Probing Question: Is writer's block real?

glasses and pen on blank piece of paper
Graham Ballett-Young / GBYphotography.com

Writer Ernest Hemingway dodged bullets as a war correspondent, fought bulls in Spain, and hunted big game in Africa-but when asked to name the scariest thing he ever encountered, he answered, "A blank sheet of paper."

For many of us, the symptoms of writer's block-staring at a blank computer screen or page with no clue how to begin, stomach clenching, throat tightening,-are all too familiar. But is our suffering a real syndrome or simply an excuse for being unproductive?

"Sure, writer's block is real," says poet and essayist Julia Spicher Kasdorf, director of Penn State's Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. "It's as real as any kind of anxiety."

Writer's block, defined as a temporary inability to begin or continue a writing project due to fear, anxiety or lack of inspiration-strikes professional and non-professional writers alike. It is not a clinical psychological diagnosis and you won't find the causes and cures for it on WebMD, yet the creative paralysis can last a few minutes or up to decades in extreme cases.

For instance, thirty depression-filled years passed for American novelist and short story writer Henry Roth between publication of his first and second novels. And The Metamorphosis is believed to be the only novel Czech writer Franz Kafka finished in his lifetime. (Most of his work was incomplete and published posthumously.)

The anxiety of writer's block can be particularly potent when there is pressure to produce. Explains Kasdorf, "When being a writer is entangled with your personal identity or when your product is going to get you tenure or not, that raises the stakes."

During her graduate studies at New York University, Kasdorf worked in the Writing Center and often coached other students struggling to finish their dissertations.

"An enormous resistance gets built up within the person, a resistance I would characterize as intense fear," says Kasdorf. "So people would come and meet with me every week for an hour and they would just want to talk."

She or the student would write down ideas or tape record their conversation, creating what could later serve as a springboard. A 20-minute "free write" session where the writer's pen keeps moving, even if it means writing the same word repeatedly, also helped the students bust through their blocks.

"It took some pushing," recalls Kasdorf, "and I had to be a little bit of a bully to get past their resistance."

So where does that fear-based resistance come from?

While some researchers have suggested a neurological basis, most experts agree with Kasdorf that writer's block has more to do with your first grade teacher than your frontal lobe.

Writer's block is rooted in elementary school, she says, when writing is taught as a type of performance, rather than a process. "From the very beginning in first grade, you sit down and you're told to trace the shapes and letters and then you take spelling tests and then you produce sentences or paragraphs."

From there, the societal pressure to produce only intensifies. Quiet periods when the creative juices are re-energizing are just as important as periods of production, explains Kasdorf. "We are not machines," she says, adding, "Right now, just because there aren't leaves on the trees doesn't mean the trees are dead or broken."

Ironically, literary success can often intensify the fears that stifle creative output. Even the prolific J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books have sold more than 400 million copies, faced a bout of writer's block during her work on Chamber of Secrets. "I had my first burst of publicity about the first book and it paralyzed me," Rowling has commented. "I was scared the second book wouldn't measure up, but I got through it!"

Kasdorf calls the blockages she encounters in her own work "garden variety" anxiety rather than writer's block. Talking, sleeping on the problem and exercise all help her to knock down those walls.

Pre-writing techniques like "clustering"-drawing a map of your topic's central ideas and related points-can also be useful tools to get ideas flowing.

"The secret of getting ahead," commented Mark Twain, "is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."

Julia Spicher Kasdorf, is associate professor of English and Women's Studies and Director of Penn State's Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing. She is a poet, essayist, and writer of non-fiction biography. Her email is jmk28@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 25, 2008