’s a feeling (the certainty) that I will have to start over (which I detest)and throw out pages and pages. I sit there thinking, hoping that I’ll figure out how to keep everything I’ve put on page and not lose my page count. In other words I’m hoping for a miraculous save. I can call it writer’s block. A lot of writers do. But it’s really just lazy, mixed in with a case of the I-Don’t-Wannas.

  • Great post, and I agree> I do think that people claim “writer’s block” when what they are struggling with is a serious case of “can’t put but in chair” disease. 🙂 I’ve done it. “Oh, I’ve got writer’s block… I’ll go do something else…” when, in fact, writing is hard and I’m not up for the work. Of course there is also the very real fatigue. The “I’ve worked a lot, and now I’m tired and so working more isn’t possible.” I think of it like grief (at least that’s the most similar experience for me). I grieved over the loss of my mom when she died (I was 21, so quite a while ago), and I’d cry, but I’d get to the point where I couldn’t cry anymore–physically couldn’t do it. I get to the point where I can’t write anymore and it’s the same kind of exhaustion. It’s an exhilarating tiredness, born out of work, not emotional trauma (though if I do write something emotional, I sometimes have to stop, too.)

    The more I do it, the more I think writing, and successful writing, is simply writing. Over and over and over again. And then writing some more. Sarah and I sat down and (re)wrote our (new) novel in the past three weeks. 99,018 words in three weeks. Now, we’d done a ton of pre-planning, notecards, outline, (a lot of which changed as we wrote), but we’ve only got about 6 weeks together a year when we can actually sit down and write together. Some of the time we opted to play Mario Cart (therapeutic, I swear!), but then we sat down and did it. Now, we think we (finally) have something publishable and marketable (or can be gotten into that shape, it’s a first draft after all). It is going to sit for a few more days and then we’ll read and create a revision plan (it would be nice if it could sit for longer, but we’re heading our separate ways on August 3). Then we’ll revise while apart, and get together again in December, probably, for a short bout of face-to-face writing time. (We’ll revise once and send it out to beta readers, get responses, revise again and start writing pitches, etc. At least that’s the plan, we’ll see).

    But, all that is to say that both of us have struggled. And sometimes scenes wouldn’t come out. Sometimes one or the other needed a break or a nap, sometimes one or the other could write for hours. It came out to several hours a day of writing (around 8 hours, usually, and between 2000 and 5000 words for each of us per day). We didn’t have the option of having writer’s block, if we had it , we sort of had to plow through it.

    I completely agree, too, that sometimes you just have to step away. To not write for a while. I will step away and not write a word for a few weeks–just think, let my mind wander, etc. and then come back and be ready to write again. And often after a break I’ll have a bout of creative energy that really pops and I get that writing high where it feels like I could do it forever. That’s always fun. 🙂

  • Ryl

    “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
    — Chuck Close

    The only times I suffer anything remotely resembling writer’s block is when I want to work on *this* bit while my Muse wants me to work on *that* bit — the ensuing power struggle leaves me adrift in between, where there is only silence. So I writer-up and do what the Muse wants, then I’m free to do whatever I want story-wise,….

  • About once a year a friend of mine asks me to help her with her writing, and she explains to me the projects she’s working on (the parts of the projects that don’t involve writing) and the great things she’s been doing (and there are many) and how she should be writing something down. As a legacy? I ask, because I am really puzzled about why she feels she must write, when I know how much she doesn’t like to write. No, not exactly, she says, and then silence. Of course, I say yes, but I confess that now I know that volunteering in this case is not likely to cost me anything, because my friend never starts writing. She says she has a writing block, and I suggest that she just try writing something, anything at all. She is a great fan of journaling, that is, of other people, like her students, journaling, but I’ve never seen any signs that she herself indulges in such navel-gazing. The sort of blathering on to myself or anyone else in the vicinity is perceived by her to be very dangerous — who knows what she might say without knowing it — and so she does not indulge in this either. Though she loves to converse, and has many excellent and interesting ideas.

    But writer’s block? No, not really. What she has the mistaken notion that she ought to write, that it will make her a better person in some way, that her ideas will naturally stretch out longer than the two or three sentences permitted in a civil conversation if just that tree had not fallen and blocked the road. What strikes me is that writing is a kind of disposition, and much of what we are hearing when we hear about “not being able to write” is another way of saying that I am not a writer, by nature or disposition. Personally, I am not a mountain climber or salesman or a scientist. I have always been a writer, though sometimes a lazy and not very good writer.

  • It looks like I am of the minority opinion here.

    “‘Writer’s block’ posits that writing a story or book is supposed to be one simple, flowing, uninterrupted process of creation.”

    Acknowledging (or claiming) that writer’s block exists is hardly the same as saying that writing is a simple, easy process. Granted, much of what people call writer’s block is one form or another of procrastination (or thinly veiled self-indulgence). There are those who say that all writer’s block is of this type, but I do not believe that’s true. When you sit down in front of your computer or typewriter for hours at a time and try–really try–to come up with something, anything, that can hardly be called procrastination. There are those who put the time in and do the work but still cannot find their way through; to say to them that writer’s block does not exist is just playing with words. Perhaps in this case it comes down to a matter of definition.

    There are those who are creatively blocked because of anxiety disorders or clinical depression. Tell them writer’s block does not exist.

