[Written By: Emma Harrison]
[Photograph: Annegret Maja Fiedler]
When sitting down to begin writing this article, fresh from the clutches of an essay, I was faced with an unhappy irony. My attempt to write about writer’s block had been stopped in its tracks by the very thing I was trying to discuss.
We’ve all suffered from it at some point – the cursor blinking malevolently on miles of blank document; our vocabulary and imagination suddenly lost, slowly being consumed by total hopelessness. Sometimes, all it takes to sort this out is a brisk walk. Sometimes, it seems like any creative flair we once possessed is gone forever, leading to weeks of uninspired drivel. Most consistently, it strikes at exactly the most inconvenient moment possible.
What seems to bother people even more than the block itself, however, is the question of what causes it. Keith Hjortshoj’s study ‘Understanding Writing Blocks’ found that writer’s block was most commonly reported among undergraduates and scholars. We are all familiar with this: the pressure to prioritise writing essays over social media, nights out, lectures, cooking, laundry, and everything that does not involve sitting silently at our laptops. This can, however, be quite a struggle. University sets a high bar for achieving academic success, and, no matter how many agonising hours were put in, a few students are ever entirely happy by hand-in day. So, is our difficulty committing words to a page perfectionism or procrastination?
Somewhat reassuringly, ‘writer’s block’ was not merely a term coined by desperate students struggling to finish their midterms. The phrase first appeared in the twentieth century (although it was plaguing writers long before it was given a name), and the recognition of it can possibly be attributed to changing attitudes towards the practice of writing. Instead of seeing writing as something that could be dictated and rationalised, society had, over time, started to view the act as something romantic – the artist would be inspired at the whim of nature and a force far more powerful than themselves would take over. Sometimes, the ‘block’ was understood as simply waiting for inspiration to strike. In this case, continuing was not seen as an option – it would be impossible to write something of any acceptable quality until the condition had passed and the author was able to channel their creativity once more.
While the experiences of, say, Dickens and his peers might be a little difficult to relate to, we are likely all acquainted with being totally uninspired and critical of everything we write.
Of course, not everyone is in agreement that writer’s block is a real affliction. Often, it is dismissed as an excuse, and put down to laziness or simply poor writing. Philip Pullman takes a particularly stark view on the subject, remarking that ‘writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing […] Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.’ So perhaps the real answer to fighting the block is to simply write through it, ignoring our own critiques for the sake of productivity, until we are skilled enough to have defeated the problem entirely.
Personally, I feel that there is no perfect, all-encompassing solution. I disagree with Pullman that it is a case of simply not caring enough – however, writing through the block and editing later certainly does seem to work for some people. I have read countless ‘cures’ that seem to potentially be effective, from listening to music to going to the gym. In my case, I worked through writing this article by taking numerous breaks to watch Brooklyn 99. Everyone writes in a way that works for them – perhaps you are a Stephen King, methodically producing six pages a day, or, alternatively, a George R.R. Martin, producing what feels like six a year. Rather than trying to prove or define writer’s block, what seems more important is finding what makes writing manageable for you.