From my desk, photo by iphone
When I put up a recent tweet saying writer's block was nothing more than an attempt to justify your own laziness (and not recognizing this was simply lying to yourself), I got a number of angry RT's calling me (at best) smug.  To those whom I angered I would say, that's a common response when someone takes away a crutch.

If there is a problem with Twitter though, it’s an inability to express nuance (for most of us, anyway, who don’t have the poet’s genius for condensation).

But here I can say, re: writer’s block: This I Believe:

The phrase writer’s block is an excuse that should be used only by the weak and delusional (or as lighthearted slang for “It’s cocktail time somewhere!”).  If you must put a tag on your inability to produce, be my guest.  We all know what it means.

But!  This does not mean that I believe being unable to write well or to have something to say every hour of every day is a matter of laziness.  Sometimes the mind will and must lie fallow.  And, yes, these are hard days/weeks/years for any writer, whether you write to earn your daily bread or whether you write simply because you must.  But when the mind lies fallow, when the words simply aren’t coming, don’t call it writer’s block.  Call it being serious about your work, and recognizing that not writing is simply one part of the writing life, and that tomorrow, goddamit, it will be better.

As I’ve written before, learning to cook at the CIA changed my life.  When I returned home to write The Making of a Chef, Donna more or less looked at me, whilst bouncing our 18-month-old daughter on her knee, and explained that we would be broke in four months.  Because I had embraced the chef’s ethos, the recognition that saying, “Sorry chef, can’t do it” simply was not an option, I figured out how many words, writing five days a week, I’d need to generate in order to have a book-length manuscript in four months (1400 words should cover it, I figured); I literally would not let myself rise from the chair until my word count read 1400.

Some days my mind felt so numb by 4:30 pm (word count 980) that I would actually scream to jump start my brain. But basically it came down to the fact that I was the kid at the dinner table who was not allowed to go outside to play until he ate his spinach; so I ate my spinach.

Often though, what happened was, when I got to that awful I-can’t-write-another-word place, then screamed and moved forward, it was like unclogging a drain, not like pushing a rock uphill.  Once I cleared the way, the writing came easily once again.  And I would write beyond the quota (and thus have a head start for the following day).

I spent a half day Saturdays revising.

But there’s a danger to this ethos, too.  I believe I failed in the writing of Walk On Water by adhering too rigidly to a daily quota.  Because I was working so quickly, I failed to see the overall structure of a story set in the beautiful horrible world of pediatric heart surgery, and as a result, I put the proper end of the book in the middle.  The Making of a Chef had a built in narrative structure, it’s basically a school story.  The world of pediatric surgery is never-ending, and it was the writer’s job to impose a structure on it.  I did and, in my opinion, failed.  Which is why there is a new edition of Making a dozen years after it was first published and no new edition or even new sales of Walk on Water (the publisher's new miserable phony subtitle notwithstanding).

So, I reiterate. I believe “writer’s block” is a harmful term that justifies laziness and encourages self-deception.  But to be unable to write the next scene in your story, your screenplay, or even a new menu item to make something new out of all that arugula and eggplant in your walk in, this is an important part of your ongoing commitment to one of the greatest, and most difficult, human compulsions, to create something where there was nothing.


55 Wonderful responses to “Writer’s Block: What I Believe”

  • luis

    I don’t believe in writers block so much as I believe writers may run dry of content from time to time.
    You have to fill your life and writers need to lead the pack. It’s an unbelievable pressure on anyone. So please writers cut yourselves some slack. Step back and out of your boxes and look around for new content. CHANGE is the ONLY CONSTANT in this world.

  • Andrea

    I once belonged to a screenwriter’s group called “Writer’s Block North” (meaning Northern California). It was named after an original (and non-related) SoCal group called Writer’s Block.
    The group did have things to commend it, but I never liked the name of the group. When I stopped going, my friend asked why and I said I thought it was an ironically and notoriously bad idea to name a writing group “Writer’s Block.” Shouldn’t they, of all people, know better? We live into whatever mythology we tell ourselves about the creative life. So it behooves us to tell a good story, one we want to live.

  • Tana

    Michasel, you owe it to yourself to read Dick Cavett’s autobiography. Not only is it one of the wittiest reads ever, but there is a specific mention of writing. He said he admired Woody Allen, who would sit at his desk eight hours a day and write, no matter what. Cavett, on the other hand, said he would try that, drop a pencil, find an old New Yorker under the desk, and spend five hours reading it.