    While I agree with the gist of this post, I cannot agree that writer’s block is not a real and genuine phenomenon.

  • Sarah

    Wolf has a good point about anxiety and depression at the clinical level. One of the side effects of depression/anxiety disorders is “disordered thinking,” or a mental fog that just seems to erase all your ideas, especially the creative ones.

    But, there’s a caveat to this, at least in my experience. Butt-in-chair can be the cure, both for the writer’s block and (partly) the depression. (Let it never be said that I don’t advocate real medical treatment for illness.) At the risk of being way too personal, let me admit that there were times (years!) when I would literally cry for half an hour, write a few pages, cry for another half an hour, write, pace, cry, write, pace, cry and repeat. And when I got a full time job and had to face my obligation to write more scholarship or risk losing said job I would have panic attacks. But when I stopped hyperventilating, I still had to write the conference paper. Even if my hands shook. Even if all I could type was “I have no idea. This paper is about Wulfstan. He was a bishop. What’s my thesis? Dammit.” I never want writing to be that painful again. But just putting something on the screen got my fingers moving. And the moving fingers pulled out a few words. And a few more. That process of forcing myself to function was therapeutic and it taught me that I could write under any circumstances if I really had to. When I had a metaphorical gun to my head, I could put something on paper. I wasn’t very good, but it got the mental ball rolling in the right direction. Forcing the scholarship proved to me that I could be a scholar. And forcing the creative writing proved to me that I could write. Eventually that brought back the joy to the writing process which I thought I had lost forever, which brought on more words and creative ideas.

    I think Emily’s post about our collaborative process touches on this too. When you HAVE to, you can. So I make myself think of my writing as my job. It’s work that has to be done, just like paying the bills and teaching my classes.
    I know that sounds joyless, but it’s not in practice and it takes away the option for me to flail and make excuses for myself. Frankly, I enjoy creative writing more now that I think of it as a job because there’s no more nagging guilt that I could be doing “real work.”

    Okay – that’s my experience. If anybody reading this is also a depression sufferer, let me add that I’m just recommending this method. I’m not condemning anyone else who’s struggling or who finds this approach doesn’t work. Also, I’m not saying you can just will yourself out of serious depression. I had a lot of outside help and still do.

  • While I may be an unpublished author, I largely agree with this article. I cam to this conclusion myself, many years ago. Although, I don’t say that “there’s no such thing as writer’s block” but rather, I say “I don’t believe in writer’s block.” The distinction is that I accept that there are things that come up that can cause a creative person, a writer even, to feel unable to be productive. But I reject the idea that is suggested by the use of the term “Writer’s Block” that it is some kind of external phenomenon that is outside the will and control of the writer. Writer’s Block, I realized, is an entirely internal phenomenon and, therefore, largely under the writer’s direct control. There are reasons for the creative block, but since they are internal and almost always in the writer’s control, the writer’s job is to identify the nature of the block and then to solve the problem. Often, the solution is to follow the BICHOK rule, but not always – but there is almost always a viable solution.

    Whining about it as though some Magical Idea Fairy* is being petulant and obstinant is unproductive, and is just a little intellectually dishonest, in my general opinion. That’s genuine psychological or physiological issues notwithstanding, of course. But for your run-of-the-mill writer, published or no, not so much. The most common solution, for me, is to just write about something other than the task-at-hand for a few minutes. Usually, I’ll find that in short order I’m primed and ready to write about whatever it is I’m supposed to be writing.

    Also, no, writing well is NOT easy. If it were so, then everyone would do it, and it wouldn’t be worth a dime to do it, and there’d be no writing millionaires or what-have-you.

    *I keep mine in my sock drawer.

  • R.O. Kashmir

    I went to ConCarolina with a bad case of writer’s block. Just couldn’t seem to get anywhere trying to write for publication. Just became frustrated and would put my ideas aside. And go back and pour out pages of online flash fiction. Then tell people asking me when I was ever going to go get published that I just had writer’s block.

    I met David at the con and asked him about it. Got the rant. Got told about MW. Thanks David. *G* Keep ranting and keep passing the word on MW. What I’m learning here is making all my writing better. Also showing me how to navigate the process maze that was the real block. I may never get published, but when I do you’ll have a part of it.

  • Thanks all for the comments here. Let me say in response to several comments that I never said that Writer’s Block was actually a form of procrastination or that one equalled the other. What I said was that the term writer’s block implied that writing was supposed to be easy. The struggle is real. Sometimes we sit for hours and get nothing written at all. This is hard to do, and the “block” is, in my opinion, simply part of the process. Wolf brings up clinical depression and other psychological issues that can block creativity. An absolutely valid point. But if a person is clinically depressed and can’t teach or can’t be an effective financial consultant, no one throws around the term “Teacher’s Block” or “Consultant’s Block.” Those professions are acknowledged as being difficult and the emotional issues only exacerbate the difficulties they present. I’m saying that writing should be seen the same way. It’s difficult to write; the struggle that people call writer’s block is a symptom of that difficulty. I’m not saying that struggling with writing is self-indulgent or procrastinatory. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that to call these difficulties “writer’s block” is to diminish the problems, to underestimate the difficulty of what we do, and to downplay the achievement of overcoming the struggles.