On Writer’s Block: Advice from Twelve Writers


On Writing


Our Writers at Work series, which spans sixty-five years of interviews with nearly four hundred writers, offers no shortage of advice. Should this multitude seem daunting, fear not! The editors of The Paris Review have combed through the series and sorted the best tips and tricks into tidy categories meant to guide you through the authorial landscape.

In The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from “The Paris Review” Interviews, readers can learn how Eudora Welty and E. B. White revised their prose, what Vladimir Nabokov and Dorothy Parker thought about their editors, how Elena Ferrante and Eileen Myles face success (and failure), how Kurt Vonnegut and Truman Capote dealt with their critics, and much more. The Writer’s Chapbook has it all, from tips on how to begin a work to advice for (and against) writing under the influence.

Below is an excerpt from the chapter “Do You Ever Get Writer’s Block?” If you’re hungry for more, you can preorder The Writer’s Chapbook today for $15. But hurry, this discounted price is only available for a limited time.

“You can always write something. You write limericks. You write a love letter. You do something to get you in the habit of writing again, to bring back the desire.” —Erskine Caldwell

“If I get frustrated, I’ll go eat something, I’ll go open another Diet Coke, I’ll go to the barn, I’ll distract myself, and then the parts in my brain that were working click and I get an idea. I read an article about how to learn to play a musical instrument. You practice, practice, practice on Friday, then you walk away. And then when you sit down on Saturday, you’re better. Not only because of all the practice, but also because of the walking away. I’m a firm believer in walking away.” —Jane Smiley

“I have three rules to live by. One, get your work done. If that doesn’t work, shut up and drink your gin. And when all else fails, run like hell!” —Ray Bradbury

“I would look at the words on the page—still do—and think, This is so naive. This is so stupid. Who’s going to want to read this? How will I ever get another sentence out? Of course, every writer is vulnerable on that score. To the degree that you become a writer whose life is richly experienced through the work, you are, I believe, less tormented by that particular demon, and book by book the work will find itself deepening, paving the way for the very best a writer is capable of.” —Vivian Gornick

“They tell me that success is a terrible test of people. Thank God I’ve never had to undergo it. But nationwide success with money pouring in will kill lots of writers. Ross Lockridge, who wrote Raintree County, and Thomas Heggen, the author of that novel about a ship, Mister Roberts, both committed suicide. It was always said that Gilbert Seldes’s review of The Great Gatsby, which was ecstatic, probably damaged Scott Fitzgerald. The trouble is that after something like that, every work has to count … every word has to live up to this marvelous praise. The poor author gets stage fright.” —Malcolm Cowley

“The funny thing is that you get to a certain point and you can’t quit. Because I always worried: If you quit, you’ll quit again. The only way out was to go forward, to learn your way and write your way out of it.” —John McPhee



“Then, of course, [Carson McCullers] was terribly affected by not being able to write. It was a murderous thing, a deathblow, that block. She said she just didn’t have anything to write. And really, it was as though she had never written. This happens to writers when there are dead spells. We die sometimes. And it’s as though we’re in a tomb; it’s a death. That’s what we all fear, and that’s why so many of us become alcoholics or suicides or insane—or just no-good philanderers. It’s amazing that we survive, though I think survival in some cases is kind of misgiven and it’s a bore. It was written recently about Saul Bellow that one of the best things about him is that he survived, he didn’t become an alcoholic, he didn’t go mad and so forth. And that the true heroism of him lies simply in his endurance. That’s the way we look at artists in America.” —William Goyen

“I wonder, when a writer’s blocked and doesn’t have any resources to pull himself out of it, why doesn’t he jump in his car and drive around the USA? I went last winter for seven thousand miles and it was lovely. Inexpensive, too. A lot of places—even good motels—are only twenty-five dollars in the winter, and food isn’t much because there aren’t any good restaurants. You pack along a bunch of stomach remedies and a bottle of whiskey.” —Jim Harrison

“I’m definitely more a cabinetmaker than a tormented artist. Not that writing comes easy. I don’t know about cabinetmakers, but I often get stuck. Then I get sleepy and have to lie down. Or I make myself leave the house—walking sometimes produces a solution. The problem is usually one of logic or point of view.” —Janet Malcolm

“It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.” —John Steinbeck

“I’ve gone through periods of not writing anything, but I’ve never felt blocked. I think it’s just a lazy-thinking kind of cliché, this idea of writer’s block. In a very obviously lavatorial way, it suggests that you’ve got something in you and you can’t get it out because of the blockage. So you’re straining away, and then it becomes more and more blocked. Whereas I’ve gone through phases where I just haven’t had anything to say. That’s made life a bit boring because, well, I’ve always had plenty of time, and without writing the days are pretty long—though as you get older they speed past pretty quickly anyway. And I’ve gone through phases where I’ve  dreaded  the idea of writing. Writer’s dread. Now there’s a subject for an essay—if one could face writing it. Another thing I am persuaded of is that I’ll run out of fiction to write long before I give up writing the other stuff—even though that means we’ve come full circle and I am now admitting a distinction I began by denying. Maybe we should start over?” —Geoff Dyer

“[What does it sound like when you get stuck?] Fuck. Shit. Don’t. Fuck. You dumb bitch—who ever told you that you could write? That’s what it sounds like.” —Mary Karr