Writer’s Block: Habit

Students who suffer from writer’s block often describe writing as an abstraction or a mystical trance that occurs unwittingly and without explanation.  Understandably, it’s that sense of writing being outside of one’s direct control that seems to provoke the greatest anxiety and frustration for them.  Will the trance come mercifully before deadline and keep them from a failing grade?

So many writing teachers talk about the necessity of making a commitment to the habit of writing: to sitting down and writing every day—even if only for a few minutes.  But each time I have passed along that bit of wisdom to my students, the next question has always been the same: “What if I have nothing to say?”  The emptiness of the page peers back at them, well beyond their direct control.  The idea of developing a writing habit in the context of this looming vacancy, then, is akin to sitting around and waiting for Godot.  (And we all know how that ends.)

The word habit usually makes us think of things we do repeatedly or even unconsciously: the habit of eating lunch at noon every day, or the (bad) habit of smoking.  But another, earlier meaning of habit refers to clothing, clothing that was worn ritualistically or symbolized a person’s specific role or position; for example, a monk’s habit.  I find it useful to think of the habit of writing in this latter sense—not as something I do, but rather something I wear.

The habit of writing is like a pair of gloves I slip on or a shirt or a jacket.  Writing is a presence, a thing, not an abstraction that hovers in the near distance.  It’s neither mystical nor dependent on something “outside” me, but rather concrete and palpable, something that I “put on” each time I sit down to write. So try thinking of writing as something you already want and have, something you have already slipped into, and see if it isn’t easier to work from that sense of abundance.