Why I Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block

It’s one of the most oft-asked questions I get as a writer and teacher: “What can I do about writer’s block?”

“Write,” I say. (I was going say, “Simple. Write.” Alas, I realize it isn’t simple. It isn’t easy.)

I tell people I don’t believe in writer’s block.

The PCT heading toward Oregon's Collier Cone.

The PCT heading toward Oregon’s Collier Cone.

Do the words sometimes come harder than at other times — or hardly at all? Sure.

Do you sometimes need to change things up to feel the mojo again? Sure.

Do you sometimes crave the idea of skipping that 5 a.m. appointment with your keyboard? Sure.

But this idea that we can’t move forward until the muse returns with open arms — no, that’s a crock. Basing your writing on feelings is no better than basing your life on feelings.

Sometimes you just have to power your way through.

It’s that way with anything we do. But writers seem to have created something of a self-fulfilling failure prophecy, a challenge apparently so insurmountable that we’ve given it an official name. And once something is named, it becomes an official malady.

Read: An excuse.

I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore than I believe in “plumber’s block” should the guy fixing my pipes suddenly find the going difficult. “Sorry, pal,” he might say as he gathers up his tools — and, of course, hitches up his, ahem, jeans. “Just not feeling it today.”

I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore than I believe in “surgeon’s block” should the doctor doing my knee operation find herself stymied. “Hey, Bob, hang in there. I’m going to flex out the rest of the day. Maybe catch a matinee to see if I can get back in the groove, you know?”

That’s not to say there aren’t things you can do to get yourself “unstuck.” Sometimes I’ll go back and read my piece from the beginning. Explain my plight to someone who knows my story with hopes they can jar something lose. Maybe even take a walk.

But this idea that you somehow need to wait until the “feeling” returns is bunk.

Ernest Hemingway said it well: “Easy writing makes hard reading. Hard writing makes easy reading.” Jack London claimed to have written 20 hours a day.

Part of writing is discipline. Is doggedly moving on. Is writing on even if the results aren’t perfect. Even when it hurts. Even when you’d rather be doing something else.

So, today’s efforts might not have rung your literary chimes. But they count for something. You persevered. To quit whenever it hurts it to make it that much easier to quit the next time. A lesson I learned while hiking the 452-mile Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail: “You must go when your body says no.” With writing, you must go when your mind says no.

Just last week, after a speech, someone in the audience asked me which of my books I’d written was my favorite. “They’re like children,” I said. “Each one is my favorite for a different reason. But the one I’m proudest of is American Nightingale because nothing in my nearly four decades of journalism has come with more difficulty. Nearly four years from idea on a Wendy’s napkin to seeing it on a Barnes & Noble shelf.” (I captured that research, writing, and promotional experience in a subsequent book, Pebble in the Water.)

Sometimes I draw inspiration from fellow writers. I do a lot of 5-a.m.-to-9 a.m. book writing before I go off to be a newspaper columnist. If my alarm goes off and I don’t want to get up I remember my novelist friend Jane Kirkpatrick and think this: Jane has already been on her keyboard for an hour.

Or because I write a lot about inspirational people, I’ll think about something they soldiered through — war, disease, the death of a loved one — and think to myself: Buck up, pal. This is just stringing together words. You’ve got it easy. 

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20 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block

  1. Bob, I love your voice in this piece!! You give us a swift kick—and perspective. Especially like the final paragraph that reminds me to quit sniveling when I feel like I’m working too hard. Or when I feel like I’m stuck. It’s normal. Get on with it. Thanks for the kick over the post!

  2. I know this feeling and I know myself and if I give in to the fact that the words just wont come so stop writing, i’ll never write anything. Writing a novel is hard work just like most things we do in life. I think coming up on my 25th birthday I’ve realized I can’t be lazy. Thats all writers block is, a vaction for our brain. I like your examples best though.

    • “That’s all writers block is, a vaction for our brain.” Wonderful. I’m sharing that at my Beachside Writers Workshop on the Oregon Coast in March! Thanks for that great description.

  3. A behavioral approach to being stuck as a writer is to have the writer just begin to free associate on the computer about anything. Things don’t have to be in sentences, words do not have to be spelled right, spell “buzy” with 4 z ie buzzzzy, write about the fly in the room, the humn from the lamp, anything. Just write and write and write. Move those writers muscles. Saying to yourself “I should have something to say:, anything with a should or need to takes you in the wrong direction. If after 10 minutes of free association, one is still blocked, take a break completely away from your computer. When you are ready to write again, disconnect it from power and use the battery. go for a walk, inside or out. Carrying a laptop or tablet around or using a smart phone is a must. Describe what you see and hear. Have a dialogue between the big chair and the little chair. Write, write, write, again no censoring or corrections.

