word craft


This is not about writers’ block

SemiphoreI made my first class­room vis­it in 1970, short­ly after I pub­lished my first book, Things That Some­times Hap­pen. I can­not begin to num­ber the times I’ve been with kids in a class­room, be it in fact, or, these days, vir­tu­al­ly. One of the ques­tions I am almost always asked is, “Do you ever have writ­ers’ block?” I heard it just the oth­er day. 

Now, this is odd if you con­sid­er what Wikipedia notes about the condition: 

“Research con­cern­ing this top­ic was done in the late 1970s and 1980s. Dur­ing this time, researchers were influ­enced by the Process and Post-Process move­ments, and there­fore focused specif­i­cal­ly on the writer’s process­es. The con­di­tion was first described in 1947 by Aus­tri­an psy­cho­an­a­lyst Edmund Bergler,[9] who described it as being caused by oral masochism, moth­ers that bot­tle fed and an unsta­ble pri­vate love life.[8] The grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion of psy­chi­a­try in the Unit­ed States made the term gain more recog­ni­tion.[10]”  

Nev­er mind if this is true: Why would ele­men­tary stu­dents be ask­ing about such a thing? 

Because they are not real­ly ask­ing about writ­ers’ block. They are ask­ing a per­fect­ly rea­son­able ques­tion about the nor­mal process of writ­ing: get­ting stuck. 

Nobody—nobody—writes flaw­less work at one go. 

In all my years I have met only one writer who claimed he nev­er re-wrote any­thing. And he was a jour­nal­ist, who neglect­ed to men­tion that mul­ti­ple edi­tors always went over his writ­ing. So much for impec­ca­ble work. 

And why does this come to my mind today? 

As those of you who may have fol­lowed my blog posts of late, I have sus­tained a hip injury. No pain. No surgery. No pain med­ica­tion. Recov­ery is pre­dict­ed in four weeks or so. I can, and am, at my desk, writ­ing. BUT, it is hard for me to walk, and I am required to use a walk­er. What has this to do with writ­ing and writ­ers’ block? 

Because when I get stuck, I can’t just pop up and take a walk, wash the dish­es, sort my book­shelves, check the mail, file papers, etc. etc. etc. I have real­ized that my nor­mal pat­tern when think­ing out a writ­ing prob­lem, is get­ting up on my feet and doing some­thing. This is to say I take a break, shift my mind from my writ­ing to some­thing else, and then return to my words. And some­times, even when I’m doing those mind­less things I am work­ing out my problem. 

This is NOT about writ­ers’ block. This is the nor­mal flow of writ­ing. Get­ting stuck. Not sure about what hap­pens next. Who says what and how? 

(And at this moment, when I can’t pop up and take a break, it inter­feres with my writing!) 

Stu­dents often think they are doing poor­ly when their words don’t eas­i­ly flow from start to fin­ish. Since it nev­er will, it’s impor­tant for those of you who teach writ­ing, to stress the start and stop nature of writ­ing. That when they expe­ri­ence such a moment—and they always will—it is no dif­fer­ent than what every pro­fes­sion­al writer experiences. 

In oth­er words, when writ­ing, instead of using the phrase—“writers’ block—” use, “think­ing.” 

So, when stu­dents ask me the ques­tion, “Do you ever think about your writ­ing as you write?” they will know the answer before they ask. 

7 thoughts on “This is <em>not</em> about writers’ block”

  1. I love your blog and your books. I am con­vinced that my son is an excel­lent writer because he grew up with your books. You enriched our lives with your beau­ti­ful writing…keep think­ing. You are great­ly loved by this fam­i­ly. @lilac_smd P.S. Hope your hip heals soon. You are lucky not to have pain.

  2. So hap­py you are on the road to recov­ery. Thank you for your lat­est book, Loy­al­ty. The back and forth between the char­ac­ters, Noah and Jol­la, is rich with oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dent talk. What are the answers to their loy­al­ty dilem­ma? So much to think about. Almost makes me wish I were still in the class­room. Almost.


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