Writer's block is a condition, primarily associated with typing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. The condition ranges from difficulty in coming up with original ideas to more extreme examples in which some "blocked" writers have been unable to work for years, and some have even abandoned their supposed lifelong careers. Throughout history, writer's block has been a documented problem. Professionals who have struggled with the affliction include author F. Scott Fitzgerald and pop culture cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. Writer's block can manifest when a writer views their work as inferior or unsuitable. The research concentrating on this topic abounded 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 psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler.
Irene Clark notes that writer's block is a common affliction that most writers will experience at one time or another. Mike Rose defines writer's block as "an inability to begin or continue writing for reasons other than lack of basic skill or commitment". Additionally, The Purdue Online Writing Lab says, "Because writers have various ways of writing, a variety of things can cause a writer to experience anxiety, and sometimes this anxiety leads to writer's block." The literature seems to focus on two areas related to writer's block: causes and potential cures or intervention strategies.
Writer's block may have several causes. Some are creative problems that originate within an author's work itself. A writer may run out of inspiration, or be distracted by other events. A fictional example can be found in George Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, in which the protagonist Gordon Comstock struggles in vain to complete an epic poem describing a day in London: "It was too big for him, that was the truth. It had never really progressed, it had simply fallen apart into a series of fragments." Peter Elbow discusses writer's block in his article Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience. He claims that while audience awareness is important, an over awareness of audience can be paralyzing and cause writer's block.
Other blocks, especially the more serious kind, may be produced by adverse circumstances in a writer's life or career: physical illness, depression, the end of a relationship, financial pressures, a sense of failure. The pressure to produce work may in itself contribute to a writer's block, especially if they are compelled to work in ways that are against their natural inclination, i.e. too fast or in some unsuitable style or genre. In some cases, writer's block may also come from feeling intimidated by a previous big success. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, reflecting on her post-bestseller prospects, proposes that such a pressure might be released by interpreting creative writers as "having" genius rather than "being" a genius. In George Gissing's New Grub Street, one of the first novels to take writer's block as a main theme, the novelist Edwin Reardon suffers from his newfound inability to write proficiently.
Hillary Rettig says "writer's block" itself is a misnomer because "block" implies one monolithic cause, and most people who struggle with their writing really suffer from many causes. She says the condition is better thought of as a kind of "spaghetti snarl" of those causes, which include: perfectionism (itself, a conglomeration of many causes), ambivalence (about the topic one is trying to write about, or publishing it, or writing itself), time constraints, resource constraints, ineffective work processes, unhealed traumatic rejections, and a disempowering context. Each of these causes is entangled with the others, and can reinforce them. However, she says the spaghetti snarl model is ultimately a positive thing for writers because snarls can be untangled, and the more you untangle the easier the remaining untangling gets.
Writer Arthur Hermansen advocates misconception of the process of creativity itself is cause for mislabeling the temporal aspect of subconscious contemplation and processing of the creative solution, be it the next chapter, the next compositional element of a painting, such as what color to choose to paint with next as writer's block, painter's block or as like. Creativity does not cognitively observe temporal timetables like the rational world requires, he suggests. Thus the time it takes for a creative solution to compose deep within the imagination or elsewhere may not occur in rational, demanding timescales we observe in other cognitive processes less sophisticated or abstraction oriented. In our convenience necessity paradigm and misunderstanding, we assign an irrational view and label to a mental process that does not recognize time passing. This process continues irrespective of time passing even if the creator's solution ultimately develops, is delivered to the conscious mind for transcription or production into final form years from the time the creative problem was posed to the faculty. The result of this lack of accountability for time in the creative solution evolving process is designation, assignment and use of the label "writer's block." Mr. Hermansen states these kinds of short-sighted, error-default assumptions as "cognitive crutches indicative of the woeful romanticizing and lack of understanding of the actuality of the creative process as a high-abstraction and imaginative faculty, under developed creator's solution development tracking/archiving and production-development skill sets, and unrelated wellness or health issues bleeding over the line into a perfectly functional yet not fully understood or utilized human faculty—creativity—thus contaminating it."
It has been suggested that writer's block is more than just a mentality. Under stress, a human brain will "shift control from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system". The limbic system is associated with the instinctual processes, such as "fight or flight" response; and behavior that is based on "deeply engrained training". The limited input from the cerebral cortex hinders a person's creative processes, which are replaced by the behaviors associated with the limbic system. The person is often unaware of the change, which may lead them to believe they are creatively "blocked". In her 2004 book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain (ISBN 9780618230655), the writer and neurologist Alice W. Flaherty has argued that literary creativity is a function of specific areas of the brain, and that block may be the result of brain activity being disrupted in those areas.
For a composition perspective, Lawrence Oliver says, in his article, "Helping Students Overcome Writer's Block", "Students receive little or no advice on how to generate ideas or explore their thoughts, and they usually must proceed through the writing process without guidance or corrective feedback from the teacher, who withholds comments and criticism until grading the final product." He says, students "learn to write by writing", and often they are insecure and/or paralyzed by rules.
Phyllis Koestenbaum wrote in her article "The Secret Climate the Year I Stopped Writing" about her trepidation toward writing, claiming it was tied directly to her instructor's response. She says, "I needed to write to feel, but without feeling I couldn't write." To contrast Koestenbaum experience, Nancy Sommers express her belief that papers don't end when students finish writing and that neither should instructors' comments. She urges a "partnership" between writers and instructors so that responses become a conversation.
