The novelist’s noose

A history of writer’s block and why it strikes when it does

In 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented that “completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. – O Sorrow and Shame…I have done nothing!” Coleridge was most productive throughout his twenties, after which he suffered from opium addiction and struggled indefinitely with writing. Into his thirties and beyond, writing represented an “indefinite indescribable Terror” for Coleridge.

For novelists, writer’s block is frequently more complicated than mere procrastination. It creates a sense of blankness, inciting a frustration and paralysis where the ideas or words just won’t quite form themselves. Whether the word count is in the thousands and you’ve suddenly hit a wall, or the flight of words never quite took off to begin with, writer’s block is a brutal phenomenon that can strike at any moment. Many famous authors have experienced blocks spanning from weeks to years wherein their creative flame feels quenched.

Anyone, anywhere  

Coleridge’s experience predated the term writer’s block by almost a century and a half. The term was coined in 1947 by Edmund Bergler. A psychoanalyst, Bergler described writer’s block as a manifestation of “psychic masochism”. Other behaviours Bergler categorised as such include gambling, blushing, and kleptomania.

In the 1940s and 50s, Joseph Mitchell wrote longform New Yorker pieces which captured huge audiences. He was considered one of the best non-fiction writers of the day. Mitchell published biography called Joe Gould’s Secret in 1965, after which he suffered with immense, long-term writer’s block. For the next thirty years, Mitchell continued to come into the office to tap away behind closed doors but never published his work again.

Cecelia Ahern, author of “P.S. I Love You” and “The Book of Tomorrow,” publishes a novel a year despite experience with writer’s block. Ahern sees writer’s block as a routine aspect of her job: “It’s all part of it,” she commented in 2014. “Thankfully, it has never lasted more than a month,” Ahern continued. “But there are definitely days and months where there’s nothing and I just don’t know what’s coming next. But eleven books on I’ve learned how to almost write through the block.”

When one imagines writer’s block, it’s in the context of frustration and despair. But for singer-songwriter Adele, her writer’s block arose from a state of happiness. “I found it impossible for a while. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about,” Adele said, discussing her delayed album in 2015. “What’s wrong is I wasn’t sad. I’ve never been happier. And I’ve never been healthier. So I’m good.” She noted that it wasn’t until she wrote outside her usual subject of heartbreak that she broke through her block.

Writer’s block can strike anyone, even the most prolific writers. Stephen King, who usually produces 2,000 words a day, has a collective total of over 8 million words published. King’s expansive collection of novels and short stories could suggest a potent ability to power through any barrier, but King is no exception to the phenomenon. King has said that “there may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn’t come at all.”

A mysterious source

The key questions surrounding writer’s block is where it originates from, and whether it can be resolved by the writer. “Some writers in the throes of writer’s block think their muses have died, but I don’t think that happens often,” King answers. “I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it.”

King presents an interesting idea: that inspiration does not fly away in a puff of smoke, leaving the writer behind to fumble desperately for the scrags of an idea. Rather, King suggests that writer’s block emerges from the writer’s own actions. Do we really “poison” our inspiration?

Picture the scene: armed with the best of intentions, you sit down at your desk. You open the lid of your laptop and think, not for the first time, about how this novel/essay/article/retelling-of-Ulysses would be infinitely easier if you bit the bullet and bought a shiny new Macbook. You skip past the waiting Google Docs tab and surf through pages of Apple reviews.

Right when you’re at the point of deciding whether Rose Gold or Smokey Grey is the shade for you, you remember the task you set out to do and flick back to your draft. Soon, a cacophony of other distractions loom: the bottle of water that needs to be refilled, the HB, 2H and 2B pencils that must all absolutely be sharpened, the bottles of prosecco for next week’s society event that you really need to go out and buy right this second.

It’s a situation we’re all familiar with, and one that perhaps lends credence to King’s idea. Where writer’s block is concerned, we might indeed be our own worst enemies. When our environment isn’t conducive to writing, or we let ourselves become distracted by a multitude of menial tasks, there’s little space available for creativity to roam.

But, if writer’s block is brought about by the writer, then it must follow that there is hope that the writer can clamber through it. This is a more optimistic scenario rather than one in which writer’s block is an indiscriminate lightning flash that comes and leaves at its own discretion. In his book On Writing, King recommends that when writer’s block strikes in fiction writing, the best way to solve it is by doing the opposite of solving a problem in real life. In short: instead of looking for a solution, look for a new problem.

This might seem counterintuitive at first, but it offers a tangible solution to a problem that leaves even the best writers stumped. If the project is a work of fiction, rather than trying to neatly wrap up a plotline and pop a bow on it, why not create even more trouble for your protagonist? If it’s an essay that’s driving you to the edge, maybe instead of trying to force together a point out of several sources that don’t quite align, try considering the nuances of each argument and evaluating the merits of each.

Cecelia Ahern has expressed a similar idea. She noted that writer’s block usually strikes her when she’s “pushing a story in the wrong way” and has found the best way to break out is by “thinking in another direction”.

A college perspective

Famous cases of writer’s block are varied and fascinating, but perhaps somewhat disconnected to the experience of the everyday writer. I wanted to investigate how writer’s block affects students.

Speaking to Trinity News, JF English and Ancient History & Archaeology student Emily Brady expressed how writer’s block manifests for her. “I generally get it when I put too much pressure on myself, overthinking things because it’s never quite good enough and fear of others’ opinions of my work.” Brady has developed some useful mechanisms for tackling bouts of the notorious block. “I always think reading novels or journals help to get my brain moving,” Brady noted, “and obviously stepping away from the desk for a day or so and getting outside.”

SF Law student Claire Williams shares her techniques for beating writer’s block. “Step away from your desk, or library, or room, and do something else. Go get a coffee or watch an episode of something.” Like King, Williams identifies the crucial role of the writer rather than an errant muse. “From my experience, I’d say the more pressure you put yourself under the more likely you are to get a complete brain freeze.”

“If you can break your negative thought cycle about whatever you’re trying to write and sit back down when you’ve lowered the stress and panic, you’ll be in a much better headspace,” Williams continued. “It helps if you go outside and see actual daylight!”

When writer’s block strikes, it might be useful to think of writer and Youtube creator Jenna Moreci’s witty advice to “remember: nothing is actually blocking you”. As insidious as writer’s block feels, the words are there to be written. The best remedy is simply to write them.

Lauren Boland

Lauren Boland was the Editor of the 67th volume of Trinity News. She is an English Literature and Sociology graduate and previously served as Deputy Editor, News Editor and Assistant News Editor.