The psychology of writer’s block

Recently, I read this Writer Unboxed piece by Julianna Baggott that asks, “Is writer’s block a form of self-protection?” I’m always intrigued by theories that writer’s block is something other than laziness (because that’s what the mean “YOU MUST WRITE” voice in my head tells me it is).

Baggott suggests that writer’s block isn’t “failure.” She writes:

“There are times when writing – the time and space for self-expression – seems dangerous and/or frivolous.  There are times when a writer is overwhelmed with life, maybe even trauma or profound grief, when the page is impossible. The writer, recently reeling from a difficult experience, can be too vulnerable to open up. The writer can be so necessarily focused on survival that writing can’t be rationalized…Writer’s block can happen when the need for self-protection is stronger than the need for self-expression.”

This makes sense to me, but I think there are non-traumatic times when writing doesn’t happen, too. What’s going on then?

Baggott writes about a friend of hers who decided to stop writing years ago and claimed not to miss it. Suddenly, one day, he told his therapist that he felt like writing–“an old desire bubbling up.” What sense could be made of all those years spent not writing?

Baggott explains:

“One of the refrains this writer seemed to tell himself was that he didn’t want to write; and if he didn’t want to write, he didn’t have to be disappointed when he couldn’t write, due to his busy life. If he didn’t want to write, he didn’t have to send his work out and get rejected. Writing was dangerous and so was simply wanting to write. He didn’t identify with the term writer’s block because he wasn’t blocked. He wasn’t blocked because he didn’t want. He was safe inside of that rationale for a long time. But once he dealt with other things, he didn’t need to be safe. He felt that he could allow risks on the page and in the business of writing, too.”

The psychology of it is this: “When the inner critic tells the writer that the work isn’t good enough so don’t even try, the critic is trying to protect the vulnerable part of the writer from being activated by a fear of failure. The writer needs to thank that voice for its concern and then reassure the critic that the warning, though well-intentioned, is unnecessary. The writer needs to make it clear that he can write and will survive.”

What I take from this is that it’s normal to recoil sometimes. There’s no point in attaching judgment to it. Life hardships are sometimes to blame. Other times, the “block” stems from the writer’s need to gather his/her strength in the face of self-criticism and doubt. The writer needs to feel safe before it’s possible to create authentic stories.

As Baggott writes:
“Once self-protection is no longer the order of the day, the need for self-expression can come to the fore. But here’s the thing. The need for self-expression was there all along – trying to be good, trying to be a quiet engine, hushing its own want, pacing the ribcage like something that’s only truly alive when allowed to be feral. It’s our job to unlock the cage, to sniff the air for danger – yes, of course – but then, let loose, to roam.”


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