If You Have Writer's Block, Maybe You Should Stop Lying
It's not a technique problem, it's a sincerity problem
Perhaps you’ve complained before that you don’t have anything to write about. That your “mind has gone blank,” that you don’t have any ideas.
I don’t believe you. I know that you have mental contents, right? Your mind is constantly moving. You’re always producing judgments, attitudes, opinions, emotions, melancholy, malaise, anger, and so on. You have things to write about. What you do is just put the things in your head on the page, in basically the order they naturally occur. Flip over the rock in your mind, type about the beetles.
If you don’t want to do that, it’s because you’re not comfortable with the notion that these are the things that you actually think. You would prefer to have more sophisticated opinions, or, maybe, more reasonable opinions.
For example, let’s say you want to write about the risks posed by artificial intelligence. That seems like what all the respectable people are doing these days. But, to your horror, you can’t bring yourself to tell the world that you think AI is going to destroy humanity, because that’s not actually what you think. That is not your real belief. In fact, weirdly enough, you just kind of think that AGI won’t happen. But that’s an uncomfortable place to be—you know that lots of smart, credentialed people think otherwise, and agreeing with them would be easier in many ways.
And maybe they’re right, and you’re wrong. And maybe the thing you write will be a crock of shit. But you won’t know unless you can bear to put it down. And if you can’t even type it—forget about publishing it, we’re just talking about the initial keyboard action—that means that you don’t want to know yourself.
Maybe you persist anyway, attempting to create a verbal sketch of the person you wish you were. But it’s difficult, because, on some level, you know that you’re lying, or, at least, that your words lack conviction. And that is an ugly place to be. Sometimes, to be a resident of polite society, you have to lie, and this feels unpleasant for a moment but is usually bearable. But lying to an empty page alone in a room feels awful.
I find that this is an overlooked source of writing difficulty. I find that people often believe they have a writing technique problem, when, actually, what they have is a sincerity problem. They think that writing is onerous, when, actually, they mean that writing as if they’re someone else is onerous. If you’re not the kind of person who actually cares much about writing an epic fantasy novel, then no matter how much you think you ought to write an epic fantasy novel, it won’t feel good. This doesn’t mean never tailoring your writing to your audience, it just means that you should shape who you are into a palatable format, rather than gussying up who you’re not.
The remedy is simple, although it does involve a short, sharp shock of frankness with oneself. Stop lying about who you are, and write the things that are actually inside you. If, deep down, you want to write about misunderstood teen gymnasts with pet magic lions, your literary fiction about sad suburbanites will not easily come out of you, and it will probably not come off well.
When I was a freelance journalist, I found myself surrounded by people constantly complaining that they were having a hard time writing, that they couldn’t find the right words. Upon reflection, I think this is because being a freelance journalist usually involves lying, at some point. Almost nobody is as constantly vehement as many journalists claim to be, and 100% nobody has a head that’s entirely filled with opinions that fit inside today’s rapidly shifting Overton Window.
By contrast, when you’re in touch with your honest aesthetic/spiritual/material/intellectual priorities, writing is pretty easy. I don’t mean, like, that it’s easy to write immortal masterpieces—there are heights of aesthetic perfection that can only be reached when the right material meets a well-trained set of hands. But writing a decent enough first draft—something to fuck around with until it’s readable—should be fairly simple. Sure, it takes discipline to open the document and begin typing rather than continuing to scroll Twitter. But once you begin, it shouldn’t feel like trying to squeeze champagne out of wrought iron. It should feel like opening a floodgate—whether that results in a furious swell or an amiable trickle.
Or, to put it another way, it should feel like work rather than labor. This criterion was proposed by art critic Dave Hickey, who, after writing about and working among many of the great visual artists of our time, said in an interview, of creative work, “I think that if you don’t like it and it’s not easy, you shouldn’t be doing it … I mean it’s work, but it’s not labor.”
Intuitively, we understand this distinction well. Labor is breaking rocks with a pick-ax while someone holds a gun to your head. Labor is your tenth hour in the warehouse when your vertebrae are starting to feel crunchy. Work can be challenging, surprising, effortful, emotional, but it isn’t something that requires intense coercion, although may require a little coercion, sometimes, in the form of a deadline or a structured work environment of some kind. Most tellingly, it feels rewarding, in a deeper way than the “thank fuck that’s over” swell of relief you feel at the end of a day of laboring. It feels like you did something on earth.
The self-honesty required here isn’t a one-time thing, it’s an ongoing process. As you continue producing creative work, you will, for better or worse, be changing in the background. You may find that doing the things you once did is no longer congruent with your inner climate. This gives you, roughly, two choices—either you flow with who you’ve actually become, or you slowly descend into a hollow parody of what you once were.
Inevitably, if you’re honest, you find out that you’re not exactly who you aspire to be. There is some distance between you and your exemplars. Maybe it’s a short distance, or maybe you’re way off to the side. Maybe you thought you were a clear-eyed rational pragmatist, and you discover that you’re a rover with the soul of a poet. Or perhaps the opposite. That can be painful. But it’s ultimately easier to take this pain than persist in a false, lonely place, conducting a masquerade that, even if it fools others, can’t fool you. If you can’t even be frank about who you are in a room alone, I find it hard to believe that you can do it with the people in your life.
One of the delicious paradoxes of cognition is that I often don't know what I think until I write it down. I can feel that there is something off about an argument, or something interesting about a topic, but I can't tell what it is until I've committed it to paper.
On an entirely separate note my intuitions about the differences between work and labour are the exact opposite of yours. For me labour means something that is satisfying, productive in the literal sense, purposeful. Everything that work is to you. Work is the hollow thing I do for pay, the thing that leaves me exhausted and which I wish I could survive without. It is your labour. I suspect this is a UK / US two nations divided by a common tongue thing.
Gonna shill for a moment to point out that if the fear of being wrong (factually or otherwise) stops you from writing, it shouldn't. Embrace it, you'll have more fun that way. I only got around to starting my own substack once i decided to be wrong: https://bewrong.substack.com/about