Part 1 of 3: Is "Creative Block" Really a Thing?

"Well, I haven’t given poetry up, but I rather think poetry has given me up." -- Philip Larkin

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by Philip Ruddy, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

As a therapist who helps writers, comedians and film and television professionals transcend writer's block, I'm often asked by others who aren't in the industry, "What IS "writer’s block" (or creative block) anyway? And is it really a thing?"  (The unspoken subtext often being, "Isn't that just a term that starving artists, or lazy, overpaid creatives use, when they don't feel like actually working?")

"Yes," I tell them.  "It's a thing.  Really.  And no - they're not making it up to get out of work.  What they actually want more than anything, is to get BACK to work.  Only there's a brick wall (or devouring ogre, or demonic clown, or deadly quicksand, or . . . fill in the blank here), that is preventing them. "  I've worked with enough creatives who suffer from it,  to see the ugly reality of what can occur if it goes untreated for long, including anxiety, depression, job stress (or loss), marital problems, drug or alcohol abuse, and other related life crises.  If they could just get over it - trust me - they would.  

So then what IS it - exactly? 

Part of the challenge in explaining writers block is simply defining the term. For purposes of this post, let's define it simply as:  any unwanted restriction of creative output.  (Note: I use the terms writer’s block and creative block interchangeably throughout these posts.)

Although no official diagnostic category exists for this condition in the DSM-5, in Understanding Writer’s Block: A Therapist’s Guide, psychotherapist Martin Kantor (1995) proposed diagnoses of more than 10 forms of creative or writer’s blocks, including affective spectrum disorder block, obsessive-compulsive disorder block, post-traumatic stress disorder block, and addiction block, and maintained that clients’ treatment needs differ according to the source and presentation of their block. Kantor also questioned the decision by scientific experts not to include creative block in the fourth edition of the DSM (APA, 1994) while including other far less common ailments such as the fear of going outside or eating in public (Kantor, 1995, p. 4).  I must say, I find his argument compelling. 

Historically, references to writer’s block abound, and are usually traced back to mid-century psychologist Edmund Bergler (1950, 1955), who first coined the term. A Freudian by training, Bergler viewed writer’s block as a form of “psychic masochism” and “the unconscious wish to defeat one’s conscious aims” (as cited in Ghorayshi, 2012, para. 1).  He also considered it “oral masochism, entrapment in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother” (Acocella, 2004, para. 7). American literature scholar Kevin C. Moore (2013) suggested that the broader concept of writer's block actually predates Bergler however, crediting philosopher and psychologist William James, circa 1890.  I will explore some of my own experiences and beliefs in future posts, but suffice to say for now that my leanings are closer to those of Carl Jung than the Freudians.  Whatever the origin, and however one defines the term, the fact that writers block does exist is bolstered by the legions of writers and artists who have suffered from it. 

Among the more famously afflicted were:

Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Philip Larkin, Henry Roth, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Walsh, 2008), to name a small group.  Impressive company, you say? 

Here are more:  

Novelist Henry Roth, who published his much-acclaimed book Call It Sleep, in 1934, took 60 years to complete his follow-up novel.  It was panned. (Walsh, 2008).

John Fowles (1969), best-selling author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, spent the last 20 years of his life in seclusion, working on a follow-up to his book, which he never completed (Walsh, 2008).

Southern Gothic novelist Harper Lee (1960), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and spent the rest of her life working on a second novel while simultaneously insisting she had nothing more to say (Toohey, 2011).

In his book, The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes (2003) described the life of beloved children’s book author E. B. White, who, despite having written the best-selling classics Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte’s Web (1952) and winning The Presidential Medal of freedom, the National Medal for Literature, and the Pulitzer Prize (Mitgang, 1985), once told his friend and fellow author James Thurber that he “considered himself the second most inactive writer living, and the third most discouraged” (Acocella, 2004, p. 4).

New Yorker staff writer Joseph Mitchell published an acclaimed story entitled “Joe Gould’s Secret” for the magazine in 1964 and then faithfully reported to his office for the next 32 years, where he sat, allegedly typing, but never completing another assignment (Overbey, 2013).

In 2008, Britain’s former poet laureate Andrew Motion revealed that despite years of previous creative productivity, once he received his illustrious appointment, he found himself unable to complete any poetry of significance whatsoever.  Can you imagine how that must have felt?  (Walsh, 2008).

More recently, in an interview regarding his recent TED talk “How Do You Get Over Writer's Block?” acclaimed singer-songwriter Sting (2014) revealed that after an enviably long career in which he wrote and performed dozens of hit songs and sold millions of albums, his creative muse suddenly abandoned him for almost a decade. Like others before him, he searched for spiritual and psychological insights to understand "Why?" He asked, "What have I done to offend the gods that they would abandon me so? Is this gift of songwriting taken away as easily as it seems to have been bestowed? Or perhaps, there’s a more, deeper psychological reason. It was always a Faustian pact anyway. You’re rewarded for revealing your innermost thoughts—your private emotions on the page for the entertainment of others—for the analysis, the scrutiny of others. And perhaps you’ve given enough of your privacy away." (para. 52)  

This question, “What have I done to cause this, and what can I do to restore myself?” plagues everyone with on-going creative blocks, and a cornucopia of treatment ideas have been suggested and explored over the years.  In the next post, I will explore some, as well as some of my own experiences regarding its origins, and ways that, with intention and practice, one may finally begin to heal and find relief. 

Wishing you courage and creativity!

Philip Ruddy, MA, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

Philip Ruddy, MA, LMFT, works in private practice and helps creative artists, writers, producers, directors, punks, comics, rockers and film / music professionals explore, manage and often transcend anxiety, depression, career / creative blocks, midlife transitions and relationship issues.  Call  (424) 354-3910 today for a free 15-minute consultation, and take the next step on your personal creative journey.