Why do people get writer’s block? — Frequent Questions

Q: If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many people have it?
A: It’s real if they think it’s real.

In The Paris Review interview I wrote about yesterday, Fran Lebowitz talks about her 1o-year struggle with writer’s block. Ten years!

It gets worse: the interview happened in 1994 and she still hasn’t published the novel. That’s 34 years of writer’s block, longer than many writers have been alive.

I will not be the person to tell Fran Lebowitz that she’s been suffering for 34 years from a self-inflicted injury. The ordeal seems genuinely painful for her. Even more painful than writing, if we are to believe what she tells the interviewer.

Interviewer: What did you do during those five years before you started writing the book?

Lebowitz: I sulked. Sulking is a big effort. So is not writing. I only realized that when I did start writing. When I started getting real work done, I realized how much easier it is to write than not to write. Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.

Let writer’s block reroute your creativity

One of my theories about writer’s block is that it’s not a failure of one’s creative powers—it’s a failure to be open to new ideas. It’s a matter of insisting on writing THIS thing rather than THAT thing. But maybe THAT thing isn’t ready to be written yet. Or maybe it’s not the thing you should be writing.

Lebowitz set herself a goal to write a novel:

I had an idea for this book, but I wrote very little. When I was about twenty and had just started publishing, I thought: I’ll write two books of these funny essays and then I’ll write a novel. I never wanted to write a novel first.

She published those very successful collections of “funny essays” and then signed a contract to produce a novel. Thirty-four years later, all we know is the book’s title—External Signs of Wealth. It remains unfinished. She wrote a children’s book and her publisher released a collection of her essays in 1994, but those are her last published works. I can’t even begin to imagine how that feels.

Maybe Lebowitz just isn’t a novelist. Maybe she’s a writer of “funny essays”—and a very successful one, at that. Why can’t that be enough?

What’s scarier than not writing? For some people: Writing

I guess so many people believe in writer’s block because it allows them to attach the word “writer” to something they’re doing. If you invent an external reason for your inaction, you don’t have to face the (probable) internal reason—a reason Lebowitz identifies as fear.

Interviewer: In general, why is it so difficult to write?

Lebowitz: Because it’s intrinsically difficult work. The only job that is worse is coal mining. All writers have a normal healthy amount of fear, but I have an excessive amount of fear.

What is the fear about?

For some people it’s the fear of not being good enough, for others it’s the fear of being good enough. It’s tempting the gods to write. Think of the terrible attacks Philip Roth was subjected to early in his career, and even now. This is why people do horrible things to themselves when they are writing, punishing themselves so maybe someone else won’t.

Stop punishing yourself. Write. Even if you’re writing “I have no idea what to write.” Force yourself to sit down for 15 minutes a day. It will help. I promise.

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

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  • writing