    I think you get the drill. Move muscles and you will soon get it right.

  4. Totally agree with you here. I got so much that I want to write about that I be always writing if I didn’t have some other things to do sometimes or if I didn’t have those times when I just don’t feel like writing. Nothing blocks my ideas or ability to write when I know I need to sit down and write something.

  5. Great post, Bob. Speaks to what I’ve believed since I got into this writing thing: Don’t buy into the writer’s block excuse. Just write, even when it’s hard. Faulkner is quotes as saying: “I only write when I’m inspired. And I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9:00 a.m.” Writing is work. And just like any other job, you work even when you don’t feel like it.
    Thanks again for this confirming and inspiring post.

  6. In 18 years as an agent, I’ve seen the benefit of writer’s block is an empty wallet. When I was writing nonfiction 20 years ago, I worked 8-5 and coached or watched every sport my two sons played. I wrote from 5-7 a.m. and about 8:30 to 10:30 at night. Saturdays a bit longer. If I got stuck on the page, I missed deadlines, which I could never afford to do. Thanks for all of the reminders in this post, Bob.

  7. Great post, Bob! I can’t say “I don’t believe in writer’s block,” because often my emotions and my logic get in the way of my writing. So, when I hit the wall in my writing process, I give myself permission to freewrite. I just put my pen to the paper (or my fingers to the keyboard) and write–letting go of my organizing or self-editing for the moment. Often I don’t know what I’m going to write until after I write it; so, freewriting helps me press pass the cobwebs in my mind and see things from a different perspective. Thanks for the reminder–I think I’ll freewrite awhile now.

  8. Nothing in life is easy. If it is, how much do we value it? We all have our own methods of getting back to the hard stuff when we run into a wall. When I was coaching, I worked with my high school freshman volleyball players to change their words from “I can’t do this,” to “This is hard for me.” That slight change in stated attitude allows forward movement.

  9. Enjoyed your take, Bob. Your examples of the plumber and surgeon made me laugh out loud. I’ve always considered writer’s block to be a most convenient excuse, too. My response is “Get over it and move on.” There’s plenty of other folks who’d like the job, after all…

  10. Switching it up, going outside to look at the sky, taking a walk, sitting down and (simply) doing it—all those strategies are effective. Into that mix, I throw prayer. Often, when I have a deadline and yet I feel as if I have nothing to say, I pray, begging God for words. Next thing I know, into my mind comes a heart tugging from that morning or the day before, something I had overlooked or moved by without logging it to inscribe later. I sit down at the keyboard, and I hammer away.

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  13. Thank you, Bob.

    I used to write, just to write; knowing that no one would ever read my words. I was nine years old and the key to my diary kept my words secure. Then I wrote letters to a friend, abandoning my diary, and expressed my ideas. My friend still has the hefty stack of letters. Much later, I attempted to thoughtfully weave words together that I emailed to co-workers, doing my best to make even the mundane…intriguing.

    Now that I work as a freelance writer, this is what I love – When I put away groceries or tie my shoes, I can think about what I’ll write next. If I come up with an idea that I think may interest others, I jot it down. I save it for later! I refer to my notes when I struggle to find fresh ideas.

    Do I have days when writing is really, really challenging? Yes! That’s when I realize need to step away and recharge. Even for a few minutes.

    Best,
    Heather Villa

    • Heather: Thanks fo that. Yes, you’re a good example of what I try to teach my Beachside Writers students. If you’re going to be a reader, you don’t turn it off and on like a light switch. You’re a writer 24/7. It’s just that sometime your fingers are moving on the keyboard and sometimes your simply noticing what’s going on around you, preparing the story, as it were.

  14. Great post, Bob. I agree with this 100%, with a couple of caveats:
    – Some days are writing days, and some are editing days. And some days, I want to delete everything–which means it’s time to step away from the computer and refill the well.
    – Creative writers draw heavily on their unconscious mind. If your unconscious mind is busy trying to process an event in your life, like a parent being diagnosed with a serious illness, you may not be able to write for two or three days. That’s okay. Deal with the real-life situation, then get back to writing as soon as you can. Your life experiences will make you a better writer, and writing will help you heal.

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