What We Talk About When We Talk About Writer's Block

Ah, writer's block. The chupacabra of literary types the world-over. But is writer's block a real thing or just an excuse not to write? What do we even mean when we say writer's block? Writing regularly takes a lot of discipline and few of us are so perfectly dedicated that we don't go through periods where we don't write as often we should (if you do, kindly keep it to yourself). But when you have those times when you just can't put pen to paper (metaphorically speaking), what exactly is it that's stopping you?

I recently had lunch with my very wise mentor Patricia Geary (whose work you should all go read immediately) while on vacation in California. We discussed the usual things: what we were writing, what we weren't writing, who I was dating, how her family was doing. I had a lot to share about my adventures in self-publishing, but had to admit that I had not been as diligent as I wanted to be about working on my novel this past year.

I have a pretty typical publishing sob story: I've written a couple of novels, had an agent, experimented with self-publishing (just e-books, not the hard POD stuff). That's all to say that I've had my close-calls and disappointments, my ups and downs, all of it adding up to many, many more pages written than people who have read them. Pat knows the story, of course, and she pointed out that having been through all of this makes it difficult to sit back down and get going on a new book. At some point the sense of  “am I really going to sit back down and write yet another book that no one will read?” can get overwhelming. “That's what people mean when they say they have writer's block,” she said.

It rings true. Sometimes I skip a day (or ten) of writing for the same reason I might skip the gym: laziness, inertia, plain old just-don't-wanna. But sometimes it feels like something deeper. I mean I know why I go to the gym; the benefits are obvious and evident. The why regarding writing (of the creative rather than the paid variety) is somewhat less obvious and asking myself why am I doing this? can leave me not so jazzed about it and feeling downright fearful. That said, this fear cuts both ways--I've worked with plenty of writers who feel paralyzed trying to live up to a past success.

I've never been blocked in the sense that I couldn't find something to write about, couldn't pull characters or plots from my imagination that interested me. If I can get my butt in my chair for an hour a day, something will come out, it's just that sometimes that chair is the most terrifying place in the world. This is part of the reason I write when I first get out bed in the morning: there's no time to let the doubt set in. Plus, my thoughts in the early morning tend more towards mmmmm, bacon than toward existential dread.

What do you think about writer's block? Inevitable burden or mythical beast?