L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

By Emily Temple


You know the feeling: you’re staring at the black computer screen, blinking occasionally—staring and blinking, staring and blinking, until the cursor starts to blink back and you have to go to bed for a while. Maybe you’re staring and blinking at an actual, physical blank page, in which case you should definitely go to bed for a while if it starts to blink back. Yes, it’s the dreaded, insidious, much-mythologized affliction known as writer’s block.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on writer’s block—how to fight it, how to submit to it, how to think about it, how to ignore it. While some writers resort to writing about not writing, and others give up altogether until the muse returns, many—more than I was expecting, at least—don’t believe in writer’s block at all. To get a wide sense of the range of opinions, I scanned assorted interviews and essays from a variety of writers. Below, you’ll find a totally non-comprehensive but still fascinating run-down, which should be very useful in what I can only imagine is your own current state of writer’s block-fueled procrastination.

Jhumpa Lahiri, answering reader questions for The Times:

I think “writer’s block” is a natural part of the creative process for almost all writers. There are times when one is bursting with ideas and inspiration and all the necessary components—time, focus, etc.—are in place. But there are other times when one or more of those elements is missing and writing is more difficult as a result. I have written for long enough to accept these patterns, and to understand that the blocks are temporary, that eventually, if one sticks to a schedule and tries to write on a regular basis, something will eventually come. I think a lot of what people refer to as “writer’s block” is the period during which ideas gestate in the mind, when a story grows but isn’t necessarily being written in sentences on the page. But it’s all necessary, in the end. If I am feeling stuck or uninspired, I usually take a break and read. That always gets me going again.Article continues after advertisement

Rumaan Alam, in an interview with Literary Hub:

Writer’s block is a fiction. That’s not to say I always feel like writing, or that I have some big idea percolating. I don’t know if you can force out good sentences or great ideas, but that doesn’t mean you cannot write. You can always write garbage; goodness knows, I write plenty of that. Sure, there are days I don’t feel like looking at my computer or picking up a pencil. Such days, I read; reading is inextricably linked with writing, so you can grade yourself on a curve and say that counts. And there are days I can’t even read—I have a day job, I have a family, I have a life, like anyone. But you never stop thinking, and thinking is a part of writing too. I’ll probably develop a case now that I’m saying this on the record but writer’s block is a delicious myth and nothing more.

Dorothy Allison, in an interview with Blackbird:

She Who got in trouble. You know how redneck girls are. I, for the first time in my life, experienced writer’s block, which was something I attributed to the middle-class motherfuckers. Working class writers, we didn’t have time to have writer’s block, or emotional energy. We couldn’t afford it. I must’ve somehow crept into the middle class, because it hit me like a train. I realized, I knew how it was supposed to end, but I couldn’t make it end. Michael Chabon talks about his second novel that became thirty-five thousand pages. . . . I think She Who is pushing that. So, it’s in a huge box, some of which is at Duke University.

Colson Whitehead, in a Reddit AMA:Article continues after advertisement

Writer’s block for me is a question I haven’t solved yet—Why is Martin doing this? What happens after they meet? What the hell is going on in this scene?

It’s a question I haven’t answered yet, but I trust that in 2 hours, 2 days, or 2 months I will eventually answer it. Maybe I have to keep writing and come back to that part of the story later. Maybe I have to do some more research. Maybe it’ll come to me in the shower. But eventually I’ll figure it out.

Jim Harrison, in an interview with The Paris Review:

I wonder, when a writer’s blocked and doesn’t have any resources to pull himself out of it, why doesn’t he jump in his car and drive around the U.S.A.? I went last winter for seven thousand miles and it was lovely. Inexpensive, too. A lot of places—even good motels—are only twenty-five dollars in the winter, and food isn’t much because there aren’t any good restaurants. You pack along a bunch of stomach remedies and a bottle of whiskey.

Toni Morrison, in a 1994 interview with Claudia Dreifus:

I disavow that term. There are times when you don’t know what you’re doing or when you don’t have access to the language or the event. So if you’re sensitive, you can’t do it. When I wrote Beloved, I thought about it for three years. I started writing the manuscript after thinking about it, and getting to know the people and getting over the fear of entering that arena, and it took me three more years to write it. But those other three years I was still at work, though I hadn’t put a word down.

