The first known victim of writer’s block is the English poet, literary critic, philosopher, and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote his most famous lines in his twenties. At the age of 32, he made the following diary entry in 1804: “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. — O Sorrow and Shame. . . . I have done nothing!” He described his writer’s block as “an indefinite indescribable Terror,” and refrained from writing poetry. To him and his peers, writer’s block was due to a power that prevented him from writing. What can we learn from this interpretation for our times and our writing?
The modern notion of writer’s block
Coleridge is one of the primary known cases of what we call writer’s block. There are different forms of writer’s block. While for some, it means that they stop writing altogether. For others, it can be that they can no longer tap into their literary capital and feel like their pieces are no longer worthy of publishing.
Given the nature of the writer’s block, it must have always existed. However, its existence was first mentioned by early English Romantics as something metaphysical. To Coleridge, there was a power looming. Poetry was something external, whimsical, and magical. By contrast, before writing was a skill controlled by the individual. In viewing meaningful poetry as a gift provided by supernatural power, the power was, in return, capable of withdrawing writing capability, the author’s poetic talent.
The French Symbolists, who, after the English Romantics, became famous for not writing very much, saw things quite differently. This group of authors includes Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry. For them, it was not a power that prevented them from writing, but the limitations and narrowness of language. It was, therefore, neither a metaphysical nor a psychological phenomenon.
Edmund Bergler and the psychoanalytical view of things
The first person to coin the current term writer’s block was the psychologist Edmund Bergler. He had previously dealt intensively with the phenomenon, researching it for over two decades. In her article “How to Beat Writer’s Block,” Maria Konnikova describes his studies’ motives and motivation. She concludes that he described the writers as patients suffering from “neurotic inhibitions,” unable to create. He wanted to understand why they weren’t able to create and why. That this might be a challenging undertaking is shown in the essay by analyst Kaplan, which appeared much later. In it, he drew a picture of his artistic patients who did not care why they were blocked but instead wanted to take advantage of the creative time they had while they still had it. And this must have been the crux of Berger’s research. He concluded that blocked authors weren’t lazy after conducting various interviews, nor had they drained themselves. To him, there was no evidence that they lacked motivation, and they weren’t bored — so what exactly were they then?
In his 1950 paper called “Does Writer’s Block Exist?,” published in American Imago, the successor magazine of the original Imago journal founded in 1939 by Freud, Bergler looks at writers from a psychoanalyst point of view. Therefore, a writer tries to solve internal problems with writing as the medium of choice. Since the origins of writing derive from within the writer, the only way to heal the writer’s block, according to Bergler, was to solve the personal psychological problem and remove the blockage. It leaves the question of how much therapy would look like and — more importantly, a blocked psyche?
The aversion to solitude
Later research by psychologists such as Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios showed that writers who showed signs of writer’s block were much unhappier than writers who did not. According to Konnikova, the authors studied by Singer and Barrios noticed symptoms like increased self-criticism and reduced excitement and pride at work. Furthermore, the writers described self-doubt phases, procrastination, feelings of helplessness, and “aversion to solitude” — a significant problem since writing requires time alone. At the end of their study into writer’s block, they discovered four general types:
Within the first group, stress and anxiety dominated. This deep emotional stress affected the writing, thus sucking all the joy out of writing.The second group faced stress, and unhappiness originated in interpersonal experiences. Therefore, the negative effect on their writing was due to emotional distress, anger, and irritation at others.The third group was described as apathetic and disengaged.While the fourth group expressed strong emotions, even being hostile. They were very negative instead of merely sad.
According to their findings, all writers with writer’s block shared some of the same experiences: being less motivated, feeling less ambitious, and a decreased joy to write. Despite certain similarities, singer and barrios were able to show that unhappy writers were blocked differently. In this respect, they confirmed Berger’s insight and thus contradicted the Romantics’ metaphysical view like Coleridge.
Trust in the creative process
In his co-edited volume called “The Psychology of Creative Writing,” Scott Barry Kaufman found that allowing error into the process of writing can have a positive effect, thus being essential to overcome writer’s block. He pointed out the nonlinear process any creative craft can take, and therefore made a point to emphasize the fact that one has to trust the writing process. When we look back at the findings and the first observations on writer’s block stemming from the early Romantics, it makes sense why they would look at writer’s block from a metaphysical point of view. When applying this external framework of thoughts and explanations, in essence, it shows the trust that it can come back. Furthermore, there is the belief that writing is a talent, a gift. Unlike the impression of something to be given back, today, we believe that one can make it come back. Or, as Kaufmann puts it, “creative people do a lot of trial and error and rarely know where they are going exactly until they get there.”
We are all people with feelings, injuries, and experiences. From the same feelings, which are the source of brilliant novels, articles, drawings, and everything creative, doubts and fears of failure arise. To overcome writer’s block has a lot to do with overcoming internal and external judgment. Later on in his life, Samuel Taylor Coleridge turned out a great deal of journalism and literary criticism in his later years. However, he still saw himself as disabled because he wasn’t writing serious poetry.
Sometimes, it may feel as if someone has the gift of writing wonderfully because of you, as long as you endure this time, to be all the happier that the present, the talent is back again. Unlike the Romantics, however, I don’t believe that the talent was taken, but instead, life taking its course, burying it over some time, only for it to resurface again.
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