How 5 Famous Authors Dealt With Writer's Block
Writer’s block can happen to anyone—even successful novelists. Everyone from Stephen King to Leo Tolstoy has fallen victim to the phenomenon, and some of them never conquer it: Ralph Ellison, for example, wrote thousands of pages of notes for a follow-up to 1952’s Invisible Man, but thanks to what he called “a natural writer’s block as big as the Ritz and as stubborn as a grease spot on a gabardine suit,” a second novel never appeared. Ellison died in 1994 without publishing another book. (His friend John Callahan would eventually take Ellison’s notes and turn them into Juneteenth.)
Ellison might not have gotten over his block, but plenty of authors have, including these five. Read on to find out how they did it, and for more fascinating facts about your favorite novels and novelists, make sure to pick up Mental Floss's book The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels & Novelists, out now.
1. Ray Bradbury
When Bradbury became blocked in his writing, he took it as a sign of being on the wrong track. “In the middle of writing something you go blank and your mind says: ‘No, that’s it,’” he said in a 2001 speech. “You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying ‘I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.’” The cure for writer’s block is to “[stop] whatever you’re writing and [do] something else. You picked the wrong subject.” This advice has been echoed by Orson Scott Card. “I have never found ‘writer’s block’ to be wrong,” he said. “Whenever I’m stopped on a project, it’s because I was doing something false or weak, and when I get it right, it becomes more powerful and true.”
2. Jhumpa Lahiri
According to Lahiri, writer’s block is simply part of the process of writing, “the period during which ideas gestate in the mind, when a story grows but isn’t necessarily being written in sentences on the page,” she told The Times. Her foolproof way of getting over it? Taking a break from what she’s writing and picking up a book. She’s not alone in this strategy: Many other authors swear by walking away from their work and revisiting it later, including Jane Smiley, Hilary Mantel, and Neil Gaiman, who noted that by reading what you’re writing from the beginning with fresh eyes, “when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.”
3. John Steinbeck
When it came to writer’s block, The Grapes of Wrath author advised fellow writers that the easiest way to get started was to forget the audience they were supposed to be writing for and, instead, making it more personal by writing to a single person. Not only did this strategy help remove the fear of writing to an unknown audience, but “it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness,” he wrote.
4. Joan Didion
Among the revelations in the 2017 documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold was how The Year of Magical Thinking author dealt with being blocked: “If she’s feeling stuck on something,” Didion's editor, Shelley Wanger, said, “she’ll put it in the freezer ... The manuscript, in the freezer, in a bag.”
5. Maya Angelou
Author and poet Maya Angelou was not fond of the term writer’s block, which she felt gave the phenomenon a power that she wasn’t comfortable with. But she did sometimes suffer from it, and had a strategy for overcoming it: Just writing, even if what came out wasn’t her finest work. “I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’” she said in Writers Dreaming. “And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. … And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘OK. OK. I’ll come.’” Other writers agree with this method of just getting it out, including one anonymous Penguin Random House author, who told the publishing house’s blog, “write anything—deliberately write rubbish. Write something you’d never allow anyone to read, then burn it—or eat it.” (You should maybe skip that last part.)