Gary Shteyngart, in an interview with Literary Hub:

I never get writer’s block. I have content coming out of my pores. You want 600 words on maize production in the Andes? I’ll have it to you by Friday. How much do you pay a word?

Carmen Maria Machado, in an interview with Tobias Carroll:

I believe so strongly that writers need to read, and that reading is the way you can prevent writer’s block or get over writer’s block. You can’t keep writing if you’re not filling your gas tank with whatever you want to read. So I’m sure that as I keep reading narratives, they’ll keep speaking to me in their own ways, and I’ll be turning back out stories that have been flavored by whatever I’ve been reading.

Ray Bradbury, in “Telling the Truth,” the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea:

Now, what I’m thinking of is, people always saying “Well, what do we do about a sudden blockage in your writing? What if you have a blockage and you don’t know what to do about it?” Well, it’s obvious you’re doing the wrong thing, don’t you? In the middle of writing something you go blank and your mind says: “No, that’s it.” Ok. You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying “I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.” You’re being political, or you’re being socially aware. You’re writing things that will benefit the world. To hell with that! I don’t write things to benefit the world. If it happens that they do, swell. I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to have a hell of a lot of fun.

I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy me, my joy. Get out of here tonight and say: ‘Am I being joyful?’ And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.

Min Jin Lee, in an interview with Literary Hub:

I don’t believe in writer’s block. This is not necessarily a happy theory because it means that as long as I have the ability and the correct project, I have to keep working. I find writing fiction difficult.

Anthony Burgess, in an interview with The Paris Review:

I don’t get writing blocks except from the stationer, but I do feel so sickened by what I write that I don’t want to go on. . . . I can’t understand the American literary block—as in Ellison or Salinger—unless it means that the blocked man isn’t forced economically to write (as the English writer, lacking campuses and grants, usually is) and hence can afford the luxury of fearing the critics’ pounce on a new work not as good as the last (or the first). American writers drink a lot when they’re “blocked,” and drunkenness—being a kind of substitute for art—makes the block worse. I’ve found it best, especially since my first wife, who drank less than I, died of cirrhosis, to drink little. But I smoke much, and that’s probably worse than five martinis a day.

Alexander McCall Smith, in an interview with The Daily Mail:

Writer’s block is a load of nonsense—I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it. It’s more likely to be a symptom of depression or maybe they’ve just got nothing interesting to say. Using your imagination to create a work of fiction involves exercising the mind and the more you do it, the more adept you become. I go to Botswana for a couple of weeks a year and I just open my eyes to the opportunities in everyday life. Most of my writing is what I have in the bank of memories I’ve accumulated.

Joshua Cohen, answering a reader’s question about writer’s block for “Ask The Paris Review“:

Thing is, there’s no single cure for the Block (this is what serious writers call it; cf. the Clap, the Syph, the Herp). And the reason there’s no single cure is that there’s no single type of Block. The Block can be daylong, or weeklong; it can last for years (Truman Capote) or decades (Ralph Ellison, Henry Roth). I can’t think of any other writers just now.

. . . You might take comfort from the fact that while writing can’t be forced, time spent not writing can be put to good use. Try acquiring other skills, like rolling cigarettes or reading. Learn to differentiate between scotch and bourbon. Learn the differences among corn whiskey, rye whiskey, and wheat whiskey. Learn what, if anything, separates whisky from whiskey. . . . Take comfort from the fact that a writer does not always have to write—and not all scotch comes from Scotland.

Finally . . . don’t discount the two greatest cures for the Block: plagiarism and suicide. Good luck!

Danez Smith, in an interview with Literary Hub:

I don’t believe in writer’s block. When I am experiencing what feels like it, I know I need to do one of a few things. The first would be to stop writing and to focus on absorbing art. When I’m not happy with my writing, I know I need to spend more time listening, looking, reading, touching, & tasting other people’s creativity to feed my own. The other thing I have to do is ask questions. (Why am I stuck? Is it the piece? Am I feeling balanced enough in other areas in my life to flouring in my writing? Am I hungry? Am I tired? Are the idea and the genre of what I’m working on agreeing with each other? Am I experiencing a road block or a directive to try something else?) Another option is to write through it, to write every ugly, horrible sentence that comes to mind and just work until I find something of value. I am a firm believer that every bit of writing is a necessary part of the process, and I’ve come to trust that on the other side of the “block” is something new and exciting waiting for me.

