Breaking the Block

(cross-posted from my June 2018 newsletter)

You may have noticed – or you may not have – that it has been a long time since my last newsletter:  December 2017, to be exact. I’ve been silent in part because of many other things that were going on, like speaking at some conferences, and assistant-organizing another one, and editing books, and living my life. But the number-one thing holding me back was the fact that I expect myself to write an essay, this essay, to open the newsletter every time, and I could not think of anything to say. Or I could think of things to say, but nothing interesting, that I wanted to say, that compelled me enough to write it, that I felt it would be worth the time you are now spending running your eyes over it. I had, have, ideas; some of them were even good, and may show up in this space later. But the not-writing became a habit. My own silence intimidated me. My expectations of myself paralyzed me. 

In short: I’ve had writer’s block.

It’s a funny phrase, “writer’s block” – first used in 1949, per Merriam-Webster, though the dictionary does not say by whom. It’s a possessive phrase, like a writer has been gifted or cursed with a giant orthogonal mass that weighs her down or looms squarely in her way when she tries to move past it . . . which feels both exactly right as a metaphor, and exactly wrong in terms of who possesses whom. Writers cannot move these blocks, nor sell them, nor leave them behind if we want or have to keep working on the project they’re blocking. We can only climb up and over them, or tunnel through them or under them, or jackhammer them until they crack apart. Only then, with the block conquered or destroyed, are we free of the burden of ownership.

“Writer’s block” is also a supremely linguistically satisfying phrase, with that single heavy syllable that ends in a stop ensouling the weight we give it psychologically. If it had a different name, one that sounded lighter, it might feel lighter—something we could shove aside and keep moving. In service of this, and for the sake of accuracy, I propose the following varieties of writer’s block (with thanks to for the synonyms):

  • writer's lump: when you sit in front of the blank page and your brain feels like an inert misshapen brick unable to produce either ideas or sentences

  • writer's cube:  when you are capable of writing, but everything you put down feels squared-off, flat, boring; nothing you’re producing has any texture or is of any interest

  • writer's clog:  when you have too many things to say, do not know where to begin with any of them, and/or cannot figure out how to make them all flow together in one piece

  • writer's snag:  when you do have one specific thing you want to say, but you cannot say it to your own satisfaction, and hence, what is the point 

  • writer's neighborhood:  when other people are in your brain -- as competitors, censors, or critics –- and their chatter keeps you from getting work done

  • writer’s hindrance:  when other people or demands present in your life keep you from building up any significant work, momentum, or depth on a project

  • writer’s stoppage: when you have just stopped writing for some reason, and do not see any way or feel any inclination to start again

The inventor Charles Kettering said once, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved” (#editormottoes), and if you too have writer’s ________ at some point, you could maybe spend some time trying to choose the specific word that best describes your situation, to help you along the way to solving it. The other trick I found useful in getting me out of my funk here was a technique that always helps me: organizing my information, especially in outlines or lists. Once I made a list of synonyms for “block,” well, I just had to add an introduction and this conclusion, and there was my essay. If you’re in the middle of a novel and stuck, make a list of the events in every chapter you have so far, or all the things you like about it, or your twenty favorite moments. If you’re torn among projects, make a status spreadsheet for all of them and see how you feel when you look at it. And if all else fails, try writing an essay or short story narrating your situation; it’s meta, but it gets the words flowing, and at least in my case here, it got the job done.