Writer’s block can afflict even the most experienced writers. Without warning, the blank white page towers up in front of you like an insurmountable iceberg. The pen runs dry. The empty, unscratched page curls up and dies. The keyboard falls silent. The screen goes dark.
Although many writers have dismissed writer’s block as being nothing more than an excuse for laziness, there have been many famous examples of writer’s block. Samuel Taylor Coleridge didn’t overcome the writer’s block that hit him in his late twenties. Both Truman Capote and Harper Lee struggled for decades to follow up on initial literary successes. Even the prolific Leo Tolstoy found himself blocked for years at a time.
Without warning, the blank white page towers up in front of you like an insurmountable iceberg.
The white demon can emerge from many sources.
For some writers, the quest for perfection eventually makes any progress impossible, as word after word fails to meet their most exacting standards. The great becomes the enemy of the good.
For others, imposter syndrome takes hold, and they begin to lose faith in their ability to write. Others measure themselves against the most successful authors in their chosen genre and inevitably find themselves wanting.
Sometimes, writers simply lose interest in what they’re writing, and they then correctly see this as a sign that readers are likely to lose interest too. And for some writers, fear of criticism or rejection overwhelms any desire to even try to be creative.
Overcoming Writer’s Block
As there are many causes, there are also many remedies.
Having realistic expectations is a good life strategy in any circumstance, and it is particularly useful when approaching writing. It’s good to let imagination soar unfettered for a time, but eventually reality must kick in. Expecting inspiration to strike every time you confront the page is unrealistic.
Hitting creative flow, when the juices are in full torrent, is one of the great joys of writing. But many days, you simply have to do the legwork before you hit your stride. And some days, you barely get beyond a grudging shuffle as you drag yourself from word to word. Days like this are to be expected.
Many writers say that you simply have to write your way through a block – if necessary, faking it until you feel it. Remember, you won’t write a word until you’ve written a word. Some days, you’re just rehearsing and practicing. And good enough is good enough for now.
When battling writer’s block, it’s also helpful to temporarily silence the inner critic. There’ll be plenty of time for cold, heartless editing later. Until then, just throw yourself into the task and write something, anything. Free writing and streams of consciousness can be effective ways of charging up the creative engines.
If the piece you’re working on fails to inspire you anymore, maybe it’s time to put it back in the drawer (or even bury it deep in the garden). Work on another creative project, or even some mundane writing tasks. Shift your focus so that you don’t get entangled in frustration when your writing fails to spark.
Often, you have to literally walk away from the desk and take a break from it all. Some writers find meditation or physical exercise a good way to tackle writer’s block. The feeling of walking (or running) away from a problematic text can be all it takes to find the strength to return to it refreshed later.
My Pencil Won’t Write No More
Songwriters too can experience writer’s block. Some have even written songs about not being able to write any more songs. Check out Bell X1’s “My First Born for a Song”, for example.
And what about blues singers? What do they do when inspiration dries up? What happens when their pencil doesn’t want to write anymore?
Well, let’s ask Bo Carter.
A delta bluesman, Bo Carter once played with The Mississippi Sheiks. (His brothers also played in the group.) However, he’s best remembered today for his solo recordings in the 1930s. A skilled guitar player and engaging singer, he also had a penchant for “dirty blues”.
Even in our more permissive modern times of freedom of expression, some early dirty blues songs still have the power to raise a startled eyebrow. (Don’t believe me? Listen to “Shave ‘Em Dry”, recorded by Lucille Bogan in 1935. 1935! Be warned: it would make Madonna blush.)
When Bessie Smith sang, “I need a little sugar in my bowl”, she wasn’t celebrating her sweet tooth. When Maggie Jones asked, “Anyone here want to try my cabbage?”, she wasn’t opening a nice sedate bistro on the seafront. And when Lil Johnson sang, “Just put your hot dog in my bun”, she certainly wasn’t operating a fast-food franchise.
Bo Carter’s song titles at times read like a litany of food-related double entendres: “Banana in Your Fruit Bowl”; “Let Me Roll Your Lemon”; “Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me”; and even 1930’s “Please Warm My Weiner”. (Yes, you read that last one correctly!)
Even when a verse starts off innocently enough, as in “All Around Man” (a song later covered by Rory Gallagher), it soon takes a detour to the bawdy house:
Now I ain’t no miller,
No miller’s son.
I can do your grinding
Till the miller man comes.
So what do Bo Carter and his varied menu have to do with writer’s block? In 1931, when he was in his late thirties, Carter recorded “My Pencil Won’t Write No More”. It would seem to be the perfect expression of writer’s block:
Now listen here, folks, there's one thing sure,
My old pencil won't write no more,
Because the lead's all gone, oh the lead's all gone,
Oh the lead's all gone, the pencil won't write no more.
Except, of course, Carter wasn’t really talking about writer’s block. This fact stands out in the second verse:
I lay down at my bed, just to write a line,
I could feel my old pencil droopin' forward all the time.
What’s the source of Carter’s pencil problems? As is often the case in blues songs, the trouble begins with a woman:
I met a hot mama, I wanted to love her so bad.
I lost all the lead in my pencil I had.
Now, the lead's all gone, oh the lead's all gone.
Blues music is often the cocksure crowing of sexual bravado. However, for even the most lustful of singers, the pleasures of the flesh can eventually take their toll on the flesh:
I hugged and kissed her all last night, It wasn't nothin' doin', my old pencil wouldn't write, Because the lead's all gone, oh the lead's all gone.
Carter’s pencil was not irreparably damaged, however. He continued to record and find modest success throughout the 1930s, before fading into blues obscurity. He died in 1964.
Except, of course, Carter wasn’t really talking about writer’s block.
The motif of broken pencils would continue to recur in blues music after the lead ran out of Carter’s pencil. Most famously, the mythic Robert Johnson scratched this same page in his 1935 recording of Johnny Temple’s “Lead Pencil Blues”:
My baby told me this mornin’ she’s feelin’ mighty blue,
Lead in my pencil just won’t do.
And she said, “Been ready all night.
Lead in your pencil, daddy, just won’t write.”
Lead in my pencil, babe, it just won’t write.
And that’s the worst old feeling, baby, that I ever had.
Johnson’s babe was not going to spend the rest of her life holding on to a broken pencil:
My baby said she going to quit me, I tell you the reason why,
Lead in my pencil, gone bye-bye.
A few years after recording this, Johnson himself would be “gone bye-bye” in mysterious circumstances. But we’ll need to sharpen another pencil before we get around to telling that story some other day.