Silence & Writer’s Block

Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...

Did the medieval contemplatives suffer from writer's block? Image via Wikipedia

I have a friend who is struggling to complete a dissertation. Entire days can go by without writing a single sentence. Sitting at the computer is an exercise in fear and frustration.

To say my friend has writer’s block is — well, you know, just another label. But like so many labels, it has a measure of usefulness. It’s interesting to read the Wikipedia entry on Writer’s Block. It describes the condition not only as the inability to write, but also “as the affected writer viewing their work as inferior or unsuitable, when in fact it could be the opposite.”

Eek. Even when I am voluble in my literary output, I never quite dodge the bullet of thinking my work is “inferior or unsuitable.” I usually come up with a more colorful or earthy way of describing it. I don’t think this is humility. True humility would be the ability to simply write at the best of one’s ability, to learn from constructive criticism, and then go about one’s business, not worrying too much about what other people think. No, I’m not there. I have a running commentary within me that gleefully points out every weakness, muddled argument, vague description, or ambiguous meaning that can be found. I’m too busy judging my writing to block it!

How do we let go of writer’s block? Of the tendency to condemn our own handiwork, without even bothering to get a second opinion? Like so many writers (Anne Lamott leaps to mind), I just muddle through — I do the writing, I post it to this blog or send it off to my editor, and then hope for the best. I suppose that’s better than not writing at all, but there’s a level on which such self-damnation really sabotages my joy; which means I am not being faithful to the fruit of the Spirit; which means there is sin lurking in there somewhere.

My friend is a person of faith, and so we have talked about the relationship between writer’s block and sin. Like me, my friend works hard to avoid allowing recognition of sin to become an occasion for self-shaming. Saying “I sin by beating myself up” is not meant to be an occasion for further self-flagellation! Rather, by acknowledging our own woundedness, brokenness, and willful turning away from God’s love, we simply create the space within us to turn back to the source of life.

I wonder if there is some way to open up the writer’s block experience as a doorway into contemplation? It’s funny: I sit to rest in silence before God, and my mind chatters away, filled with distractions. My friend sits down at the computer, only to encounter the most unwelcome silence. But what if the silence of writer’s block were to be an occasion for prayer? And for me, what if I met the voice within me that says my work’s not good enough with the same gentle silence by which I greet the distractions that arise during prayer? It seems that silence really can be a writer’s best friend. But like silence in all areas of life, it must be welcomed in order for that quality of friendship to emerge.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Nancy Waldo

    Hi, Carl, my first time posting. In response to today’s blog, I highly recommend Kathleen Norris’ book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life. Norris chronicles how acedia, one of the early monastics’ “8 bad thoughts,” (before the “seven deadly sins” lists), has been an ongoing struggle for her as a writer and how her research into acedia has been helpful. She says “acedia is a danger to anyone whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value.” (p. 43) She shares much valuable experience in learning from the wisdom of the monks to ground her vocation as a writer in her spiritual disciplines. This book was very helpful to me and I believe would be for you and your friend and any other writers seeking to be faithful and faith-full.

  • Al Jordan

    When our sense of self worth is rooted in our accomplishments or our acclaim, then we will always be subject to the dis-ease of “crippling comparisons.” always wondering “how do I measure up?” And no matter how good that is, there is always, always someone who can do it better, faster, longer. When you are a very exceptional writer, like yourself, I would imagine that that self assessing could be tortuous at times. My guess is that it’s not about the content or the mastery of the word or literary style, but the authenticity that you feel about the things you write about. I’m sticking my neck way out now, but you do that all the time, so I draw inspiration and courage from you. But I detect in your post a little bit of the old “critical parent” towards yourself that Transactional Analysis made famous years ago. You are too hard on yourself. Maybe your mind needs a rest; maybe new material; maybe a new experience which will renew and refresh the well springs of creativity. Also a little bit uncomfortable with attributing writers block to sin in one’s life. If by sin, we are talking about being too into the mind, need for more stillness and silence, needing to be in control or be right or be best, then I understand. It’s OK to be led to green pastures and still waters where we don’t necessarily feel like we are getting anything done. That’s where we get our soul’s restored. And the ego hates it. Hope I have not taken liberties, but if so, forgive.

    • Carl McColman

      I’m using the word sin not in the “moral failing” sense but in the “off the mark” sense. Just a reminder that excessive self-criticism is a distortion of the love God wishes for us — including the love we give to ourselves.

  • Al Jordan

    Yes, I see where you are coming from, now, in your application of sin as “off the mark, ” and I completely agree that when faced with our personal shortcomings against some desired standard, we can all too easily get caught up in “excessive self criticism.” I used to do this a lot, especially in my middle years when I was striving so hard to be relevant and successful. Through God’s limitless love and the grace that always envelops us, I am beginning to learn to face the things in myself that are “off the mark,” feel them, accept them and then release them to the Divine’s all encompassing love and transforming Grace. All love is of God, even the love we extend to ourselves. Thanks for clearing this up for me.

  • Pallas Renatus

    For some reason this post reminded me of the psychological concept of “flow“, and how it applies to writing. Oddly, it’s something I also also associate with some of my “best” meditations.