When Writer’s Block Isn’t Writer’s Block


I am not blocked, I write in the text window. This is not block.

But it had been months, it seemed. It had been years, been centuries. Worse than that; it had been minutes, bound fast to the bottom of the hourglass, each grain landing square on the bridge of the nose and bouncing off to join the pile of eventual asphyxiation. Water torture made of sand.

Yet; I admit again, This is not block.

I can’t with any credibility refer to it as block. If I assign an arbitrary date of affliction; say, four months past, an honest assessment of my output leaves me with several exhibits of undeniable evidence that indeed, writing has occurred. There in the plastic bags on the shelves under the fluorescent lights are the work for Too Much Light, the Chicago One-Minute Play Festival, the appearances at The Paper Machete, the blogs written for both my theater company and my day employer and the blogs and articles and short film scripts written for clients of my day employer, the carefully considered Facebook status updates and tweets from numerous different accounts including those of the theater and the day employer, the business and personal emails…hundreds of thousands of assembled letters that illustrate and triangulate the current coordinates of my brain.

But there were also things I meant to write, things I desperately wanted to write, things I forgot to write, things I forgot how to write. There were sentences and stories that burst into existence like fortnight lilies; bloomed for a day and then walked into memory with nary a glance back. I mourn the defeats more than I celebrate the victories because that’s just the way I’m wired, and then I misdiagnose the whole mess as block.

I can’t recall which authors have written or spoken the notion that block is a figment, but I know I’ve heard it from several places, and while once upon a time I took these words to be spoken as motivators I’ve since come to the much plainer conclusion that Writers who tell you there is no such thing as block are arrogant, self-absorbed jerks. They are the trust-fund folks whose solution to every problem is to “buy a new one,” the Olympians who tell the asthmatics that “it’s just a five-mile jog,” those beings who state casually that the answer to an engineering problem is to change the gravitational constant of the universe. It is not that there is no such thing as block, o wise but forgotten writers, it is that there is apparently no such thing as block for you. And while I won’t begrudge you your good fortune, it does not give you the right to dismiss and mock the chronic conditions of others.

But again, I’m not blocked. This has been something else.

There’s an exercise that I’ve been teaching in our workshops lately, based off of similar exercises from the theatrical discipline of clown, and that currently has the unassuming title of “Positive Reinforcement.” A volunteer from the class is taken out of the room. Within the room, the audience is told that the volunteer, upon returning to the room, will have a set time limit to accomplish a simple but atypical task–for example, placing a chair atop a table and then sitting beneath the table. The volunteer will be guided to do this based solely on the feedback they receive from the audience, and the only feedback the audience may give is (a) applause, if the volunteer is doing something that brings them closer to the completed task or (b) silence, if the volunteer is not closer to their task. It’s non-verbal “hot and cold.”

The exercise is designed to do several things: one, it joins the whole room together in the attempt to collectively accomplish the task; two, it encourages active listening on the part of the volunteer and also within the audience as they work to arrive at the same set of directions; and three; it fosters a scenario where negative feedback is strictly verboten.

That third part is key. The silence is simultaneously the communication that something isn’t going right and it is the space in which to strategize how that changes. In rooms where No is commonplace the adrenal gland responds first, pipes in with Fight or Flight, with “screw you” or “you’re right I’ll shut up now.” And then some minutes later, somebody will realize that there’s still a matter at hand. In the silence, in this exercise, you watch the volunteer experiment and make leaps of intuition, unhindered by the baggage of criticism.

So the critic, as ever, is me; I am the one making too much goddamned noise. I am denying as loudly as is possible without actually achieving audible vocal the worth of my work; I am consumed of a notion that a world that can accept the trappings of my imagination is a world with something deeply wrong with it. This is not a noise that you drown with better noise and this is not a noise you can hide from or keep at a distance. It is a noise that must be dispelled and before it can be dispelled it must be named.

It’s name is not, however, block.

The irony, I suspect, is that in order to end this noise I must in fact craft a name for it.

It is a conundrum, I conclude. Perhaps I should begin.

And then I do.

  • July 29, 2011
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