Big Bad Block

I’ve been thinking a little about writer’s block lately. Haven’t had it, thank goodness, just been thinking about it.

A lot of people will tell you that writer’s block is a made-up thing. Plumbers and laborers and computer programmers don’t get writer’s block, right? You never hear a plumber say, “I just can’t fix another toilet today. I just don’t know how.” And it’s true that people who work at certain kind of jobs may find themselves hating their work, contemplating suicide rather than go to work, or desperate to change their line of work, but they rarely or never find themselves psychologically unable to do the work.

So, writers who claim to be blocked are just whining drama queens, right?

Maybe not.

I first heard about ‘the yips’ a couple of years ago, when the Red Sox acquired catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia from the Texas Rangers. There was a lot of talk about how earlier in his career Salty had suffered from the yips.

What the hell, I thought, are ‘the yips?’

In baseball, ‘the yips’ are when a player suddenly loses their ability to throw the ball. There’s nothing physically wrong with the afflicted player, he just suddenly can’t get the ball to go anywhere near where he wants it to. Similar symptoms can afflict other athletes as well. Golfers, too.

Usually, the player can work through it and regain their old form. It’s a psychological block, not a physical condition.

Hmm. Block? Yes, so it would seem. Professional athletes can suffer from a condition very much like writer’s block, where they suddenly lose the ability to do something that they used to do as naturally as breathing.

I thought this was very interesting and it made me wonder about those plumbers. Their work isn’t typically very high-pressure, like playing professional sports, or creative, like writing. (Not to take anything away from plumbers; what they do is essential, and often hard and dirty work. But they rarely have to create something completely new, or do their work in front of an audience of tens of thousands of people.) How about other creative professions, what some people call ‘knowledge workers.’ Do they suffer from anything like writer’s block?

Yes, it seems like they do. (So much for Eben Hewitt’s claim that no one has ever said such a thing.)

So do musicians. Probably a lot of other creative professions too.

And it turns out that every now and then, when faced with something that requires creative thinking, plumbers get blocked too. Just like writers, programmers, and musicians. I bet it also happens to carpenters, architects, engineers, and all sorts of other people that we rarely hear about being ‘blocked.’

Sometimes people who are called on to come up with something new just draw a blank. They can’t figure out what comes next. They’re just stuck. Athletes can become stuck at the point where they have to release the ball or swing the club, commit to acting and whatever result is going to come from it.

I think there’s a similar underlying psychological issue at the root of these blocks and yips. Sometimes the part of our brain that spits out new ideas, the part that works under pressure, just quits on us. Then you’re stuck with trying to coax it back out of hiding.

As for what to do about your block, if you’ve got one, well, I don’t really have any new ideas there. It’s been talked to death. Maybe just knowing that it’s not just you, that it’s not even just writers, is some comfort. I still think that the best way out of writer’s block is to not get it in the first place, and the best way to do that is to follow Hemingway’s old advice: Never write yourself dry. Always stop for the day while you still know what’s going to happen next, so when you sit down the next day you already know what you’re going to write, at least to start with.

If you’ve got it, though, good luck to you. You’ve probably heard all the familiar advice for getting unstuck (just start typing anything at all, etc.) and it’s either worked or it hasn’t. The most interesting idea I came across while researching this post is from the Rhythm Creation article linked above. “Limit the equipment you use to produce your tracks.” (There are actually several ideas in that article that can be applied to writing, but I thought this was the most interesting.) If sitting at the computer and banging at your keyboard (or sitting at your computer and not banging on the keyboard) isn’t working for you, take a pen and notepad and go outside somewhere. Sit under a tree or on a bench in the mall and scribble the old fashioned way. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t write anything?

Or you could go fix some toilets.

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