Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a rock star in the late 18th century English poetry world. He helped launch the Romantic Movement with three major poems: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (the most famous line of which inspired this post’s title), Cristabel, and Kubla Khan, all written around 1797 and 1798. He and William Wordsworth were best buddies – the Lennon and McCartney of the day – and together they essentially modernized poetry.
Although today’s poets might pooh-pooh the Romantic poets as having outdated notions, they were among the first to shun the strict structures poetry tended to have until that time. Sure, they still liked to write the occasional sonnet, like Wordsworth’s The World Is Too Much with Us. But in general, they felt rules blocked inspiration and creativity. Coleridge believed that the imagination could follow its own logic, thank you very much, without the need for tying the poet’s hands with an arbitrary set of conventions. Wordsworth believed that poetry should be "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" – and rules would only strangle those creative yawps.
But as with many rock stars, it didn’t end well for one of them. Coleridge developed a serious opium habit, using by some accounts two quarts per week of laudanum (basically opioids mixed with alcohol). Not only did this break up the band – Wordsworth and others including Coleridge’s wife eventually left him – Coleridge never was able to be the poet he once was.
The Romantic poets brought the world one more thing that is also too much with us. A blackness so misused and misconstrued that it’s ruined many a poor writer. “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month,” Coleridge lamented on his 32nd birthday. “O Sorrow and Shame... I have done nothing!”
And so it was that Coleridge gave writers our greatest curse of all: writer’s block.
What is Writer’s Block?
I know what some of you are saying. “Finally! A post on writer’s block!” Yeah, I know. I promised this way back in my first post.
I’ve mentioned several times that I don’t believe in writer’s block – at least not as a single entity. But let’s start with what other people believe. Here are some of the definitions I found for writer’s block:
“Ever found yourself staring at a blank page for long periods of time, trying to write but being unable to find the right words? You’re not alone. This is writer’s block...”
“Writer’s block is the creative slump that authors face when they don’t know what to write.”
“The reasons for your block may vary, but some common ones include:
Ontario Tech University
“Writer’s block has often been defined as a non-fluent writing process where a person often gets stuck and loses their ability to write what they feel is good, or effective.” https://nool.ontariotechu.ca/writing/writing-process/writers-block/index.php
“(Writer’s block is) the excuse not to write.”
"A psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.”
The Problem with These Definitions for Writer’s Block
None of these definitions for writer’s block are wrong, per se. But they are not complete. These definitions do not tell us enough about the problem – which goes back to my assertion that the term “writer’s block” stands in for many different possible issues.
It is similar to the original use of the word “disease”. In the olden days, it literally meant a dis-ease – a lack of ease or what we would today call sickness. Doctors used blanket term mostly because medicine hadn’t yet progressed to the point of being precise enough to know exactly what the cause was. Incidentally, the cure for dis-ease was often leeches, which were meant to suck out the sickness from your blood. A vague (and notably dangerous!) treatment approach for a vague ailment.
I think most people use the phrase “writer’s block” as the same kind of vague blanket term. You may say that I’m arguing semantics – and you wouldn’t be the first. But I strongly believe it’s important to pinpoint the precise reasons why we are blocked because the cure is not always the same. We writers need and deserve something better than leeches.
I searched Google for someone who could back my theory up here. I was losing hope until I stumbled across this quote and article from Susan Reynolds in Psychology Today:
“Writer’s block is a myth.”
What made me love her even more was this passage:
“Writing is not for sissies, and if you intend to write nonfiction books, novels, screenplays, plays, and so on, it will not be easy, and you will often come up against a wall of resistance. Just don’t call it ‘writer’s block’; call it what it is: not being prepared to move on to the next level.”
Susan, you’re playing my song...
Busting Through Reynold’s Wall of Resistance
I believe that there are many things that can possibly stop us from writing; Reynold’s “wall of resistance” can be made from many different materials. And as the three little pigs found out, materials make a difference! It’s important to call out all those things that can possibly stop us from writing individually because the cure is not always the same.
Here’s the cool part – I’ve already covered many of these things in previous posts:
Lack of time and/or creative energy (due to competing priorities)
All of these stop – or “block” – us from writing. But all have slightly different root causes, and in turn all have slightly different ways of overcoming them. (And, you’ll be happy to learn, none of them involve leeches.)
Note: I do believe in something that I would call “creative block” that is another ailment I’ve experienced many times. But this post would have been too long, so I’ll save it for another post.
Key Takeway: Writer’s block is a vague blanket term that doesn’t help us pinpoint the root of the problem. When we dig down deeper to find out what is truly blocking us, we can problem-solve ways through that wall of resistance.
What Blocks You?
I’m not sure my definition of writer’s block is completely complete either! What blocks you from writing? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to find more ways writers get blocked, then look for ways to overcome it.
In the meantime, this post’s video is from another set of rock gods: Iron Maiden and their version of Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
I enjoyed this piece a lot. I’m of the “it’s a myth” school of thought. The advice that someone once gave me and that I repeat to whoever will listen is: barf it out. Revision will take care of the rest.
I love the concept that "writer's block is a myth," as I always feel I am just prioritizing other things in life (as in your previous post on "Lack of time..."). I do agree with creative block like you said. As an artist, when I'm feeling writer's block/creative block, I clear my mind by stepping away (especially from comparison monster on social media) and stop thinking about what other people would like to see. If I create with other people's visions or what I think others want or what would sell, then I get stuck. When I explore my inner feelings, inspiration comes and I paint from there, then share it with the world if I want to. Some might say, with wild abandon ;) Thanks for the great articles, Graham, they always give me something to reflect upon!