Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

"On Writer's Block" by Victoria Nelson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993)

If writer's block is an inability to write when there's a desire/need to, I seldom have it. I don't need to write, and if a writing session's not going well, I get on with something else. I write only when I want to. I sometimes feel blocked if the conditions are seemingly ideal for writing (alone on a train journey say) but nothing happens. Nowadays, if I know such an opportunity will arise, I prepare by not writing for the week before, collecting fragments instead. I agree with this author when she writes

  • The vast majority of cases of writer's block examined in this book can be labeled healthy, instinctive reactions to an attempt at self-falsification - whether you are trying to live up to a self-image as a perfect writer, a poet-prophet of your time, an eight-hour-a-day writer, or whatever (p.112)
  • It's important to realize that "wanting to write" is a time-honored fantasy for many, equivalent to escaping to a desert island (p.22)
  • [writer's block] is a healthy reaction of the organism to an inner state of imbalance (p.29)

I have more trouble with her assertion that "One must love oneself to engage in the spontaneous playfulness of the creative act" (p.5). She backs up her claims thus -

  • the act of creating art involves the whole person (p.34)
  • True works of art ... grow out of a deeper stratum of emotional and spiritual resources within the human being (p.74)
  • A writer who taps a large hidden reservoir of self-hatred every time he makes deep contact with himself is not likely to want to tarry in the mode of self-communion (p.6)

Her guiding analogy is that creativity is a childlike aspect - after all children don't get writer's block - What is creativity? Above all, it is play, the child's fresh spontaneity (p.3). And children don't like being told off - "A writer must have the humility to approach his problems as a human first, an artist second ... if we do not grow up, neither will our works" (p.xi). She offers several reasons for writer's block, and some of the consequences -

  • Where ignorance of psychology is coupled with artistic self-aggrandizement, writer's block - or, more properly, resistance to writing, a natural element of the creative process - becomes a wonderfully blank screen on which to project the demons whose real territory lies elsewhere in the psyche (p.x)
  • The less you have done of something, after all, the harder it is to do (p.24)
  • the would-be writer's only recourse in protecting his narcissism is to leave everything he starts unfinished (p.77)
  • Thus we have "thesis block," a time-honored ... means of prolonging a carefree extended childhood as well as exacerbating long-buried feeling of inadequacy (p.78)
  • After perfectionism and narcissism (and feeding into both), the eternal youth phenomenon is one of the cornerstones of writer's block (p.79)
  • The classic shortcut between excessive ambition and unrealized accomplishment is the abuse of alcohol or drugs, which keeps the ego euphoric and unnaturally inflated (p.70)
  • As a delaying tactic that keeps the writer from embarking on a new adventure, obsessive rewriting is a highly effective manifestation of the block ... by clinging to the relics of his writing past, he is traveling in the opposite direction from artistic growth (p.103)

And I agree with several of her solutions, many of which seek to reduce the desire to write, either by investigating where that need comes from, or (just as an experiment) giving up writing for a while.


  1. Dear Tim

    An interesting summary. I tend to take the view that if people have no ideas or inspiration, then they shouldn't be writing anyway. In my own case, I didn't think that I'd write a second book or a third and I've now written nineteen which shows that the creative process can be fairly mysterious. Superstitiously, I avoid discussing a book until it's finished - just in case it never is!

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish

    1. I think many people nowadays (especially those involved with Creative Writing) are required to write (and get published) even if they've nothing much to say. I always have several pieces on the go, so rarely feel frustrated.