The Myth of Writer’s Block (Part 1)


Number 1 reason people do not sit down.

Writer’s Block – capital W, capital B – does not exist.  Writer’s Block is an aggregate name for a combination of symptoms existing in people who would like to write, but feel stuck.  You get rid of it by creating a process.  The first step in the process is sitting down.

Writer’s Block often manifests as the refusal to sit down.

The refusal to sit down is coming from somewhere inside the person who would be writing.  Often it is a reflection of one or more anxieties about sitting down.  Anxieties come from anywhere and everywhere.  They may be idiosyncratic, but more often, take heart,  they are fairly universal.

Most common are the extremes – a paucity of things to say, or too many things to say.  These both manifest as the dreaded Writer’s Block, yet neither has anything to do with that.

For our purposes the would-be writer is a funnel.

You put a funnel over an empty jar.  If you don’t pour anything into the funnel from somewhere else – still empty jar.

This is a paucity of things to say.  If the original vessel is running on empty, nothing is going to come out and go into the new jar.  You are just the funnel when you are writing.  Your brain, your life, your heart, your experience, your everything is the original vessel.  Your  job as a writer is to give a path to the contents of that vessel into a new one – metaphorically a jar, but in reality a poem, a story, a screenplay, a book, or any other plastic art you choose.

Emptiness, in a Zen sense, can be a very good place to begin.  It denotes clarity, openness, and willingness to receive.  We’re not talking about a Zen sense here, unless your ability to receive is highly skilled and you are a channel for filling vessels and then very lucky you – you won’t have Writer’s Block at all (and that’s another blog).

Emptiness in this sense is something else.  Like a car run out of fuel.  A car with an empty gas tank does not require inspiration; it requires gas.  What is gas for an artist?  Everything in life.  When does an artist run out of gas?  In multiple situations.  Life gets too stressful, people around the artist are draining, the drone of daily life has kicked over the ability to experience with sensitivity.  Exhaustion, illness, completion of a very large project or work of art – all of these can cause an emptiness.

You need to put in some gas.  Recharge, refuel in ways that are meaningful for you.  Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Dates are meant to do just this – keep the gas tank full.  Yes – go to a museum, a movie, a show, take a walk on a new path, get off the subway at a different stop, hike, play tennis, take a trip.  Those are all great.  They may not be what you need.  You may need to talk to your best friend, or take a nap, or help someone less fortunate than you, or teach a child how to play a game.  But you need to put gas in the tank.

Frustration over this empty vessel and empty jar is just what gets people talking about inspiration and ascribing it mystical, magical, and elusive properties.  It must be all these things if you can’t find it when you need it, right?  Let’s debunk this here and now.  Just because something has the feeling of magic when it occurs does not necessarily make it random or infrequent, or even difficult.  We’ve all read the Harry Potter books – magic is clearly the culmination of tradition, learning, practise, and skill!  Even magic isn’t really magic, is it?  Yes – you want that tingly feeling, that pierce of synchronicity, that pin prick of the collective unconscious, but its presence is not accidental and its absence does not constitute Writer’s Block. (And when it comes to sitting down, Rowling is clearly Queen – how many thousands of hours of sitting must it have taken to create that series?  Which brings us back to doe…I mean…Zen.)

Inspiration is not just what appears out of thin air – it is – almost literally – a breath of fresh air you take in.  You don’t wait for it to descend.  There’s no need.  You know where to find it.  Give up being bored.  It’s a nasty habit and it won’t help you create anything.  Get to wonder.  Get to curiosity.  Ideas will start flooding (ah – our other potential problem).

Modern life makes it easy to tune out and turn off.  So let’s take Timothy Leary’s advice (just this once, he may not be the best role model) and tune in and turn on.  Just be present – cultivate that Zen emptiness and freshen your eyes and your mind into living again.  Inspiration is everywhere, but when you start snatching at it like the hem of a cute girl’s skirt in a bar, it’s just going to sashay away.  Then you’re going to start calling it fickle and treat it like a woman who’s just not that into you.  You see where this analogy is going?  Good.

Cultivate relationships and they will reward you.  That relationship could be with a person, with wonder, with fly fishing, with anything.  Your relationship with writing is inherently going to be about your relationships with other things – because, unlike fly fishing, writing is not really a thing unto itself – it is a tool to communicate with people about other things.  It is the offshoot of language and is only interesting when you have something to say.  That something – that’s what needs to be cultivated.  If you keep running your tank on empty, you will be standing on the side of the road with your thumb out.  Ah!  And that is precisely when you are desperate enough to get into the next car willing to take you.  And I bet there’s a story in that ride.


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