    I don’t much believe in writer’s block when it comes to non-fiction. It’s a question of organization and putting your fanny in the saddle. Fiction, on the other hand…well, I have no opinion except maybe it’s best that some books don’t get written.

    I find the truth far more interesting. So many writers paint their novels into a corner and then just conveniently write in a (SURPRISE!) back door. I don’t have much use for fiction any more.

    P.S. CAVETT, the book, is available on for under a dollar.

  • Andrea

    PS your “writer’s block” pencil holder, being literally true, is the only one I’d allow in my house. 🙂

  • carri

    I’m just glad to see your desk is as tidy and well organized as mine. People are always looking for a way out. Writers Block is used as a crutch for not finishing the task. I say, if you can’t write. don’t. go pet the cat. if your thirsty, have a drink…just don’t make the one an excuse for the other. That said, a sour cherry cordial sounds really good right now!

  • foodshethought

    I think you’re back peddling a little bit, and simply calling a potato a potahto. However, I do believe the best cure for writer’s block, laziness or the need for your brain to lie fallow (after the period of fallow has been experienced) is to simply write through it, then edit out the garbage.

  • Susan

    Well said. I also agree that the messages that you tell yourself matter. If you tell yourself that you cannot write, you won’t be able to write. If you tell yourself that you can, you will. Watch well what subtle messages you give yourself and change them if they are always negative and you will see a big change in how you see the world and how the world sees you.
    Best always, Susan

  • Chef Gwen

    I looked back to the tweets I sent, just to make sure I didn’t call you “smug” or any other name. Whew! I was respectful.

    In this post, you basically said that writers get to a point where the creativity just shuts off. Some people have put a label on that and it’s called “writer’s block.”

    If people are using it as an excuse to avoid writing, that’s their call, and to me, that’s what you seem most upset about, but you’re blaming the actual term.

    OK, I’ll quit teasing you about your inability to fathom anyone using a term you consider so utterly vile. Or is it the action? Or is it the term?

  • Kelly Moran

    Chef/Author Michael,
    I know you have opinions…and I love to hear them. WRITE THEM DOWN, then put them into book form….may end up becoming volumes, but that’s OK, I’ll read them all.

  • Annie

    I think I agree with you now. (And I was the tweeting twit who said I had wished you had writer’s block while writing certain passages. Very few passages.)

    Still, one of the things which makes me NOT write is the lack of faith that I’ll ever make money with it. So I go back to other things which I think have a better chance of making or saving me money.

    Of course, that’s not the same thing as writer’s block. It’s an adult choice.

    Is that the point you were making?

  • Sorcha

    I think you have some good points, but I also think Tana does too – when you’re working with fiction, I feel like the possibility of true block is there. (With me it tends to be that I’ve written myself into a corner, and I have to go back and figure out where I can take the story in a different direction.) That’s just my personal experience, though. I try not to make blanket statements such as “All x is due to y” precisely for the reason that life then decides to prove me wrong. *G*

  • Coco

    So if you just re-name writer’s block, “recognizing that not writing is simply one part of the writing life,” it is no longer indicative of an assumed moral failing? Nifty trick!

    In all seriousness, though, I think “Writer’s Block” is simply too much of a catch-all term to bear much analytical weight. Some people use it as an excuse for inaction, some as a description of the frustration that stems from countless hours of effort that seem to bear no fruit. Conflating the two, to me, seems problematic.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Also, imagine how you are growing as a writer, when you can look back at previous novels and see errors in them…isn’t that how a writer grows? If you saw no errors then I would be concerned for your future as a writer.

  • Chris Flett

    I’m wondering how many people commenting pro/con have actually written books.

    I wrote a book (“What Men Don’t Tell Women About Business”) in three months and got it published by a major publisher (Wiley & Sons)in less than 12 months.

    The most amazing secret about publishing a book is sitting down and getting it done.

    Then there are all these lit types who need to be ‘inspired’ to get going. I agree 100% with MR, writer’s block is an excuse for a writer who can’t get their stuff together and who gets asked by their peers, “So how’s the writing going?”

    I guess I have ‘mowing the lawn’ block and ‘getting my oil changed’ block. Writer’s block = laziness, plain and simple.

    Keep up the good work Michael. We’ve enjoyed all your books. “Charcuterie” leg a friend and I to starting a blog all about pork:

  • Tags

    My own prescription for writer’s block is to put down the pen and use a keyboard.

  • Aaron Salvo

    Writer’s block is creative thirst. It’s your body telling you to replenish, and believing that you’ll never run out inspiration is like believing you’ll never need a glass of water.

