I used to tell the writers in my poetry workshops that “writer’s block doesn’t exist.” I stopped saying that a few years back, but the reputation has stuck. The subject came up during my open mic last week, and now that one of my dear friends has recently posted the opposite opinion, I’m getting snickering taps on the shoulder about it. it’s all love, so it’s fine, but let me just expound on what I said last week, because I don’t believe my friend and I disagree about this in any practical sense.
There is no pure answer to the question of whether or not writer’s block exists. There are reasons why some people think it’s very real (mostly experience) and there are reasons why some people think it isn’t (mostly experience again). The reason why the chasm between the two camps remains so wide is because of definitions, values and perception. That sounds like a lot of qualifiers to put on a statement about whether something exists, and it is, so I’ll skip all of that and just focus on the part that’s most important: Why we focus on the writing and not the reason.
You’re either writing or you’re not. No matter what I say, if at the end of the day you haven’t put any words down, you didn’t write that day. There are all kinds of clever ways to interpret that space and time creatively (insert a Brenda Ueland jazz noise here), but books aren’t made of space and time. It is like a thing a friend of mine once said about basketball: The game is and always will be about buckets. Writing’s buckets are words. I used to determine if WB was real by whether or not words were being “sunk” and I still do. But it’s more useful to writers struggling* to get words out to focus on how they’re building the hurdle and not how often they keep hitting the hurdle.
What I mean:
Writer’s block may not be real for me, but it can be very real for someone else. My saying their block isn’t real – not my lack of block, but their very concrete block – probably isn’t helpful, mostly because it doesn’t change their reality. All they have to do to win that argument is not write. It’s like trying to get someone to stop drinking by saying alcohol isn’t real.
Telling someone something isn’t real doesn’t make it go away, especially if the engine for the condition is internal. I can’t live in your shoes. There are a hundred reasons why you may not be able to write a given thing in a given moment. To suggest that you write through whatever those things may be is, at best, unfair, and at worst, an act of offensive erasure. We all have to live in the writing skin we got.
It is possible that I may have broken a few writers back in the day by selling them on the idea that block isn’t real. I don’t know that that’s true (I certainly hope it isn’t), but it could be. It is possible that, one day, some writer couldn’t write and, reflecting on what I trained into them, decided that they must not be a writer after all, and stopped. If that person exists, I hope they see this message. I got that one wrong. That statement wasn’t for you, and I hope you find your way back to the page.
Does it help a writer to convince them that they aren’t human? That the very real and common feelings all writers experience somehow magically don’t apply to writing? Those answers are no. What is far more useful is to interrogate why writer’s block is true for a given writer and help them tackle that. If you don’t have the time, will or experience to help them do that, it’s best to say nothing on the matter at all. I used to tell the writers in my poetry workshops that “Writer’s block doesn’t exist.” I should have added, “…for me.”
Writer’s block is real for whom it affects. There are ways to combat it or navigate around it or in some cases, smash it altogether. But it is as real as any other hurdle that forms in our lives. And like my friend says (sort of), that’s okay.
* You’re still a writer; you’re just struggling that day. And yes, the metric is by day, no matter how long it’s been. You can turn it around any day now. A block is not a commitment. A block is a hurdle.