There’s nothing more painful than having writing talent—yet being blocked from expressing it. A lifeless imagination withers the spirit of the aspiring scribe. The problem is called writer’s block.
Writer’s block and other creativity blocks are symptoms or consequences of one or more unresolved psychological issues. Such issues hinder many varieties of self-expression and satisfying achievement, whether in the arts, sciences, mass media, or other endeavors.
The challenge is (1) to solve the mystery of whatever is blocking you, and (2) to have the will to move forward against the resistance you will feel in working through the issue or issues.
In the case of literary fiction, writers produce their content by way of their intelligence, knowledge, and unconscious mind. Often the richest and most original content emerges from the unconscious mind. The flow and quality of this content is influenced by the writer’s shifting psychological dynamics. The work of art itself becomes, in part, a dramatization of the writer’s unresolved inner conflict (or neurotic difficulty). In other words, the writer’s creative powers are somewhat at the mercy of unconscious defenses and counter-defenses. The writer is trying to settle an inner conflict, and the quality of the book hangs in the balance.
What would be an example of one of the several inner conflicts that can plague literary writers? First, let me say that such inner conflicts, when described to the naïve mind, can appear preposterous. It defies common sense that we would become entangled in such self-defeat. Yet our inner world can operate as a closed system, like a sealed-off backward country where civility, rationality, and legal protocols are a short supply. Primitive dynamics rule in our psyche. We can, however, learn the characteristics and features of this inner operating system so as not to be defeated by it.
Here’s a common conflict. Writers feel pleasure and egotistical satisfaction in producing clever, interesting prose. The feeling is, “I, myself, am the originator of this brilliance.” But lurking in their psyche are lingering emotional attachments to refusal and deprivation that go back to the oral stage of childhood development. Their defense is, “I’m not attached to feeling refused; see how much pleasure I feel when I give these clever words to myself.” The writer’s psychological conflict is between wanting consciously to produce lovely words and anticipating unconsciously that his or her imagination will refuse to give or provide those words. This is why many writers live in fear of losing their creative powers.
Successful writers sublimate the inner conflict. They’re able to produce the artful content that “proves” how much they want to feel fulfilled. Blocked writers succumb to the unconscious determination to be overtaken by what is unresolved in their psyche—an emotional attachment to feeling refused. They end up experiencing, in an especially painful way, the refusal of their imagination to produce lovely words and interesting plots.
Along with refusal, such writers can also be suffering from a related emotional attachment: the passive feeling of helplessness. Consequently, they become powerless to act on their own behalf . They can’t feel the ability or power to fulfill themselves.
When defenses are stable, the writer can produce successful sublimations in the form of high-quality writing. Over time, however, defenses can become unstable as unresolved inner issues intensify, exacerbated perhaps by challenging events in the writer’s life. Now the writer’s output no longer resolves the inner conflict. His or her creative energy is drained in the production of ineffective defenses. The flow of words now dries up, and the writer becomes, in terms of literary output, sterile or impotent.
Is there evidence for the truth of this psychoanalytic contention? The best works of fiction portray a protagonist who attains some measure of inner growth and self-development, if not moral or spiritual triumph. However, many novelists, including ones who are highly regarded by critics, present flawed characters who fail to rise above their circumstances or predicaments. Often the hero or protagonist is presented as a likeable (or at least sympathetic) rascal, fool, loser, or degenerate. These books are often portraits of family dysfunction. Often the main characters experience their situations through helplessness and hopelessness, and walk away at the end feeling empty and disappointed. Little or no inner growth is achieved.
This is Norman Mailer’s assessment of American literary novels:
Writers aren’t taken seriously anymore, and a large part of the blame must go to the writers of my generation, most certainly including myself. We haven’t written the books that should have been written. . . . We haven’t done the imaginative work that could have helped define America, and as a result, our average citizen does not grow in self-understanding. We just expand all over the place, and this spread is about as attractive as collapsed and flabby dough on a stainless steel table. (The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. Random House, New York, 2004. 163).
Unconsciously, the writer of such mediocre books is trying to convince his inner critic (along with his readers) to support his defense, to the effect that suffering in the forms of refusal, emptiness, disappointment, helplessness, failure, and moral weakness is the way of the world. “This is how it is,” the writer’s defense contends, “this is the way people are. I’m not the only one who is hopelessly attached to these forms of suffering.” Many readers of these books, who don’t want to feel challenged by a protagonist’s heroic inner growth, buy into the author’s defense. Sometimes people just read the books because more inspiring ones are hard to find.
Here are some issues, defenses, and symptoms—many of which are interconnected—that can produce (or be a factor in) writer’s block and other forms of creative inhibition:
1. Fear of exposure as a failure, with issues of shame and humiliation;
2. Expectation of being rejected, as well as self-rejection or even self-hatred;
3. Feeling inadequate, flawed, and defective;
4. Issues of passivity, powerlessness, and helplessness;
5. Lingering effects of parental messages;
6. Self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-condemnation;
8. Negative exhibitionism and the claim-to-power defense;
9. Self-defeating use of the imagination;
10. Feeling drained by the effort required to succeed;
11. Fear of missing the boat. Feeling refused and deprived;
12. Unspecified guilt;
13. Negative inner voices;
14. Injustice collecting;
15. Excessive self-centeredness, producing lack of purpose other than ego satisfaction;
16. Intellectual impairment (as differing from impairment of the imagination) caused by neurosis or emotional dysfunction.
Writer’s block can be very painful for the writer, to say nothing of the unpleasantness of lost income. However, the writer can undo the blockage when he or she makes conscious the underlying issue and understands the nature of the defenses.
Even talented, successful writers can bring their work and achievement to a new level by recognizing and dealing with subtle emotional issues that are at play in their psyche.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.