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April 25, 2016
By Betty Kelly Sargent
When it comes to being blocked, there's actually a lot that writers can do to get back on track.

Whether you are an indie author struggling to get discovered, a well-known traditionally published writer, or somewhere in between, writer’s block may sneak up on you once in a while—maybe even more than once in a while.

But what is writer’s block, anyway? Edmund Bergler, a well-known disciple of Sigmund Freud, first coined the term in New York City in 1947. He believed that writer’s block was one of the many manifestations of “psychic masochism,“ which is “the unconscious wish to defeat one’s conscious aims, and to enjoy that self-constructed defeat.”

Why would a writer (or anyone else for that matter) want to do that? Because, according to Bergler’s theory, the person’s subconscious is furious about having been denied enough milk and nurturing by his or her pre-Oedipal mother, so he or she, subconsciously, wants to recreate that starved feeling—by becoming blocked.

Bergler treated more than 40 blocked writers in the 1940s and ’50s, and claimed a 100% success rate. He didn’t think much of writers, though. He said that, for the most part, even when their writing was going well, writers were often “entirely surrounded by neuroticism in private life.” He did concede, however, that “the megalomaniac pleasure of creation... produces a type of elation which cannot be compared with that experienced by other mortals.”

These days, writer’s block is often blamed on depression. Sometimes procrastination and perfectionism are considered the culprits. Whatever the cause, writer’s block has been around for a long time. Samuel Coleridge suffered from it, as did Joseph Conrad, Gustave Flaubert, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf. The big question is, regardless of where it came from, what can a writer do about it when it strikes?

Opinions on this vary greatly. Here’s how Hemingway tried to cope with it:

"Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?"
“Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”

Norman Mailer expressed a similar opinion in The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing:

“Over the years, I’ve found one rule.... A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.”

There are those writers in what I like to call the “Just Do It” school. “The secret of getting ahead is getting started,” Mark Twain wrote. “The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Barbara Kingsolver puts it this way: “I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say, Oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.”

But my favorite way of thinking about writer’s block comes from the bestselling British fantasy writer Phillip Pullman:

“Writer’s block... a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word writer, that word was taken out and the word plumber substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?”

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. Of course there will be days when the words are not flowing freely. What you do then is make it up. I like composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s response to a student who complained that he couldn’t find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme!” he said. “Just write the movement!”

That doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me. Why not try to adopt the “Just Do It” attitude and see where it takes you?

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.