Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's Writers Block, But Not As We Know It

From time to time writers that I respect pop out a blog post, article or quote about the arch enemy of us all - Writer's Block. Often these thoughts on the Big Bad WB come in the form of advice or anecdotes on how they dealt with it.

All well and good...except when said writer gets cranky and dismissive. Many times I've seen respected authors dismiss writer's block as a thing, calling it something like 'the crutch of the lazy wannabes' or 'excuses from people who want to live the dream but not the reality'. Some people DO need a kick in the pants to get started. Some people have never been taught the daily business of writing. And most writers of note will at some time or another get fed up with the question asked over and over again: "How do I become a writer".

We all know the answer is "You sit down and you apply fingers", but sometimes a cranky, dismissive answer is indicative of a writer's privilege. Our society is built in some ways on meritocratic, individualistic achievement. Writing is posited as a solo experience, and some people like to do it that way, but there are other people who need different support.

One phrase that pops up about writer's block is 'it's all in your head'. That's also a rather familiar bingo spot for people with mental illness. Now imagine said person with a mental illness also wants to be a writer. They might not want to tell the person they're asking for advice they have this illness, so when they employ the short hand descriptor 'I have trouble writing, I have writer's block', they're rewarded with a rolling of the eyes and a lecture on the merits of hard work.

I came across one person's account of living with undiagnosed ADD for twenty years and their attempts to become a writer. For twenty years their inability to concentrate, to make the creative connections in their brain's wiring, was dismissed as laziness - if this person really wanted it, they would make the effort. The person made the effort alright, over and over and over again, and was made to feel like a failure when they couldn't explain why they had such hideous writer's block. Diagnosis and medication opened up a new world to them. Imagine how much sooner this person could have become a writer if people giving them writing advice had thought outside the neuro-typical norm.

'Just sit down and write!' is also dismissive of certain lived experiences, like those with chronic pain, disability or illness. What's easier than sitting at a keyboard and typing, right? No. Perhaps sitting down for any length of time requires an amount of spoons they do not have. Perhaps they have arthritis in their hands. Perhaps they can't afford the right equipment or software to help them out. Perhaps this pain and lack of resources leads to frustration. Sometimes they're asking for help, and it's taken them a lot to work up the courage to do so, and for someone to be dismissive of their needs buys into the ableist narrative of our culture.

Writer's block is also an economy of time issue. 'If you want to do it, you'll find the time, no matter how busy you are', the advice says. Imagine you work long hours, maybe more than one job, then add in partner, kids and housework, family and/or community duties, cooking, commuting. Then add in stress, exhaustion, maybe illness, mental health. Somewhere in there you have to find the time to write, even if it's five minutes or your lunch break or after the kids have gone to bed. If you're a woman it can be doubly impossible. When do you get time to relax? Do you sleep or eat, or write?

It's that old individualistic, bootstraps mentality again. If your lifestyle is so crammed with the day to day business of simply functioning, asking for some time to yourself, asking someone to do something for you so you have that time, may seem selfish. These are the pressures of the poor, the working class. Do they not deserve to make art too? And so, an exhortation of 'you'll find the time, or you don't really want it!' just seems like another dog pile on top of endless frustrations.

Of course, there are always examples of people who overcame the odds to become a writer. Often it's the success story, held up as a unicorn - 'hey look, if they can do it, so can you!'. Well, no. Each life experience is different, even if circumstances are similar.

Instead of dismissing someone with 'suck it up, writer's block doesn't really exist', stop and ask the questions if you have the time, or expand that article ('I don't have experience in this but here's a link to someone who does...'). Ask what does that person need to be a writer. Once those answers are satisfied, THEN you can question their commitment to the cause. And even then, who is to judge what makes another writer? Whether they're 250 words a day, part time, a dilettante, or if it's their full time life calling, the only measure of success is their own.


  1. So much this. Seriously. Thank you. I'm not denying I need a kick sometimes, but the things that have made the most difference to my writing haven't been bootstraps but (1) my netbook (2) dropbox and (3) a decent office furniture setup, plus the knowledge that I needed them and the money to pay for them (these all relate to disabilities in some way). I'm currently struggling with how to handle redrafting a novel (or planning and writing it to a plan) and what I need is not to just sit down and do it (I know I can write 80 000 words) but to find the way of handling it that works for my neuroatypical brain.

    And on that note, it's so time to dispense with "you don't need any fancy equipment/software/etc to write - all you need is a notebook and pencil". Seriously.

  2. While I appreciate the difficulties that many people face while struggling to become a writer, (I've faced a few myself) it really does come down to hard work. If you are passionate about becoming a writer you will find a way that works for you.
    If, as it was for me, that is scribbling in a notebook while waiting for the bus to the hated day job then you have to do that. But imagine if that bus didn't turn up because the worker was suffering from bus driver's block that morning. It's not an excuse for you missing your day job is it? Nor should you make excuses for not writing.
    Writing seems to be the only profession that lays claim to the malady of block. Yes there are problems to overcome as a writer, but there are problems to overcome with every part of your life. What do you want? Are you prepared to go for it?
    It sounds harsh but despite what you may have read, writing is not easy. If you are not prepared to make some sacrifices or at least changes in your life then you probably will not stop making excuses about why you cannot write.

  3. Paul, the point is about 100 miles back that way. I suggest you get a little empathy for people who are not of your writing privilege.