Writing and Writing anxiety: What is writer’s block? Does it even exist?

Most advice for writers relies on the basic idea that one must be disciplined, keep a writing schedule, and really write when scheduled to write.  That’s all good advice. However, with respect to that advice, there is a question that many ask: what about writer’s block?  Many books on writing basically argue that “writer’s block” does not exist, and that writers just need to be self-disciplined.  This perspective does not, to me, seem useful: it doesn’t address the concerns of people who feel that they are facing some sort of writer’s block, and we would not have a familiar term like “writer’s block,” unless people had some experience that led them to use that term. 

There may be some truth that anyone who claims to be suffering writer’s block just needs to be more self-disciplined. But there’s also some truth in saying that an injured runner could finish the race if they only had more self-discipline: it’s possible to run through some injuries, but sometimes the cost is exacerbating the injury. Instead of dismissing people who say they suffer from writer’s block, it is possible instead to examine the causes of their struggles and to work to eliminate any barriers to writing successfully. The place to start is to inquire about why people might say they experience writer’s block.

Writer’s Block isn’t a simple pathology

“Writer’s block” does not exist in the same sense that COVID-19 exists. There is no single identifiable external pathogen that creates writer’s block.  Perhaps, if we want to split hairs, we can argue that writer’s block doesn’t exist because we can’t identify that single specific pathology. But, if we listen to actual writers who are struggling with their projects, it makes sense to consider the idea of writer’s block because the term makes sense to many people who struggle to write.  There are people who are very self-disciplined but who still struggle to write, and it seems a little facile to say just “well, no matter how much self-discipline you show in the rest of your life, it you’re not writing, you need more self-discipline.”  

Saying “writer’s block” doesn’t exist is a little like saying depression doesn’t exist: there is no single simple pathology to encompass all the different forms of depression, but we accept the existence of depression because we can observe patterns of behavior that fit the rubric of depression, even if the causes of that behavior are varied. Writer’s block deserves similar consideration: we can observe a pattern of behavior whose causes may be varied.

Writer’s Block is a description of certain behaviors

If writer’s block is not a specific pathology, what is it? To me, I think it useful and appropriate to think of “writer’s block” as a way to describe the experience of some writers who are struggling to write for any of a number of reasons related to emotional difficulties like depression or anxiety.  It is specifically appropriate in the context of writers who have clearly demonstrated that they competent and self-disciplined in their lives as a whole, but who struggle to manifest that competence and diligence in their writing practice. It is especially useful when thinking about writers who have produced written work in the past but are now stuck on a current project. For scholars, it is often an early-career issue centered on either the doctoral dissertation or early work for publication. Doctoral candidates and early-career scholars have typically demonstrated ability and self-discipline for years, showing the ability to manage many responsibilities (teaching, research, administrative duties, etc.) including writing assignments. Such people often demonstrate self-discipline in non-scholarly dimensions of life, too, as athletes, family members, and/or political or community activism and organizing. In such cases, it seems relevant to ask why their general self-discipline fails in the specific case of writing.

We wouldn’t want to talk about “writer’s block” when referring to someone who doesn’t have self-discipline or to someone who isn’t making any effort to write.  But if we are talking about people who do invest effort into writing, and who do demonstrate significant self-discipline in their lives, then it makes sense to talk about “writer’s block” as something that self-disciplined people experience when they try to write that interferes with writing.

Writer’s block comes from negative emotions

From my personal experience struggling to write, as well as my experience working as a writing coach to help others to write, I would say that “writer’s block” is a way to generally describe more specific emotional responses to writing, like anxiety or depression, that interfere with the clarity of thought and imagination that writing needs. People who have “writer’s block” often have lots of emotional issues specifically related to writing due to the contexts in which they learned to write.

When fear and depression impact the brain, they inhibit operation of the higher cortical areas where reasoning and imagination take place.  This neurological reality suggests that emotional struggles to write cannot simply be reduced to “you’re not trying hard enough; you’re lazy.”  If the issue was simply lack of effort, then with the application of effort, all other problems would fall away. But if the problem is related to emotions that inhibit the higher brain functions, then it is quite reasonable to assume that people who can speak about their ideas and research effectively when they feel comfortable, might also struggle when trying to write about those ideas when dealing with anxieties and doubts about writing.

Reducing emotional blocks

If I had a cure for depression or anxiety, I wouldn’t be writing this; I’d be making millions (or billions) helping people get rid of depression and anxiety.  But I do have a treatment for writing blocks that is more than just “try harder; be self-disciplined,” and it does involve reducing writing-related depression or anxiety.  Generally speaking, the treatment is to develop a healthier writing practice.

Writing need not be an agonizing experience; it can even be enjoyable. With a healthy practice, it is possible to reduce or eliminate many writing-related anxieties, and even to feel some sense of exhilaration as a writer.  A first step in the process is to identify the various emotional barriers to writing that might be experienced.  

There are lots of reasons that people hate writing that have more to do with the context in which they learned to write than with writing itself. Indeed, a given individual might have many reasons that they dislike or fear writing. The very idea that writing is unpleasant—not an uncommon idea—is largely just the zoomed-out description of an experience that would, under a magnifying glass, reveal many smaller, more specific discomforts that combine into a general emotional malaise that impacts all aspects of writing.

Identifying specific emotional issues

Part of developing a healthy writing practice is to identify the various concerns that impact the writing process and to try to reduce or eliminate those concerns as much as possible.  If you think that writing, generally, is unpleasant, you can start by exploring what specific aspects of writing are unpleasant. For many, the fear of being criticized is a big part of the problem. So, too, is the fear of being incapable of the work. There are, it hardly need be said, those who have physical problems that make writing physically painful.

Whatever the specific causes of writing discomfort, the better they are identified, the easier it is to see that writing itself is not necessarily painful, and can actually be a positive experience.  It seems undeniable that some people enjoy writing—if you know such a person, you may resent them and think them a little crazy, perhaps. Regardless, writing can be an enjoyable and rewarding process in the same way that many skilled activities, like music, art, and athletics, can be enjoyable: there are attendant difficulties and frustrations, but the activity is worth the effort and is generally positive.

Writing past anxiety

Specific anxieties can be addressed and reduced to the point that they no longer block the application of self-discipline.  It may not be possible to completely eliminate writing anxieties: doubts about the outcome of your efforts are reasonable.  But if those anxieties can be reduced even a little, it is often enough to get moving again. If you are generally self-disciplined, and only have trouble applying that discipline to your writing, it’s often the case that the self-discipline that serves in other contexts will be enough if the emotional barriers to writing are reduced by even a small amount: once your anxiety is a little lower, your self-discipline might be enough to get you over the emotional threshold and into a habit of writing more productively.