February 16, 2004

Not long ago, I was interviewed for a story on writer’s block.

“Do you ever get blocked?” asked Doug White, a former student of mine at the University of South Florida. 

“What time is it?” I replied.

I was blocked a good bit as I tried to answer Doug’s questions on the subject via e-mail.

The telltale signs: writing a few words, then furiously backspacing; paralysis of the hands; an overwhelming desire to check my e-mail, surf the Web, get a soda, anything but confront the blank screen. I face the prospect of writer’s block every time I write.

In a sense, every unfinished story in my files or on my hard drive is an example of writer’s block getting the best of me, thwarting that dream to translate thoughts into words and stories. Writer’s block is a part of every story, for me at least.

I sit down to write, like I am right now, and want to do it well. Really well. So well that I will be rich and famous and people will love me and say I’m a brilliant guy. Kind of a tall order for words on a page, but self-delusion is part of the writer’s makeup. “Funny, my father never had truck driver’s block,” the columnist Roger Simon once said. But we writers are different.

I was 12 years old when I first dreamed of being a writer. In the ensuing 42 years, there have been so many episodes of writer’s block that I’d be hard-pressed to settle on one.

The worst case of writer’s block would be, I suppose, whatever story I’m working on. I sit down to write with this vision of perfection and success in front of me and immediately I hear a little voice. “You suck, Chip,” it says. And I nod and begin to instantly catalogue all my faults: I was a lousy student, I never read all the classics, I haven’t done enough reporting, I don’t know what I’m doing, and on and on, until I’m paralyzed.

For a long time, deadlines were the only cure. As a newspaper reporter for two decades, I had to start writing or I’d get fired.

When I got a contract to write a journalism textbook, I found I much preferred telling people I had a contract to actually writing the book, until one day my editor left me a voice mail that was so painful I hung up the phone halfway through. We’re not sure you even have a book, she said. Of course, I did have the beginnings of one. I had been writing, in fits and starts, for months, but was convinced it was awful. Panicked, I sent off the draft of the first chapter that very day, but the block still wasn’t broken.

I also write fiction and have published a handful of stories and am working on a novel, but writer’s block has kept me from finishing it.

Like many writers, I’ve been helped immeasurably by the words of William Stafford, the late poet:

I believe that the so-called “writing block” is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance … One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It’s easy to write. You just shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing.

In the last 10 years, Stafford’s “lower your standards” approach has transformed my writing life, making it possible for me to achieve more of my writing dreams. It’s the fastest and most reliable cure I know for this perennial disorder. Whenever I’m blocked, (like right now when I’m convinced this answer has gone on for too long, isn’t responding to the question, is boring, unfocused, in short, that it sucks) I lower my standards.

Correction, I do my best to not have any standards at all. I abandon my standards. I urge myself to write badly and once I do that my fingers begin to fly, and the inner critic is powerless.

Call it freewriting, or stream of consciousness, or whatever name sounds best, but it’s the act of creating.

Criticizing will come, to be sure, but writing, as the teacher Peter Elbow points out, calls on two mutually opposing skills: creating and criticizing. The mistake I make is when I try to do them both at the same time. I used to keep a motto taped to my typewriter: Leave the judging till later. And that’s what I try to do when paralysis sets in. I start typing, as fast as I can, not worrying whether the prose is any good. And as my ears fill with the sound of clicking keys, the noise tends to drown out the voice that tells me I suck, and I become what I’ve always wanted to be: a writer. A writer is someone who writes. Period.

I face the prospect of writer’s block every time I write.The most surprising part of all this is that once I began lowering my standards, I began enjoying greater success as a writer. This doesn’t mean I never have to revise. On the contrary, my pieces typically go through more than a dozen drafts before they’re done. But lowering my standards has allowed me to produce something that can be rewritten.

I’m not completely cured of course. Sometimes I think I should stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Chip and I’m a recovering blocked writer.”

I still have to finish that novel and lots of other stories I’m convinced I can’t do because I suck. It’s hard because a part of me resists the idea that lowering my standards is the way out. Shouldn’t I be raising them instead to create perfection? But I’ve come to understand that this tension between the creator and the critic within is one of the central realities of the writing life and that to be a writer I have to remember just one thing: lower my standards and start typing.

It’s the rare, and exceedingly fortunate, writer who doesn’t confront writer’s block. I used to ask if anyone in an audience ever suffered from writer’s block and then realized the question was misguided.

Now I inquire, “Is there anyone who has never suffered from writer’s block?” I’ve yet to encounter a group, some of them hundreds strong, where more than one or two hands go up.

Success in writing doesn’t cure the problem. Indeed, I’ve read interviews with writers who say it gets harder to write as they get more experienced because they know more than when they were younger. In this case, ignorance may be bliss.

[ How do you handle writer’s block? ]

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

More News

Looking back at a horrific week

Coverage of the police response and how politicians have responded, urgent questions about showing images, powerful late-night monologues, and more.

May 27, 2022
Back to News