Sounds like a lot to swallow? Well, I hope that before letting it go, pushing the x icon in the corner of your browser, and searching for a place to scroll endlessly, you’re at least a bit intrigued about the lines above. Call it a storytelling trick or a marketing tactic, and you’d be right with any of the choices.
Writer’s block is more than you ever imagined and less than you like to believe.
If you’re restless, you can jump from one section to the other, but I encourage you to read from top to toe:
- When did the notion of writer’s block even appeared?
- The writer’s block gets unblocked when you’re writing
- Managing writer’s block implies allowing for error
But first, some history.
When did the notion of writer’s block even appeared?
While I must confess I’m quite bad at history since my teachers missed classes more than I did, so I like to believe that I learned to glue pieces as an adult. Therefore, I might not know exactly when huge events that impacted our evolution as human beings took place, but I’m confident I know where to search and put information together. Some call it the school of life. I agree with them.
As a storyteller with ten years of experience, I’ve heard about the writer’s block concept thousands of times. First, as a freelancer who offered copywriting services for all kinds of brands. Second, as a professional who shared know-how with folks starting their career in this industry. Later on, as a community builder who’s been nurturing a tribe around stories that make us better people. In every phase of my journey, writer’s block was there, sticking to the conversation as chewing gum.
Well, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I dared to go in-depth and search for what’s behind this concept only last week. Yap, you read it well. It took me ten years to stop being oblivious, question assumptions, and go straight to the roots. Call me unprofessional, but I think that, yet again, it’s the school of life. Some things happen when they need to or when you’re ready to grasp them.
Not writing meant that you are blocked psychologically, and you can only get out of this state of mind by taking therapy sessions.
After getting my hands really dirty, I came to an article that explains the history of writer’s block. Before sharing what I discovered, please let me express my contentment by informing you that it is written by the one-and-only Maria Konnikova.
She’s the author of How I learned to pay attention, master myself, and win. If the title does not ring a bell, here’s what I think it worths knowing: she’s unfolding the science of human decision-making while learning how to play poker. I read it in one breath.
Now, back to history and Konnikova’s findings.
All the fuss around writer’s block started in 1920 when a 16 years old guy named Graham Green left the Berkhamsted school in the northwest of London. The reason?—”104 weeks of monotony, humiliation, and mental pain.” This experience led to six months spent in psychotherapy, where Graham started a journal to help him cope with his mental distress.
I wondered what would have happened if I, as a kid, would offer the same argument to my family and teachers. I guess I’ll never know.
During that time, a psychoanalyst named Edmund Bergler, who studied writers who suffered from “neurotic inhibitions of productivity,” tried to determine which blockers kept these folks away from putting down words. The findings were somehow interesting for that specific period yet not so captivating for us, living these days.
They used to say the writing urge got away when people paid their rent. In other words, when the external factors were no longer a pressure, the drive was fading away. On the other hand, this kind of disease (yap, it was labeled accordingly) indicated someone’s unproductivity level. Therefore, not writing meant that you are blocked psychologically and you can only get out of this state of mind by taking therapy sessions. You should have solved those issues first to be able to write.
Let’s face it: that’s a harsh conclusion for this time and age.
However, it somehow makes sense taking into consideration that not long ago, even in Romania, a country that is still biased and narrow-minded with those going to therapy, people don’t know how to deal with emotions. From naming them (e.g., do I feel sad or frustrated?) to kindly expressing (e.g., without raising the tone or making judgments), up to accepting them as being part of a more complex spectrum of mental health.
Back then, in 1920, there was too little knowledge about the impact of emotions and how they can affect people in general, not only writers. Therefore, they treat it like a problem that you only can solve in the therapist’s cabinet.
As Bergler notes:
“A blocked writer is actually blocked psychologically—and the way to “unblock” that writer is through therapy. Solve the personal psychological problem, and you remove the blockage.”
The writer’s block gets unblocked when you’re writing
This title sounds like the poorest one I wrote. Dumb stupid. It’s indeed not a masterpiece in terms of wording, yet it’s real and often neglected or superficially treated.
As Seth Godin wisely states in Debbie Millman’s podcast, you can’t have writer’s block until you write. When you feel you experience something similar, the best approach is to keep throwing up words, ideas, and thoughts on the paper, be it digital or non-digital.
Stopping the creative process and assuming that a day when you’ll no longer feel blocked is around the corner, it’s a cheap alibi that no longer impresses anyone.
Putting skin in the game requires a change in attitude that comes with both rewards and compromises.
During my research for writing this article, I came to dozens of opinions on overcoming writer’s block. Most of them are full of bull**t. They either recommend taking a walk, play with your dog, make another coffee, and other mindless activities, or give you an alternative packed into a blueprint of 13853743 (random number) steps to take if your writing doesn’t flow like a butterfly.
Both are extremes. They indicate another kind of distortion than the one lived by Graham Green in 1920, yet still not a healthy and sustainable solution.
So let me share what worked for me because it could get the job done for you, too. It’s called practice. By that, I mean both writing and reading. I always stated that one does not work without the other.
Let me tell you why.
I write almost daily, no matter how much or how little. The act of putting down words, transforming them into ideas that take the shape of a story gives me a sense of progress. It fuels my tanks, and it provides the drive to get back at the writing board and keep practicing. By doing it over and over again, I earned more skills and became better at my game.
I’m also an avid reader of books, which keep my wording wheels spinning. Besides expanding my vocabulary and understanding—both are priceless—they allow me to discover analogies that otherwise would not emerge. It leverages my writings and makes them not only more powerful but more memorable, too.
As with any other skill, practice beats every theory and makes everything worthy. However, such a routine does not come easy as a Sunday morning, just with wishful thinking. It means investing the time, energy, even money and committing to building a long-term behavior.
Putting skin in the game requires a change in attitude that comes with both rewards and compromises, so make sure you consider them before bragging you are keen to join the chorus.
Managing writer’s block implies allowing for error
Thankfully, Bergler was not the only one who concluded that writing and forgiving the mistakes you make along the way is mandatory. In today’s world, we’re learning, maybe faster than ever, that errors are part of the journey, and without making them, there’s no real progress. Especially when it comes to creative professions.
Nowadays, more and more writers are transparent with their processes, share their dilemmas and anxieties, talk openly about the multiple times they screwed up, even admit how many articles did not see the light of day.
Regardless of how blocked you might feel at a certain point, remember that you always have the choice of imagining.
Maybe it’s a small sign, but I’m genuinely confident that it is imperative and indicates we reached a point where we grasp emotions and integrate them into our work to make it better. There’s still a long road ahead concerning our attitude toward whispers that state we are culpable, ashamed, sorrowed, or not good enough, but I firmly believe we’re on the right track.
In the end, it’s not easy to change behaviors that are so entrenched and define a big chunk of who we are today.
I’m hopeful that if we make peace with the idea of error and mistake and deconstruct what we’ve learned regarding emotions and feelings (from parents, school, and society in general), we’ll be more open-minded and honest about the writer’s block.
Allowing for such an attitude is crucial since the process of writing, like any other creative one out there, is non-linear. It’s a matter of exploring various areas, taking bits and pieces, gluing them together, changing the narrative, using a concept that you thought it’s out of your radar, and having the mental power to sift them all and create a story that maybe will pass the test of time.
This approach is similar to the one lived by Graham Greene, which, by the way, turned to be one of the leading English novelists of the 20th century.
Regardless of how blocked you might feel at a certain point, remember that you always have the choice of imagining. And this, ladies and gents, is the gateway for writing.
The featured photo belongs to Katerina Nedelcu, and it’s taken at our office.