James Adams notes in his book, Conceptual Blockbusting, various reasons blocks occur include fear of taking a risk, "chaos" in the pre-writing stage, judging versus generating ideas, an inability to incubate ideas, or a lack of motivation. Additionally, The Purdue Online Writing Lab explains common causes ranging an author being assigned a boring topic to an author who is so stressed out he/she cannot put words on the page, and suggests "possible cures" or invention strategy for each.
As far as strategies for coping with writer's block Clark describes: class and group discussion, journals, free writing and brainstorming, clustering, list making, and engaging with the text. To overcome writing blocks, Oliver suggests that asking students questions to uncover their writing process. Then he recommends solutions such as systematic questioning, freewriting, and encouragement.
To the extent that a block is caused by perfectionism, Hillary Rettig recommends using timed writing exercises during which you practice non-judgmental writing as a solution. This is part of a productivity-enhancing mindset called compassionate objectivity, other elements of which include: a focus on process not product, a focus on internally derived rewards (versus externally derived ones like fame and fortune), and a sense of perspective and proportion (versus shortsightedness). Rettig says you can develop a compassionately objective world view with practice, and that doing so will automatically boost productivity.
Writer Arthur Hermansen suggests the perfectionism issue is easily overcome by simply writing a smaller format work of choice and actually perfecting it through rewriting as many times as necessary. Repeating this process multiple times minimizes the perfection issue for writers of well being. As for large format work such as a novel, perfectionism in literary practice is often a disguise for fear of completion or critique of the finished work. Perfecting a large format work is an enormous consumption of time if the author works alone. This has however, been accomplished a vast number of times in literary arts history, and authors work undaunted all the time no matter what topic they pursue because of commitment and love for literary artistry or advancement of human knowledge or experience through discovery, that being perhaps our highest purpose in all cognition. In addition, when it comes to perfectionism in large format work, if 'format fits the concept type' best practice is utilized, a non-fiction work (such as a technical manual) can be developed superbly well so revisions are only required for updated editions as the field or domain being captured in the work itself evolves. In fiction work, perfection is a more elusive quality to capture, and Mr. Hermansen recommends you are coming close to well made work when understanding is made clearest. Most experienced writers opt for a standard of making the work as well made as they are personally capable, then seeking exterior feedback for improvement/changes. It must also be stated for objectivity on this aspect of the issue that rarity and originality of the work being developed will factor greatly into the definition of perfection for any given manuscript. An example of a writer biting off more than they can intellectually or creatively chew would be the unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald screenplay often referred to in filmic writing as the 'greatest opening to a movie ever written.' Garbriele Lusser Rico's concern with the mind links to brain lateralization also explored by Rose and Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes among others. Rico's book, Writing the Natural Way looks into invention strategies, such as clustering, which has been noted to be an invention strategy used to help writers overcome their blocks, and further emphasizes the solutions presented in works by Rose, Oliver, and Clark. Similar to Rico, James Adams discusses right brain involvement in writing. While Downey purposes that he is basing his approach in practical concerns, his concentration on right brain techniques speaks to cognitive theory approach similar to Rico's and a more practical advise for writers to approach their writer's block.
- Clark, Irene. "Invention." Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
- Rienzi, Greg. "Great Scott: Fitzgerald's Baltimore." The JHU Gazette. Johns Hopkins University. 28. September 2009. Web. 19 February 2012
- Downey, Bill. Right Brain – Write ON!. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1984. Print
- Akhtar, Salman (1 January 2009). Comprehensive dictionary of psychoanalysis. Karnac Books. p. 310. ISBN 978-1-85575-860-5. Retrieved 17 October 2011.
- Rose, Mike. Writer's Block: The Cognitive Dimension. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. Print
- Conrey, Sean M. and Allen Brizee. "Symptoms and Cures for Writer's Block." Purdue Online Writing Lab. Purdue University. 7 June 2011. Web. 15 February 2012
- George Orwell, Keep The Aspidistra Flying, Chapter 2.
- Elbow, Peter, "Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience", Concepts in Composition, 2nd Ed. p129-144, New York: 2012. Print.
- Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity, a TED talk in 2009
- George Gissing, New Grub Street
- Rettig, Hillary. Writer's Block: More of a "Spaghetti Snarl" Retrieved 23 May 2013
- "The Writer's Brain". Retrieved 24 November 2011.
- Acolella, Joan (14 June 2004). "Blocked: why do writers stop writing?". The New Yorker.
- Oliver Jr., Lawrence J. "Helping Students Overcome Writer's Block." Journal of Reading. 26.2 (1982): 162–168. JSTOR. Online. 15 February 2012
- Koestenbaum, Phyllis. "The Secret Climate the Year I Stopped Writing." The Massachusetts Review. Vol. issue (Year): 278–308. Web. 15 February 2012
- Somers, Nancy. "Across the Drafts." Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in Teaching of Writing. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
- Adams, James. Conceptual Blockbusting. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing. 1974
- Rettig, Hillary. If You Have a Procrastination Problem or Block Retrieved 23 May 2013
- Rico, Gabriele Lusser. Writing the Natural Way. Boston: J. P. Teacher, Inc., 1983. Print
- Upper, Dennis (Fall 1974), "The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of "writer's block"", Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 7 (3): 497, doi:10.1901/jaba.1974.7-497a, ISSN 0021-8855, PMC 1311997, PMID 16795475
- Flaherty's The Midnight Disease at Google Books.
- What is Writers Block
- Cartoon strip Writer's Block at FLIP Animation Magazine Retrieved January 2013