Dani Shapiro
September 14, 2009

On Writer’s Block

I should begin with the question of whether it exists. What does it mean to be “blocked”? It’s a term that fills writers with dread; a steady flow of creativity suddenly stopped cold by an enormous boulder tumbling from the depths of the psyche. Writer’s block has always struck me as having a bit of magical thinking connected to it. Blocked? I mean, really? Have an espresso. Do yoga. Take a long walk. Smoke something. Switch the channels–get yourself out of it. But on the other hand, I have my superstitious side, and even as I write this I feel, just a little bit, like I’m asking for trouble by even thinking about it. Writer’s block. How is it different from a bad day, or stretch of days? How is it different from a fallow period? I have a feeling it must be very different–like the vast chasm between common unhappiness and a major depressive episode.

John Gregory Dunne once said that writer’s block is a failure of nerve. I’ve always loved that quote–I used to keep it on the bulletin board above my desk, along with a cartoon from The New Yorker, titled Writer’s Block, showing two frames of a bespeckled man. In the first frame, he’s is standing in a book-lined office, looking out a window. Temporary, the caption reads. In the second frame, the same man is standing in front door of T. Roger Claypool’s Fish Store, wearing a white apron. Beneath it, caption reads: Permanent.

Dunne’s definition of failure of nerve has helped me immeasurably over the years. It has staved off the other voices in my head–the ones that tell me I’m wasting my time, on the wrong path, taking the wrong risk (or not enough of a risk). If writing is, as I believe it to be, an act of courage–the daily triumph of faith over doubt, willingness over insecurity, hope over cynicism–then the inability to do so for days on end is a failure not of character, nor of biochemistry, but of nerve.

Each morning, when I sit down to work, my demons are lined up, waiting for me. There’s the one who tells me that nothing will ever come of whatever it is I’m working on. There’s another who tells me that I’m a horrible person for writing about my family. Still another one who tells me to fold in my towel, go back to school, do something else with my life–this, after seven books! I’ve come to realize that these demons are with me for a lifetime. Some demons whisper, some shout. Some go away for a while, then return. Futility, guilt, self-flagellation, self-consciousness, insidious doubt; all these hop up on my shoulders as I sit down to write. So it is nerve, nothing more, nothing less, that helps me to swat them away. Nerve that allows me to recognize those unwelcome visitors, to make peace with them. “Good morning,” I silently say to them, even as I push them away. I think of T. Roger Claypool’s Fish Store. “Good morning. Now, go away.”