On Writer’s Block
Fairly recently, I was working with two of my colleagues here in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to propose a panel for a conference in North America. As we agreed upon a deadline to post each of our abstracts on an on-line portal, one of them apprehended that she might miss the deadline because writer's block would overcome her in the meantime. I laughed her excuse out. I knew none of us lacked competence and commitment to ride such a deadline out. All three of us have been English majors; all three of us have been teaching English already for years; and all three of us have had Ph.D. s in one of the sub-disciplines of English Studies. But are we writers really? Not exactly! We are professionals with multiple engagements, and one of our occasional engagements is writing. While the line between writers and non-writers is contested, being crippled by writer's block is not. So, writer's block exists, and blocked writers abound. I see one in the mirror every day. Unlike, however, my colleague, I'm not freaked by writer's block. Perhaps surprisingly, I don't want to overcome it, either.
Think, for example, that a William Shakespeare or a Rabindranath Tagore or an Ernest Hemingway had to write a grant proposal for a neurobiology lab that needed funding to study the lateralization of the human brain in order to approach the teaching and learning of a second language in an informed fashion. Can't you imagine the victims of writer's block here? And what ideally would block them? Not language! Being unproductive with language is a symptom of writer's block, not the cause of it. Writing is knowledge transcribed, fuzzy ideas clarified, and genre specific strategies applied. Inadequate knowledge or deficiency of fresh ideas or ignorance about genre specific strategies and styles of writing can block a writer. Writing has never been a soft skill, which is the permanent possession of some chosen few, who excel across contexts, genres, and subjects. A good writer in general is a myth. Writers are limited by their ability to write as well as by their interest in writing. Amateur or experienced, writers struggle through the process of writing. Labeling such a natural phenomenon of writing as writer's block is a misnomer.
It is completely unlikely that an un-blocked writer has ever existed. Writers always can't write what they want to write, or whenever they want to write. Writing presupposes research, reading, and reflection. And these prerequisites of writing–if not taken care of–stall the process of writing; so writing emerges in fits and starts. Besides, no writer knows exactly what she would write unless she has written it, even though every writer needs to have a mental blueprint for the final product. The final product in writing is constructed through a fluid process of trial and error. That slows down–even arrests–the process of writing. This is not writer's block. That is what the act of writing entails. When a writer is capable of writing what she wants and whenever she wants, she is the victim of a rare neurobiological disorder, hypergraphia, the desire and the ability to write without any break. Alice W. Flaherty implies in The Midnight Disease that she has been an occasional victim of hypergraphia. So, overcoming the so-called writer's block is undesirable, undesirable because it is pathological. Dealing with writer's block is, by contrast, accepting an invitation to write better!
What would be our reaction like if a doctor claimed that she can't practice medicine for some time because she is the victim of a doctor's block, or a teacher claims that she can't teach for some time because she is the victim of a teacher's block? We know that doctors err, and that even the best teachers have bad teaching days. While all other professionals accept their failure and incompetence as to-be-expected lapses, writers hardly do. Writers assume that their failure or incompetence is the conspiracy of a genie– writer's block. A blocked writer is a victim, not a slacker. She evokes sympathy, not censure. This portrayal of a writer is emotionally so charged that a writer often suffers no self or social shame for lacking commitment to her passion or profession. Besides writing, no profession perhaps defends its paralysis with such a romantic excuse. Worse even, claiming to become a victim of writer's block is a smug statement of self-eulogy. When someone claims that she is the victim a writer's block, she implies that she is a writer. Sometimes that implication comes from non-writers (undergraduate students, for example), who have never written anything significant in their lives yet. But never are non-writers victims of writer's block. They just lack the convenient self-absolving psychology of writers.
Surprisingly, writers or writing professionals were not the first ones to coin the term "writer's block." It emerged from the discipline of psychology. While the hesitation to write or to stare at a blank page has been around since humans have been trying to write, writer's block was developed by Edmund Bergler, Sigmund Freud's assistant at the Vienna Clinic in the 1930s. Geoffrey V. Carter claims in his essay, "Writer's Block Just Happens to People," that Bergler made all sorts of outrageous claims about psychology and that writer's block was one of them. Scholars and serious writers have pretty consistently been skeptical about the existence and effects of writer' block. Back in 1974, for example, Dennis Upper published an article in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. The title of the article was "The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of Writer's Block." The title was the article (yes, that's no joke) because the rest of the article was several blank pages with a footnote, "published without revision." The humor of the article might cause some people to laugh, but writers and writing professionals understand that the article sent across a very strong message about writer's block: It's a cockamamie idea!
Was Toni Morrison a victim of writer's block when she claimed in her interview with Claudia Dreifus in 1994 that she took three years to think about Beloved and that another three years to write it? Not really! Regarding writer's block, in the same interview she asserts, "I disavow that term." So does Jhumpa Lahiri while answering reader questions for The Times in 2004, as she claims that writer's block is a natural part of the creative process for all writers. Writers always don't write. They opt for pregnant pauses, while ideas gestate and thoughts percolate in their minds. Writing happens not always in words and sentences, but in plots and patterns. Periods of percolation are not fallow, but they do inflict some writers with a performance anxiety. So, the feeling of being blocked overcomes them. They fret. In The Dairies of Franz Kafka 1910-1923, for example, Kafka complains that he was "incapable of writing a single line." Virginia Woolf in A Writer's Diary in 1921 laments that she couldn't write when she ought to be writing, and that "she is a failure as a writer." Sylvia Plath in The Unabridged Journal of Sylvia Plath grieves, "Prose writing has become a phobia to me." If these writing supernovas dreaded writing, it's unsurprising why "writer's block" has become such a pervasive urban legend ever since Edmund Bergler coined the term in The Writer and Psychoanalysis in 1950.
Blocked or prolific, no writer is possessed. Writing is tedious work, the way farming is. Diligence and determination considered, a writer and a farmer are hardly different. If this analogy sounds a little awkward, think, for example, of one of Brazil's greatest writers, Raduan Nasser. In the 1970s, he wrote two novels: Ancient Tillage and A Cup of Rage. Critics and connoisseurs of literature immediately hailed him as one of Brazil's finest writers. Honors and accolades overwhelmed him. In the early-1980s, he became famous and popular in France and Germany. The Penguin Modern Classic Series translated two of his novels into English in 2016 for American readers. Back in 1984, when Nasser was forty-eight and at the height of his literary fame, he retired from writing. He decided to become a farmer. He didn't put his pen on paper any time since. Nasser's case shows us that to write or not to write is a decision, not destiny. When a writer decides to write and nothing emerges, it's not writer's block. A writer must doggedly stick to her decision unless something emerges. That's how writing happens.
A writer's block is a fiction, but it's a delicious fiction. By the time anyone needs or desires to write, she is already desensitized by pop culture to question the credibility of this fiction. And no writer needs a scientist or a psychologist to confirm that a writer's block is real. It is, or why can't she write? She attempts to fix the problem, and the coaches and cons of the cottage industry of writer's block complicate her problem further. They promise magical solutions to a mythical problem. Nothing un-blocks her. That's because writing is not one thing or one skill. It combines many things and many skills. Writing requires styles and strategies as well as knowledge and thinking. These areas of writing continue to shift depending on the genre, purpose, and audience of writing. Every new task of writing, then, challenges a writer, and asks for text- and tone-specific techniques. That frustrates and confuses a writer to affect her performance. She mistakenly calls it a writer's block. As she persists, she performs. And the writer's block disappears. So, how do we deal with a writer's block? By writing, of course!
Mohammad Shamsuzzaman is an Assistant Professor, Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University, Bangladesh.