Illustration: Graziano Origa
I hate the term “writer’s block.” First cited in the OED in 1950—plain old block was in use as early as ‘31—it feels like a dismissive term for a whole host of terrifying phenomena. Besides, if you write, the concept is scary: to acknowledge its existence is to acknowledge that it could happen to you.
Nineteen fifty may seem recent, but it’s not as if creative people didn’t find themselves in dry spells before that. Perhaps they just knew it as an inextricable part of the process—the brain lying fallow—not a lack so much as another component.
Certainly I can’t admit to it. And I’ve never wanted to presume that I could: writer’s block has always seemed to me the province of those burdened by genius. It’s one thing for Nietzsche or Joseph Mitchell to fall into tortuous unproductivity; they have created work for the ages. When they experience the abyss they’re failing not merely themselves (they must think) but the larger world to whom they owe artistic responsibility.
Those of us who do workmanlike, quotidian writing might well fall prey to burnout—the brain can only work so much, even if the product is flying into Internet ether. Indeed, hack work can exhaust you profoundly; I’ve never felt more drained than when I was writing ten posts a day for an online job. But it’s like the exhaustion of a hangover, rather than that of wholesome physical exercise. And just as with a hangover, rest isn’t always a luxury one can afford.
This is not, for instance, a post I much admire. But as Charles Bukowski once said, “writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” And he’s a man who knew from hangovers.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.
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