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Writer's Block: A Myth or Reality?

I am going to say something controversial here: I don’t believe in writer’s block.

There you go. I said it. It’s something I’ve believed for a long time and as a writing professor, I have found, semester after semester, this to be true.

I think "writer’s block" is an excuse used by the uninitiated--those who haven’t been writing long enough to recognize it for what it is.

It’s just an excuse not to write. It's in the same family as: I’m too tired to write. The house needs to be cleaned first. I don’t have time. I’ll write after my real work gets done. I can only write at night. Etc., etc.

Writing is hard and tiring and forces you to be in your head, which can be a dark and scary place. I get it. But the truth of the matter is writer’s block is an excuse for the moments when you’re squirming, when you’re dying to vacuum your house for the first time in months because that seems like the far better alternative to forcing yourself to face the blank screen and just put something down.

Why can writing be so hard sometimes?

Because we are afraid of failing. We are afraid of typing something that will be flat-out terrible because then we will be judged and we--and all our peers--will know ourselves to be the total literary frauds we are.

That fear can be stifling. It can stop us dead in our tracks and lock up the words, any words, deep within our chest. But fear is fear. It is something, a feeling, that can be overcome.

In the first week of each semester, I always give my undergraduate writing students Anne Lamott’s essay “Shitty First Drafts” from her inspirational book about writing (especially for those of you feeling stuck) Bird by Bird. When students are given permission to write really shitty first drafts, it takes the pressure off of them to be perfect. Because no one writes a perfect first draft. And yet, many new writers do not realize that.

I have seen so many of my nervous undergrads--many who have been working their whole lives to be perfect--admit with a great heaving sigh of relief that it was so much easier to write (yes, it even freed up any of those pesky “blocks”) when they allowed themselves to write really shitty first drafts.

A writer has to learn to be unafraid of throwing out their words with the trash, of “killing their darlings” (the old writing adage). We can't be too precious. We have to slash and burn our way through a first draft in the revision process to reach those gleaming gems beneath.

So write horribly to start! You have my permission. And sometimes that's all we really need--permission to do so. Throw away those excuses and just write. And then, of course, the revision process starts. And this is where the editing comes in. This is where feedback, other readers, and a distanced perspective are needed to help light the way to your shining gems.


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