Writer’s block for everyone


A long-suffering reader of mine asked me if I ever struggle with writer’s block. I told her that when it comes to writing, I struggle with many things—laziness, lack of focus, a well-stocked refrigerator just down the hallway—but writer’s block isn’t one of them. That’s because writer’s block is a luxury for people who don’t have deadlines. I don’t think any of my editors would accept it as a valid reason for missing one. 

Still I know writer’s block is real. And I can’t help wondering if people in other professions suffer from their own version of it. Do pilots, firefighters and brain surgeons ever feel blocked? I don’t know the answer to that, but for all our sakes, I sincerely hope they don’t. 

Writer’s block is a psychological condition in which a writer finds herself unable to create. Her muse has abandoned her. I’m not sure if accountants and emergency medical technicians have muses so it’s possible they don’t experience block—thank goodness. But I think it’s worth exploring the possibility. 

Certainly people in all career fields regularly face deadlines and I think most would grudgingly agree that they’re a gift, a practical but not necessarily welcome gift—like getting socks for Christmas. Without some cut-off date, I’m not sure some of us would ever finish anything. I can’t speak for anyone else, but a deadline forces me to engage in the most effective writer’s block prevention technique there is: writing rubbish. I don’t know if there is an equivalent for blocked pilots and brain surgeons, and I never want to find out. 

Ideally of course the writer doesn’t stop at rubbish—and neither should the brain surgeon. All my columns follow a very predictable pattern from rubbish to passable: I have an idea I love. I think it’s brilliant. I think it will be the best thing I’ve ever written. I’m excited, inspired and motivated—for about half an hour.   

But sooner or later everything degenerates into work. This is the moment when, were it not for a deadline, I would succumb to a serious case of writer’s block or a rousing game of computer solitaire. They may or may not experience block, but I know for sure some people in other professions play solitaire on the job. You know who you are. 

When I get to this point, I begin to doubt myself. I wonder why I ever thought the idea would work. I wonder why I didn’t pursue another line of work. Hopefully appliance repair people and trial court judges don’t have to deal with this every time they begin a job.

My deadline is looming so I must resort to writing rubbish until there’s a beginning, an ending and around 500 properly punctuated, grammatically correct but mostly uninspired words in the middle. I’m not happy with what I’ve written, but I could send it off to my editors if something serious came up, say my appendix burst or I had to go to jail for a few days.  

Thankfully neither of these has happened thus far, but if you ever read one of my columns and think it isn’t up to my usual level of mediocrity you can safely assume I’ve either had emergency surgery or I’ve been arrested. 

Getting to this stage is always a comfort to me. At this point I start polishing, moving things around, exchanging one thing for another. I hope mechanics and orthopedic surgeons don’t do this. But for me, this part of the process is so fun that if I hadn’t had deadlines for the past 26 years, I might still be working on my first column. 

At last I reach the final stage: ready or not, time to send. This is the equivalent of April 15 for accountants, who if they do indeed experience block, can file an extension.

Dorothy Rosby is the author of three books of humorous essays, including I Used to Think I Was Not That Bad and Then I Got to Know Me Better. Contact drosby@rushmore.com.