Patrick Rothfuss, in an interview with SYFY WIRE:

There’s something I think of as “the myth of the author.” There’s sort of this folk belief in the magical nature of the profession of writing. And I like to do what I can do dispel it, when I get a chance. You all know about the muse, right? We writers, we have a muse, and the muse bestows the writing onto us, and we become inspired—oh, I am filled with writer magic, and then I turn that into a book. And it’s a cool idea, it’s very romantic. But it leads to some really unhelpful thinking in the long run.

For example, who’s heard of writer’s block? I really don’t think it exists. Actually, no, sorry, I’m going to take that back: it does not exist. We’ll state it flatly. Sometimes, writing is super hard. Just like any other job. Or, if it’s not your job, sometimes it’s hard to do a thing even if it is your hobby. But no plumber ever gets to call in to work, and they’re like “Jake, I have plumber’s block,” you know? What would your boss say?! I have teacher’s block. I have accounting block. They would say “You are fired! You have problems and you are fired. Get your ass in here and plumb some stuff, Jerry!”

Tom Wolfe, in an interview with The Paris Review:

The piece about car customizers in Los Angeles was the first magazine piece I ever wrote. I was totally blocked. I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. That’s a rarer form. In this case I suddenly realized I’d never written a magazine article before and I just felt I couldn’t do it. Well, Dobell somehow shamed me into writing down the notes that I had taken in my reporting on the car customizers so that some competent writer could convert them into a magazine piece. I sat down one night and started writing a memorandum to him as fast as I could, just to get the ordeal over with. It became very much like a letter that you would write to a friend in which you’re not thinking about style, you’re just pouring it all out, and I churned it out all night long, forty typewritten, triple-spaced pages. I turned it in in the morning to Byron at Esquire, and then I went home to sleep. About four that afternoon I got a call from him telling me, Well, we’re knocking the “Dear Byron” off the top of your memo, and we’re running the piece.

Judy Blume, in a BuzzFeed reader Q&A:

I don’t believe in writer’s block. For me there’s no such thing as writer’s block—don’t even say writer’s block.

Martin Amis, in an interview with The Paris Review:

The common conception of how novels get written seems to me to be an exact description of writer’s block. In the common view, the writer is at this stage so desperate that he’s sitting around with a list of characters, a list of themes, and a framework for his plot, and ostensibly trying to mesh the three elements. In fact, it’s never like that. What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about. In the absence of that recognition I don’t know what one would do.

Joseph O’Neill, in an interview with Literary Hub:

Some writers are highly, almost compulsively industrious. They feel uneasy, guilty, even unwell, if they have not have written, even for a day. I’m the opposite. I begin to feel uneasy, guilty, even unwell, after I’ve spent a few minutes writing. So writer’s block, for me, isn’t an aberration—the act of writing is aberrant. And also, in some way, unwholesome. The whole business of introspection and language-management, of so-called insight and storytelling, of finding elevated verbal counterparts for elevated thoughts and ideas, is very often nauseating. So my default setting is not to write, and I don’t feel too bad about it because so many great books have been written that are in dire want of readers, and it would be basically superfluous to generate another mass of text in which some notional human’s experience has been cooked up for the millionth time, however artfully.

Or at least that’s how I think when I’m not writing, or writing very little, which is most of the time. Then one morning I feel differently, usually because I’m physically displaced from my usual surroundings and doings, and I have the time and space to wander free from the things that usually dominate my consciousness—family, teaching, catastrophic world affairs, sports. A detail, usually comic in nature, comes to mind, and by a somewhat automatic process finds its way onto a page: suddenly one is sitting down, typing stuff. As you can see, I don’t strongly identify with this person who produces “my” writing. That person is the writer. I would be the block.

Nora Ephron, in an interview with Michael S. Lasky:

I am never completely cold. I don’t have writer’s block, really. I do have times when I can’t get the lead and that is the only part of the story that I have serious trouble with. I don’t write a word of the article until I have the lead. It just sets the whole tone—the whole point of view. I know exactly where I am going as soon as I have the lead. That can take me three or four days and sometimes a week. But as for being cold—as a newspaper reporter you learn that no one tolerates you if you are cold; it’s one thing you are not allowed to be. It’s not professional. You have to turn the story in. There is no room for the artist.

