As of now, there is no single clear definition that encompasses what writer's block is because every writer faces different sets of difficulties.
No one knows the self better than the self and no one knows a story better than its writer. The mental health of the writer at any given time can influence the direction that a story takes.
In "Psychotherapies for Writing Blocks", Robert Boice outlines how the field of psychology has historically concerned itself with writer's block and how he has applied clinical experience to college students with different types of blocks.
At face value, we have the term, "writer's block" to explain a set of experiences that inhibit us from using the kind of language that we feel is most appropriate to express a situation as we perceive it. Sigmund Freud didn't have the term, but he took inspiration from Friedrich Schiller.
Schiller wrote a letter to a friend on December 1, 1788 who complained to him of stymied creativity: "The reason for your complaint lies, it seems to me, in the constraint which your intellect imposes upon your imagination...Apparently it is not good- and indeed it hinders the creative work of the mind- if the intellect examines too closely the ideas already pouring in, as it were, at the gates. Regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it; perhaps, in a certain collocation with other ideas, which may seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link. The intellect cannot judge all these ideas unless it can retain them until it has considered them in connection with these other ideas. In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude."
First, intellect is hindering creativity, it is the "watcher at the gates." Without the intellect, the ideas rush in unmonitored (see monitor theory). However, something that I find interesting is that most recent articles that cite this letter by Schiller leave out his perspective on "an idea in isolation," focusing only on the watcher in the gates without a more substantive idea of what they represent.
One way that the intellect can keep creativity at bay is that it can isolate and dismiss ideas without putting them alongside other ideas. Schiller is advocating withdrawing the watcher briefly such that these ideas can come together. Then, he invites the watcher back to connect those ideas. In short, the watcher is not the enemy.
A lot of writers drew inspiration from this, creating their own plans and rituals for subverting their blocks through the analogy of the watcher at the gate.
Edmund Bergler was the first psychoanalyst, according to Boice, to write about the topic of writer's block at length through more of the lens that we understand it today. It was treated very differently, though, and it was in Bergler's view that, "Normal people don't feel compelled to write" (Bergler, 1950).
In this case, "normal" is derogatory and his stance is very absolute. According to Bergler, writers hate both their audience and their critics, but they keep feeding into that hatred by continuing to write. He called writer's block a "neurotic disease" and, at the same time, questions its existence. He also wrote approximately twelve pages and two further articles on the subject. Writers have since reclaimed the term and use it how they see fit.
Some writers are more bitter and/or have a complicated relationship with their readers and critics, but today, we can recognize that this isn't universally true. We can recognize when feedback is constructive rather than destructive and use that as a means to improve, and improvement is desired. Something that Boice didn't touch on is that the writers who sought help from Bergler [if those were the circumstances] were likely looking for methods by which they could improve their lives, creatively or otherwise. However, Bergler saw them only as his vision of what a writer is, and not as an individual with needs that stem from their creativity. It's possible, though this is just speculation, that Bergler didn't see creativity as a need.
Creative pursuits don't require utility to be of worth, they just happen to have it in spades.
While Bergler's publication did outline some causes that his patience with writer's block experienced, Boice states that he devoted too much of his language to criticizing and dismissing his patients and not enough on describing the therapeutic methods he employed.
As the discourse grew, so did the substance of studies on writer's block, which we now understand is not a mental illness in and of itself. Boice states that the field of psychology has a lot to offer writers who face the experience of writer's block, not that it is any writer's shortcoming.
"It is a story that," he says, "promises to get better."
Thank you to every reader who has given me feedback on posts thus far and thank you to those who I consulted about this post in particular.
Next week, I will be covering the next chapter in The Sense of Style. Again, these reviews are not as in-depth as my reviews on older works. I do recommend that any reader who wants to follow along with my engagement buy a copy of Steven Pinker's book. While we are nearing the end of my series on When a Writer Can't Write, this is not the end of Purposeful Prose's discussion of writer's block.
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As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Bergler, E. (1950). Does" writer's block" exist?. American Imago, 7(1), 43-54.
Boice, R. (1985). Psychotherapies for writing blocks. When a writer can’t write, 182-218.
Freud, S. (1938). The Method of Dream-Interpretation. Random House.
Schiller, F. (1788, December 1). =.