Classic Women Authors Tackle Writer’s Block

sylvia plath

Writer’s block is a subject that writers try to avoid thinking about, let alone experiencing. Conventional wisdom on what to do when one hits that proverbial wall is about as much fun as the malady. For example, “try thinking of writing as a job,” or “set deadlines and keep them” are two common ideas for unblocking. The first one is about as inspiring as doing laundry (especially for writers who already have a job); and if you could set and keep deadlines, then you wouldn’t be blocked in the first place, would you?

Learning how to deal with blocks is a critical component of the writer’s toolbox, though, so here’s a brief survey of what writing women, past and present, have had to say on the subject.


Trying to write better than you can

Edna Ferber blamed writer’s block on “trying to write better than you can” — referring to the self-consciousness that causes you to seize up and shut down. Anna Quindlen echoed this sentiment in her well-known quote, “People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.”

Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber: Quotes on Writing and Living

The answer to this is to be where you are with your writing, and not try to write as the Pulitzer Prize-winning fantasy version of yourself. There’s no way to reach soaring heights without taking all the tiny steps to get there. And besides, if you keep your eye on the destination and ignore the journey, you may never get anywhere at all.


The well has run dry

Another cause of block is that the proverbial well has run dry. This usually occurs after an intense outpouring of creative effort. Suddenly, there’s nothing left, not a drop to squeeze from your previously productive mind. The solution to this depletion, wisely recommended by creativity coaches like Julia Cameron and others, is to pause and let the well fill up again, indulging in outings, adventures, social and cultural experiences, and other inspiring (or restful) pleasures.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath: How can one persevere when writing pays so poorly?

Sylvia Plath recognized the need for refueling, writing in a letter, “If I have a dry spell … I wait and live harder, eyes, ears, and heart open, and when the productive time comes, it is that much richer.”


Unnecessary distractions

Procrastination, self-sabotage, and unnecessary distractions aren’t necessarily causes of block, but contribute to feelings of helplessness in mitigating it. Often, the root can be ambiguous, so finding a specific remedy is tricky. As with physical health, one of the ways many writers have dealt with block is prevention. Just as you keep your body limber with exercise, you can keep your writer’s mind agile simply by continuing to write, whatever form it might take, most every day.

George Sand

George Sand: On the Agony and the Ecstasy of Writing

Many writers of the past produced a copious literary output, and were also vigorous letter-writers (Virginia Woolf and George Sand come immediately to mind). Few people write long letters any more, so detailed, effusive e-mails or blog posts might stand in for epistolary writing practice.


Journal-keeping

In the classic guide If You Want to Write (1938), Brenda Ueland posits that blocks come from focusing too much on the big picture, so that “when you plan such a huge edifice of words, your heart fails you.” She urged all writers to “keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary,” as a way to “discover that the ideas in you are an inexhaustible fountain.”

Keeping a diary or journal (I use the terms synonymously here), though not a revolutionary idea, has long been a favorite tool to keep words flowing, whether in service of recording daily events, capturing ideas, or venting.

L.M. Montgomery-age 61 -1935

L.M. Montgomery: Writing Without Time or Privacy

For L.M. Montgomery, her journal was a trusted friend that served all these purposes. Madeleine L’Engle touted journal-keeping for similar ends: “A journal is a place where you can unload, dump, let go. It is, among other practical things, a safety valve … And it’s where I jot down ideas for stories, descriptions of a face seen on a subway, a sunset seen over the Hudson, or our Litchfield Hills.”


Make writing part of daily life

Maya Angelou wrote, “I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music.” So it’s not surprising that she has also recommended writing regularly, even if you’re blocked or simply uninspired, and even if it begins as twaddle: “I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff … And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”

— Excerpted and adapted from The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life  by Nava Atlas

Sylvia plath on writer's block




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