The REAL Reasons Behind Writer’s Block (Day 10)

A former student of mine wrote me an email, to which I still have not replied. Ever since I have received that email, I keep on telling myself that I will write back.

The issue is that I received it four years ago.

It matters not how many good intentions you have (and as the proverb goes, you know where those can take you) if you do not act upon them. It seriously distresses me to think just how much sheer energy I have wasted by merely thinking about writing back, but not actually doing so. If the matter has concerned me for but 15 seconds per day for the past four years—and that is a very conservative estimate—then that would mean that, cumulatively, over 24 hours of my life have been literally wasted on first worrying about, and then delaying, an otherwise very simple task. Further, the reason for which I kept on putting it off is because I did not reply to it as soon as I got the email. It was that initial error of reading the message and not immediately responding that made me feel embarrassed about not responding afterwards. Imagine how awkward it would be to send him an email response now! Let bygones be bygones.

The real issue, however, is that this is not an isolated case. The same pattern can be seen in so many people’s daily lives. I myself am starting to see how this is part of the foundation upon which writer’s block develops.

When we delay, we stray.

It is thus imperative that we not lose momentum with our art. One simple deferral to tomorrow, and we suddenly find our whole artistic project in disarray. And when we do postpone a task, often the task itself is hardly ever very daunting; but it is the continual “putting it off” that transforms a little duty into a major burden.

The truth, however shocking, is that so many artists, even ones who have been successful in the past, choose to remain blocked. Too many artists make the choice to put the cork on their creative output.

The Free Will of the Blocked Artist

Surely, some artists are blocked and truly want to “unblock”—and they will, given enough time. Others are blocked and of their own volition decide to remain in such a state. This, of course, begs the question: why? Why would anyone choose to remain blocked? There are three possibilities:

1. Laziness. To achieve anything in life requires effort, and art, by virtue of its nature, requires a massive amount of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Think of it this way: many people dream of having a perfect beach body, but how many are willing to make the sacrifice of time (i.e. exercising) and healthy dieting (i.e. giving up the sweets)?

The reality is that a lot of people dream of becoming writers, musicians, fashion designers, visual artists, etc.—but only a small minority are willing to delay gratification through sacrifice for the fulfillment of their dreams. They would much rather waste their 15 seconds a day sighing over how nice it would be if they could create art, than actually getting to it. These are artists who remain blocked due to their own laziness.

2. Unwilling to Change Lifestyle. For some artists, there is a very precise vice for which they remain blocked, and deep down they know what this is, even though they may not want to admit it even to themselves.

Let’s consider the writer who works during the day and would, theoretically, write at night; but this writer is quite the social butterfly, and cannot seem to find the time to write. He complains that there is not enough time in the day, that if only he could find a wealthy benefactress who would support him while he quit his job and wrote full-time, that surely then he would write. It is all hogwash, of course, and he knows it: he cannot write not because he hasn’t the time, but because he consciously chooses not to make the time. He is living in a state that is not conducive to his writing (i.e. by not making any time for it) and he does not want to give up his vice (i.e. excessive socializing), however counter-productive it is.

3. Victimhood. This third reason is the most insidious, and therefore the most difficult to admit. It is, perhaps, the most widespread. Many artists choose—again, however unconsciously they choose it does not negate the fact that it is nevertheless an exercise of their will—to exist in a state of victimhood.

If you are a victim, that means that there is a perpetrator on whom the blame can be put. An artist who wallows in a state of victimhood effectively deresponsibalizes [sic—my own neologism] himself and so there is both an excuse not to create, as well as a bully to blame.

We all have our hang-ups. Tom blames his artist’s block on his father who never encouraged him to paint; Dick points the finger to his grade four teacher who ridiculed him in front of the class for his short stories; and Harriett indicts the entire society that just watched as she, like so many others, grew up poverty and never had the opportunity to pursue her art.

Where there are problems of artist’s block, there are often issues of victimhood. Everyone could find someone to blame; and it is much easier to be held back than to go forward. But success is reached only by those who consciously decide to move onward and overcome whatever obstacles lie between them and their goals. Acknowledge your hurt, forgive those who discouraged or stopped you (even if they are neither sorry not cognizant of your hurt), and get on with your art. Cultivate the talents that were given to you at your birth.

The Surest Way to Create

There are three main ingredients to remove the cork from your artistic block.

1. Prayer. Pray for strength and direction. Nothing will work without this fundamental element.

2. Personal Sacrifice. Accept that your endeavour will not be possible without a certain degree of sacrifice. Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor, but when Pope Julius II commissioned him to paint the Sistine ceiling, he buckled down and got it done. It was tortuous work, and in his suffering he created unparalleled beauty.

3. Get Working. You can pray until kingdom come, but if you just sit there staring at the heavens, nothing will happen. Do what needs to get done. Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, I promise you that it will be discouraging at times—but carry on. Go forward. Take the leap of faith. Create. It will bear fruit.

Inspire Through Beauty

Why we still gaze in awe at the work of certain artists despite the passage of decades, centuries, and even millennia? Because they had the ability to inspire.

Through your art you will be able to inspire others.

When young artists will come to you, despairing and green in the face because they are stuck in a bout of writer’s block, through your own example you will be able to give them a reason for hope.