  • Susan

    Chris, to answer your question, I wrote about corporate law and ethics for a living for a time. I had to go to work everyday and research and write and edit various legal topics. It didn’t matter if the subject was dry, if I knew nothing about it or if I didn’t feel like writing. I had to write. One learns how to prioritize and just get the job done. Sometimes switching to a different topic gets the juices flowing. Sometimes plowing right in and just doing it works. In the end, I just had to because it was my job.

  • Charlotte

    Question to Wallace Stegner: What’s the hardest thing about writing. Answer: Keeping your ass in the chair.
    On a notecard, over my desk.

  • Spencer

    Great post. I hate excuse makers in any field of work – including writing.

    By the way, I just saw you on Iron Chef. Knowlton is such a pain.

  • Guy Anderson

    Sorry to tell all of you it is a brain drain of the creativity of whatever you are writing…OR you could be like me. I am a pro chef that works at a country club. For every 50 ideas for menu items. I may get one. The last menu is the most cutting edge meu I have ever created. I studied clubs all over the USA. Looked, wrote down, tried them, figured if they could work with our kitchen, our staff and not cost an arm and a leg. SO here is my BLOCK. The House Committee of a club which is made up of a few, in our case guys since it is 98% mens golf club, guys that are looking to become chefs through us. They are telling the J&W trained Chef and now me the CIA trained chef how to cook. – here is my block – They want healthier – ok (idea – grilled turkey breast) they come back with a Sausage Calzone or NY Pastrami on rye! I did the Pastrami and no-one ate my NY Deli attempt – right on the money I may add. SO here is my block – I have an outside factor blocking me. It is preventing me from writing – Writers block! So there you go! Not lazy, not excuses, more frustration!

  • Guy ANderson

    Sorry Michael – I did not address you – it is not lazy but a lack of information in the directions you wish to go. Get a few on paper and work from there – who knows one may take you close to where you want to go — good luck my mentor!

  • Sandy

    I like what you believe very much. One of my first writing teachers had a saying: “If you have writer’s block, get out and live, experience a day or so.” This has always been true for me, along with the occasional cocktail. What is more usual? The almost daily kicking of my inner critic in the teeth, followed by the infernal mutterings of my internal editor.

  • Dave

    For what it’s worth, we thought Walk On Water is an amazing read. We couldn’t put it down!

  • David Valentin

    Agreed, Dave. Walk On Water was indeed a fabulous book. As much as I love all of Michael’s books, Walk On Water is my favorite.

  • Non Dire Gol

    Another thoughtful observation MR.

    I also saw you (again)smack down that self-absorbed dope, Knowlton. You apparently despise each other—I think he hates you, because you keep smacking him. Justifiably. Keep that up.

    Always looking forward to your next book.

  • Almost Slowfood

    I have to say after years of wallowing in a corporate job and blaming writer’s block for keeping me there, I finally realized the only thing keeping me there was me and my fear. So, three years ago I quit, I wallowed for a while, had a baby and then something happened. I sat in a chair and started really figuring things out. When anxiety creeped in, I finally recognized it for what it was and pushed it out. Things have been looking up ever since. Great post!

  • Kate in the NW

    Jeez, I hate to be the depressing pragmatist (again), and no, MR, I am not calling you an elitist, patriarchal, fatuous turd – I really like your stuff and I don’t for a minute believe that you are even remotely any of those things (if anything, you are one of the more earnest and sincere writers out there) – BUT…

    …you know what my writer’s block is?

    LIFE. As sole caretaker for humans and animals and a crumbling (though lovely) piece of property, plus trying to make some $ while gestating a book, my big problem is wedging maybe 90 consecutive minutes together during the day to actually enter the fictional dream and produce something worthwhile.

    Unlike tweets or Facebook items or (maybe) even blogs, fiction cannot be created in tiny chunks, as far as I can tell.

    Maybe that’s why the shorter mediums are becoming more and more popular as books are abandoned. We don’t have the time to read or write lengthier works while marching to the furious beat of the drummers we follow.

    Behind (almost) every great writer is either a lonely, solitary life, or someone ELSE doing the dishes, running the kids to ballet and school and soccer, mowing the lawn, making the meals, and generally taking care of life so the writer can be a writer.

    There’s my frustrated-writer-feminist-critique of “writer’s block”. I’d LOVE to have the opportunity to sit in front of a keyboard and find that I just have so much more time than ideas. L-O-V-E it. But instead, in the 5 minutes here and there that I have, I flex those muscles in the tiny contractions required to post on something here, or someplace like it.

