Writer's block

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For other uses, see Writer's block (disambiguation).

Writer's block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Throughout history, writer's block has been a documented problem.[1] Professionals who have struggled with the affliction include author F. Scott Fitzgerald,[2] Joseph Mitchell,[3] Jay Betts[4] and pop culture cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.[5] 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 psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler.[6]


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."[7]

Other blocks may be produced by adverse circumstances in a writer's life or career: physical illness, depression, the end of a relationship, financial pressures, or a sense of failure.[citation needed] The pressure to produce work may in itself contribute to writer's block, especially if they are compelled to work in ways that are against their natural inclination (i.e. with a deadline or an unsuitable style or genre). Writer's block may also come from feeling intimidated by one's previous big successes.[citation needed] The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, reflecting on her post-bestseller prospects, proposed that such a pressure might be released by interpreting creative writers as "having" genius rather than "being" a genius.[8]

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".[9] 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".[9] 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.[10]

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."[11] He says, students "learn to write by writing", and often they are insecure and/or paralyzed by rules.[11]

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.[12] She says, "I needed to write to feel, but without feeling I couldn't write."[12] To contrast Koestenbaum experience, Nancy Sommers express her belief that papers do not end when students finish writing and that neither should instructors' comments.[13] She urges a "partnership" between writers and instructors so that responses become a conversation.[13]

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.[14]

Coping strategies[edit]

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.[1] To overcome writing blocks, Oliver suggests asking writers questions to uncover their writing process.[11] Then he recommends solutions such as systematic questioning, freewriting, and encouragement.[11]

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,[15] and further emphasizes the solutions presented in works by Rose, Oliver, and Clark. Similar to Rico, James Adams discusses right brain involvement in writing.[14] While Downey purposes that he is basing his approach in practical concerns,[5] 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.[5]

Blank page syndrome[edit]

Blank page syndrome is similar to writer's block,[how?] but is not a psychological term. It can happen to a writer at any point in time, irrespective of their career success. This syndrome can be very irksome to authors and often leads to a long span of time where they cannot come up with anything new. Coping strategies include: distracting oneself from the piece for a while, reading a book, and forcing oneself to write something even if it makes no sense. To avoid blank page syndrome, it is best to have an idea when one sits down to write, and to keep from procrastinating because stress only worsens the blank page syndrome.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Clark, Irene. "Invention." Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
  2. ^ Rienzi, Greg. "Great Scott: Fitzgerald's Baltimore." The JHU Gazette. Johns Hopkins University. 28. September 2009. Web. 19 February 2012
  3. ^ The New Yorker writer who didn't publish for 30 years BBC News feature and video 7 May 2015
  4. ^ A Night Out - JAY BETTS featuring DEVVO YouTube video 6 Jun 2012
  5. ^ a b c Downey, Bill. Right Brain – Write ON!. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1984. Print
  6. ^ Akhtar, Salman (1 January 2009). Comprehensive dictionary of psychoanalysis. Karnac Books. p. 310. ISBN 978-1-85575-860-5. Retrieved 17 October 2011. 
  7. ^ George Orwell, Keep The Aspidistra Flying, Chapter 2.
  8. ^ Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity, a TED talk in 2009
  9. ^ a b "The Writer's Brain" (PDF). Retrieved 4 December 2014. 
  10. ^ Acolella, Joan (14 June 2004). "Blocked: why do writers stop writing?". The New Yorker. 
  11. ^ a b c d Oliver Jr., Lawrence J. "Helping Students Overcome Writer's Block." Journal of Reading. 26.2 (1982): 162–168. JSTOR. Online. 15 February 2012
  12. ^ a b Koestenbaum, Phyllis. "The Secret Climate the Year I Stopped Writing." The Massachusetts Review. Vol. issue (Year): 278–308. Web. 15 February 2012
  13. ^ a b Somers, Nancy. "Across the Drafts." Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in Teaching of Writing. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
  14. ^ a b Adams, James. Conceptual Blockbusting. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing. 1974
  15. ^ Rico, Gabriele Lusser. Writing the Natural Way. Boston: J. P. Teacher, Inc., 1983. Print
  16. ^ Angelique Caffrey (28 August 2012). "Blank Page Syndrome". explore writing. Retrieved 13 April 2015. 

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