And so trouble with the lead is as close as I get to being cold, and yes, I do go away from it for a while and go buy a pair of shoes or have dinner. And I know that maybe if I can talk to someone at dinner I’ll find the thing I am looking for.

Ben Marcus, in an interview with Literary Hub:

Writer’s block, if that’s the name for it, happens when I am boring, when my mind is flat, when I have nothing to add to what has been said and done. Therefore it happens nearly all of the time. It happens when writing is an obligation and not a desire. And I really don’t mind. It’s not clear that I am meant to pump out writing at all costs. The opposite is true. The world will be just fine without anything I might write. Writing is not exactly a scarce resource. There is far too much out there that hasn’t been read enough. So I don’t try to solve this silence. To me it is necessary.

It is exhausting to be obsessed and driven and full of some pressing need to write—and it doesn’t happen very often. I also don’t write so sharply if I don’t care about what I’m doing, and caring is hard to fake. So, to me, writer’s block is a sign that I probably ultimately don’t give enough of a shit. This is my own flaw. I should care about more than I do. Or what I care about doesn’t fit so obviously inside the boundaries of what I consider fiction. Part of the beginning of any project is the discovery of what matters to me, followed by an attempt to conceive of it in terms of fiction. That’s what it is to start a project: engineering a set of delusions that the act of writing has consequence and simply must be done. When I’ve finished, it’s hard to believe that I ever could have cared so much, but I did, for a little while, and then it’s time to hunt down something new to care about and to hope that I have the ability to make it exist in fiction.

Connie Willis, in a 2000 conversation at MIT:

I think there is a tremendous amount of avoidance that goes on while writing. People used to ask me if I got writers block and I’d always say, “no” because I have never had that thing where you just sit and stare at the blank page and nothing comes. But then I realized that I did have writer’s block, it just didn’t take that form. The form was this incredible avoidance and I could think of so many things to do, and they were all totally legitimate things. I mean your taxes have to be done, right? All the things that interfere in life. I once made an experiment, if I quit writing would I have a lot of spare time? And after three weeks I realized that I could just quit and never notice. The time would just vanish like throwing a stone into the water, it would leave no trace. So unless I was willing to just carve out this time for writing, I was never going to get anything done. It is a dilemma that I think everyone faces.

Mark Helprin, in an interview with The Paris Review:

Assuming that you are a professional and that you know how to write, why would you be unable to do so? If an electrician said, I have electrician’s block. I just can’t bend conduit. I can’t! I can’t! I can’t run wires! Help me, please! he would be committed. One thing would be certain, and that is that his paralysis in the face of his work would have only to do with him, and not with his craft. I’m of the old school, I guess, and I would call writer’s block laziness, lack of imagination, inflated expectations, or having-spent-your-entire-advance-in-Rio-de-Janeiro-and-taking-taxis-and-going-to-restaurants-you-can’t-afford-before-you-have-written-a-single-word-of-the-book-you-pitched-to-a-cretin-with-an-out-of-control-cash-flow.

Pat Barker, in an interview with Literary Hub:

I don’t believe in using the term [writer’s block]. Everybody in any line of work has bad days when nothing goes right and they are expected to work through them, I don’t see why it should be different for writers. If the words keep drying up on a particular project it may be the wrong project for you or perhaps you’re trying to write it before it’s ready to be written. Take a break, do something else, let it settle in your mind—then try again.

Geoff Dyer, in an interview with The Paris Review:

I’ve gone through periods of not writing anything, but I’ve never felt blocked. I think it’s just a lazy-thinking kind of cliche, this idea of writer’s block. In a very obviously lavatorial way, it suggests that you’ve got something in you and you can’t get it out because of the blockage. So you’re straining away, and then it becomes more and more blocked. Whereas I’ve gone through phases where I just haven’t had anything to say. That’s made life a bit boring because, well, I’ve always had plenty of time, and without writing the days are pretty long—though as you get older they speed past pretty quickly anyway. And I’ve gone through phases where I’ve dreaded the idea of writing. Writer’s dread. Now there’s a subject for an essay—if one could face writing it. Another thing I am persuaded of is that I’ll run out of fiction to write long before I give up writing the other stuff—even though that means we’ve come full circle and I am now admitting a distinction I began by denying. Maybe we should start over?

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