Writer’s Block and Depression: Why You Shouldn’t Bully Your Muse

Some professional writers claim writer’s block doesn’t exist. They’ll tell you they never have any trouble banging out their daily pages—and laugh at people who do.

William Faulkner said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning.”

Terry Pratchett—not earning himself any fans in my home state—said, “there's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.”

And Steve Martin was even harsher. He said, “writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.”

But, um, dudes—if there’s no such thing as writers block, what is that thing that happens when you sit down to write and your body gets the fidgets, your brain grows fuzz, or you suddenly develop a bad case of narcolepsy?

It’s an experience a lot of us have been through.

We have days when the never-used wedding silver screams to be polished, books and DVDs must be alphabetized immediately, and we’re seized by an uncontrollable desire to make hand-dipped truffles instead of mix brownies for the meeting on Friday.

Or we bravely apply derrière to chair, fingers to keyboard, and force ourselves to work through the prescribed hours—only to produce pages of literary manure.

Clarissa Draper had a great blogpost on the subject recently. She said it’s not “writer’s block,” but “writer’s boredom.” If you’re bored with your own work, she points out, your audience will be too. Excellent point. She suggests some great fixes, so do check out her post.

But boredom can also be a sign of something else: depression. Because of the prevalence of depression in writers, I think it’s important to pay attention to episodes of writer’s block/boredom that can’t be fixed by cutting a few scenes, upping the plot stakes, or changing point of view as Clarissa suggests.

In a famous study of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Nancy Andreasen, 80% of writers surveyed met the formal diagnostic criteria for depression. And recent research shows the part of the brain used for complex thought is also active in the brains of the clinically depressed. Researchers found evidence that if you spend too much time engaged in intense thinking, your brain can get stuck in thinking/depression mode.

So it's quite possible that  “writer’s block” is the brain’s way of protecting itself from a depressive episode.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that increasingly expects us to push ourselves to the point of exhaustion. More and more is expected of fewer and fewer workers. Many of us are forced to take several jobs, work ridiculously long hours, and tough out illnesses without a break (ignoring the fact we’re infecting everybody around us.)

A quick Google will turn up a “boot camp” for everything from food bloggers to hip-hop street dancers. Everybody’s expected to blog, tweet, and facebook as well as work on our creative projects. We live in a 24/7 age of more-is-better, feel-the-burn, and sleep-when-you’re-dead. We’re all bullying ourselves with starvation diets, daily gym workouts, and endless pressure to be Martha Stewart/Mary Poppins at home, Bill Gates at work, and Stephen King when we hit the keyboard.

But can you bully your muse? 

In my experience, no. 

You can't bully the creative process. Your muse will simply disappear. And—whether you call that disappearance writer’s block, boredom, or being an untalented, drunken Californian—if those researchers are right, it’s not such a bad thing.

So instead of worrying about being “blocked,” why not embrace the experience? Send your muse on vacation. Decide not to write for a week. Writing uninspired dreck is not going to help you meet that deadline, so unless you’ve got an editor who needs that piece last week, why not forget about writing for a few days?

I remember a great expression from Plato—“eu a-mousoi” literally “happily without muses.” Socrates used it as derogatory term to mean an unphilosophical lout who lives only in the here and now.

But I think a visit to the here and now can be pretty healthy for those of us who spend most of our time in imaginary worlds.  

Allowing yourself to be muse-free for a few days might be what your brain needs to fight off that looming depression. Let your creativity re-charge its batteries. Creativity guru Julia Cameron called it "filling the well."

Here are some things to do when your muse needs to take a break:

What about you, scriveners? Do you think writer’s block is a myth? Or does your muse sometimes take a holiday? How do you deal with it?

Coming soon: Elizabeth S. Craig,  social media guru and author of the Riley Adams mysteries is going to guest here on June 12th. Her blog “Mystery Writing is Murder” has been voted one of Writer’s Digest’s top 101 sites for two years. She’ll give a lot of really great tips on how to have a successful blog. 

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