It can last for an hour. It can last for a year. But no matter how long it lasts, writer’s block is painful. We asked seven writers to reflect on how they think about writer’s block—but more importantly, how they defeat it.
Comedian and writer Hari Kondabalu finds that the city of Seattle breaks him out of writer’s block—though he’s not at all shy about sharing how hard it is:
“Yes. It’s awful. It’s the worst feeling. It affects you in a couple ways because 1) You’re not turning out work that you’re excited by. 2) And the audience knows you don’t give a shit.
Luckily, I’ve been able to use Seattle to develop a lot of new material very quickly (for me) over the last couple of years. That’s a new phenomenon for me. Seattle tends to jog it out of me. I think it jogs it out of me because I have an audience who knows what I’m doing. They are supportive and let me play. Writer’s block is miserable and part of it can be just being in a really bad place. Sometimes if you’re just in a bad mental place, it doesn’t matter what work you put in. You have to fix bigger things than your writing.”
John Avlon not only serves as the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Beast, but he also writes a column—a habit he says helps him get out of writing funks:
“I’m superstitious about writer’s block to the extent I don’t particularly feel like devoting a great deal of time to dwelling on it. It seems like getting stuck in a desert, a nightmare. But there are definitely times when the inspiration flows more freely than not. It seems to me that writing is a muscle: it gets stronger the more you use it. If you let yourself fall out of the habit, it can be hard to get back in form. Writing a regular column keeps you limber and sharp and guarantees that any fear of writer’s block is kept at bay.”
For author and marketing expert Ryan Holiday, writer’s block is akin to “runner’s block”—and the only way to beat both is to, well, attack. So how does he deal with writer’s block when it happens?
“Beat it into submission. That’s the only way. How would you get rid of runner’s block? You go for a fucking run.”
For Pulitzer-Prize and MacArthur Genius grant-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, when the writing gets too tough, it might mean that the research isn’t fully baked. Her own reaction to writer’s block isn’t to muscle through it, but to ask if she’s done all the pre-work she needs before pen can meet paper:
“When I have writer’s block it is because I have not done enough research or I have not thought hard enough about the subject about which I’m writing. That’s a signal for me to go back to the archives or to go back into my thoughts and think through what it is I am supposed to be doing.”
Ace interviewer and Esquire writer Cal Fussman had a ten-year (!) war with writer’s block for a single piece. When it finally broke, it was because he needed an ending—and because he was wrestling with demons bigger than the piece:
“One of the pieces I’m deeply proud to have written started with a paragraph that read: “This story needed an ending before it could find its first sentence. So please forgive me for delivering it ten years overdue.”
That ten years was a war with writer’s block. I’d spent a couple of years learning about wine in order to become a sommelier for a night at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center. It should have been a joyous piece. But soon after my night as sommelier, the hijacked planes smashed into the towers on 9/11. For years, I couldn’t write about the experience. I could write other stories and books—but not a paragraph about Windows. On the sunniest day of summer the fact that I couldn’t write that piece hung over me like a dark cloud.
I remember asking the chef Mario Batali if it were possible to write a story that balanced the fun I had discovering wine with the horror of 9/11. He slowly shook his head and said: “No. You’ll never be able to do it.” Then he paused and added, “but you’ve got to.”
Took me ten years before it all came into focus and I could get it down right, and the story won a James Beard award. I’ve never been motivated by awards. But that one is special to me.”
Jeff Goins has made a living out of exploring the habits and lives of other writers, as well as writing several best-selling books of his own. He’s seen it all when it comes to writer’s block, and he boils it down to one word: fear. But the way to get around that fear isn’t to avoid it, he says. It’s to write through it—to treat the block as the path to finishing the piece itself:
“I think writer’s block is a bad name for a number of real problems facing writers, most notably of which is fear. Typically when I feel blocked, I’m really afraid. And almost always, that’s because my next step feels like a leap instead of just doing the next thing. If I feel stuck, I have to ask myself what am I really afraid of and is that really my next step? For example, if I’m working on a book and start to feel stuck, it’s usually because I’m doubting myself, wondering what right I have to talk about this topic. Who am I? But that fear is misplaced. It’s not the right time to worry about that. My job right now is to write the next 500 words, not worry what the critics will be saying a year from now.
The way out of this mess is through. A friend of mine who used to do long-distance running gave me some advice on dealing with pain as a writer. “What do you do about the cramps?” I asked. I was noticing they hit my in the gut usually at the three or four mile mark. I thought he’d have some great advice on how to avoid them altogether. In fact, I assumed this was the case. His answer surprised me, though. “Cramps? What do I do? I keep running, and eventually they go away. I run through the cramps.”
What do I do when I feel blocked? I write through the block. That may sound ridiculous, but even when you’re blocked you can still write. Maybe it’s not the thing you wanted to write or what you you’re capable of writing. But you can type. So that’s what I do. Anything and everything. Sometimes, it makes sense. Sometimes, it’s total nonsense. But I push through the discomfort, so that I can keep going. Momentum is a writer’s friend.”
Yes, all of us get stuck, but according to speechwriter and author Rob Goodman, the key is to go easy on yourself:
“Usually it looks like procrastination getting out of hand, when I spend way too much time reading useless things online rather than getting down to work. I imagine I’m especially prone to do this when I’m particularly anxious about whatever I’m working on that day–but it’s a recurring problem. The most important thing is not to unduly beat myself up about it, and to remember that I get to start each day with a clean slate.”