It’s Never Just Writer’s Block

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the classic meandering semi-fictional work from the 60s, narrator-author Robert Persig tells a student suffering from writer’s block to start writing about one brick in one building on her town’s main street.  The student comes back to him transfixed, with pages and pages of writing about that brick, and the next, and then the whole building and whole downtown and EVERYTHING, and the curse was lifted!  She was no longer blocked and could write ecstatically.

Alas, if only writer’s block was really that easy to overcome. The question this week asks if there’s such a thing as “writer’s block,” and I suppose my answer to that is “no.”  I don’t believe there’s an actual psychological condition that hinders a previously productive writer from working.  It’s something of an excuse, something of a myth–you can always write about that first brick, right?

Except when you can’t.  And at those times,”writer’s block” is a convenient shorthand for whatever is wrong. Depression, for one, cripples creativity and pretty much everything else too.  It certainly blocks writing for some people (and usually for me). I know many great writers managed to keep going through depression–indeed, rumor has it that Shirley Jackson, among others, actually wrote herself out of depression–and I admire this feat, but that’s not how it usually works for me.  Depression accompanies self-doubt, this suspicion that my words and ideas are worthless and don’t even deserve the data space on my computer.

Stress can have the same effect.  Now, I write more under a certain amount of stress–eustress, you might say, good stress, an appealing, non-threatening, encouraging deadline (like NaNoWriMo).  But there comes a point, usually about three weeks from the end of a semester, where I know that anything I do is taking away from something else I should be doing.  This, too, debilitates the writing soul.

Those are my personal biggest blocks to writing, and far be it from me to say that others’ blocks are less significant or real.  That is to say, if someone believes s/he is suffering from writer’s block, s/he isn’t going to be writing anything until it passes.  But I do think that lumping barriers to creativity (and by extension a full, engaged life) under a writing-specific umbrella may prevent individuals from recognizing other problems and taking steps to address them.  That is to say, I concede the existence of writer’s block, but it’s never a full explanation.

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