Art, Craft and Writer's Block

I don’t believe in writer’s block. I know full well there are days when the writing comes easy and days when the writing won’t come at all, but I don’t ascribe the difference to any unseen or mystical force. Rather, I ascribe the difference to the fact that writing is damned hard all the time, and any day when it’s going great is a miracle.

I was reminded of my feelings about writer’s block by a post from Stephanella Walsh, in which she herself talked about coming to terms with the myth of writer’s block. It’s a good post, and particularly so because it admits to change, which is something too few people are confident enough to do.

Stephanella does a solid job of listing reasons why people reach for the “I’m blocked!” excuse, and I don’t disagree with any of them. People have been using the excuse of writer’s block — and the premise: that writing necessarily flows from some hidden spring of inspiration — since the first caveman struggled with the first cave painting.

I would like to propose, however, that there is a basic choice that every storyteller needs to make when approaching their work, and that in making this choice a writer necessarily allows or precludes writer’s block as an aspect of the storytelling process. The choice I speak of is whether or not writing is viewed first and foremost as a craft.

If you view storytelling as a craft — as a mix of techniques and channeled authorial gifts (the stuff you just happen to be good at) — I don’t see how writer’s block pertains. When you write from craft you can say you’re stuck, or you’re tired, or you hate your life, but the idea that your muse is playing coy, or that something that happened in your childhood is getting in the way of your ability to bash the holy hell out of your keyboard is absurd on the face of it — as it would be if you were a ditch digger and complained of ditch-digger’s block.

On the other hand, if you view storytelling as art — as a nebulous, ill-defined process of introspection and pure expression devoid of any compelling need to communicate with the reader, or even to be intelligible — then I suspect that writer’s block is useful in an endless variety of ways. Including, perhaps most importantly, by connecting you in spirit to all the other great writers who sat back in a sunny cafe chair and bemoaned the lonely fate of the truly and tragically gifted.

It’s your call, of course. But if you’re thinking that what you’d like to do is tell stories, you might want to take a long hard look at what your storytelling is in service of. Giving your authorial fate over to the unseen or mystical strikes me as a both a considerable statement of intent and a mistake. Unless, of course, what you’re really interested in is the drama of being a storyteller as opposed to the end product.


This is a reprint from Mark Barrett’s Ditchwalk site.