Not Talking about It Doesn’t Make It Better


Artists are a superstitious lot. In a recent essay in the National Review, John J. Miller tells how some of the writers he interviewed refused to discuss writer’s block. One even said it was “the way some people won’t talk about cancer.” The implication is that talking about something will magnetize it to you and then you are done for.

Somehow I doubt that is how cancer works, and although I can imagine exceptions, I think that also isn’t how writer’s block works. Not talking about cancer, not getting tested doesn’t make cancer not hit you or not kill you. Generally speaking those strategies only make it worse.

One could argue, I suppose, that since writer’s block is a psychological/intellectual/emotional issue, focusing time and attention on it might foster the self-doubt that could create it, but I think if that’s true, you might already be dealing with it, as if the talk only watered the seeds that were already there. But if somebody is going strong on a piece of work, what are they so afraid of?

Also, just as talking about cancer to just anybody isn’t necessarily going to solve it—unless you are talking to a certified doctor/surgeon, the cure isn’t coming—so talking about your writer’s block to your cat/boyfriend/boss may not help either and depending on how they respond to your concerns, yes, it might well hurt. But there are people out there who can help, people who know what kinds of things can cause blocks, so you can talk about the actual problem rather than the symptom of the problem. (And no, I don’t mean some kind of Freudian b^!!$&!t, which I only mention at all because Miller points out that it was a Freudian who invented the term writer’s block.)

Just a surface level consideration brings up a number of possibilities: crippling anxiety, overwork in other arenas, tackling a problem the writer doesn’t know how to solve (and may not realize it), inadequate sleep or hydration, and of course, the one that Miller highlights, perfectionism.

Perfectionism is one of the most dangerous, because it may actually have been useful to the writer in the past. I see a lot of MIT students who got here by insisting on perfection, but will never graduate until they let go of it. As Miller says, “They may be letting the perfect become the enemy of the good—or even worse, as my old boss Fred Barnes once put it, they’re letting the pretty good become the enemy of the good enough.”

One of the exercises that helps is the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) strategy: give yourself a deadline and some supporters and write an insane number of words per day for a very limited time, focusing on quantity, not quality. Make friends with the good enough. It’s not a whole solution, but it’s a start.

Miller, John J. “Wordsmiths Without Words.” National Review 23 May 2016: 23-24.

One comment on “Not Talking about It Doesn’t Make It Better

  1. It’s worth discussing! Thanks! Also, perfection leads to procrastination. You never want to let it go until it’s perfect…but as Anne Lamont famously writes, we need those “shitty first drafts.”

    Liked by 1 person

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