    I envy folks with the luxury of writer’s block.
    (And yes, I recognize it’s a choice – and yes, I choose, without regret, a family and a full life – I’d just like to be able to write, too. Is that so bad?).

  • Bruce Harlick

    Michael, I believe you have defined the difference between a working writer and someone who writes. A working writing CANNOT afford to have writer’s block; their next paycheck depends on them producing. They’ll do whatever they must to get the words done. Someone who writes might well have the luxury of saying “Oh, my muse isn’t with me” or “I’m totally blocked” and to put off the writing for some better time or space.

    I’ve been a working writer — as a game designer, I mostly still am one. There’s no excuse for not hitting your milestones, for getting it done. If I let myself get blocked, I’m going to make the project miss a deadline, which costs money. If I do that often enough, I’m going to be out of a job, unable to do the thing I love.

  • Clara

    I’d have to agree with Bruce – if you’re a working writer with tangible deadlines and a very real fear of hunger knocking on your door, you don’t have time to luxuriate in a lengthy block. Over time you develop techniques for hacking through these blocks when they appear, getting to the other side, and perhaps (you hope) becoming a better writer in the process.

    But I also agree strongly that fiction can be a very different beast than non-fiction. As you noted, the same writing process may not work for all kinds of projects. Somewhat like kids. Sure, you’re basically the same parent, but each child is going to require something a little different from you. It’s impractical and borderline dangerous to suggest that one form of parenting works for every single person. Ditto writing.

    I’ve never met a block that didn’t teach me something important or help me turn something around in a positive direction. Within that framework I confess I was a little off-put by the severity of your original Tweet. But I get that you were specifically talking about the kind of dead-end writer’s block out of which nothing ever comes. I don’t really have anything to contribute to that discussion except to agree with the basic bottom line: a writer writes. Period.

    And hey, thanks for tackling this one more fully in your blog – I appreciate it.

  • mirinblue

    HUH! I have read all of your books and Walk on Water was my absolute favorite.

    I am interested in your observation that the true ending was in the middle of the book-could you address what parts you thought were out-of-order? I will then re-read it “your way”!


  • dan s.

    Walk on Water was the perfect gift to family members when trying to explain what was going on with our child. I wouldn’t change a word or the structure.

  • Rita

    For MONTHS I’ve been wondering where all my favorite pens went! NO WONDER I can’t write anything.

  • Indeo

    As a “working writer” with over 300 published short stories, 9 books, a dozen (or so) sold screenplays, various graphic novels and an anime, I would often mock those with “writer’s block.” Until I had it. I missed 2 deadlines and lost some income for 6 months. I didn’t stop writing– I only stopped writing anything worthwhile. It took some time, but I (finally!) broke through my funk. I discovered it wasn’t really a “block”– it was a “challenge” to create something new.

  • Alex

    “There are those . . . who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till–inspiration moves him. When I have heard such doctrine preached, I have hardly been able to repress my scorn. To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.”
    (Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, 1883)

  • John Dennison

    To create something where there is nothing is indeed a great human compulsion, but only for those able to see it.

  • david lebovitz

    I think at some point, it’s inevitable if you’re writing about the same topic (be it food, architecture, gardening, or medicine) to reach a point where you hit a block as to what to say. Unlike physical jobs, you can’t just “turn it on” and write all the time. I’ve done both and each poses their particular challenges: for the writer, it’s sitting down and using your mind to think of something to say in a creative way, and that doesn’t always just come when you want it to.

    Plus it doesn’t help if you’re home with your blog, kids, Twitter, the internet, a fridge full of food, or other obstacles, either.

  • Geof

    The Chef’s ethos indeed. “a Chef would make it in” is the line from that book that continues to stick with me.

  • Walter E. (Skip) Kennon

    Robert McKee in his screenwriting course STORY calls “writer’s block” a lack of research. I.E., nothing to write about. You have to read, dream, make new associations, find new metaphors. I believe this is true whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. Not all of the writing process is done at the desk.

  • Jess

    When I used to write in a more professional way I would hit a solid wall. Because I wrote reports and investigative memos along with transplation on freelance basis I had an office with co-workers as well as working from home. Thus I just had to write irregardless of wanting to or not. The thing Had To Be Done. Period. Having specified working hours between 8 – 4.30 helped. You just mugged your way through it. Working from home was different, those drinks called me oh so many times.

  • DJK

    How is it that we’ve made it this far without anyone asking why you have a rug on your desk?

  • Pamela Sheldon Johns

    For me, writer’s block is a LUXURY. I have to pound out my thoughts in ten-minute spurts between driving my tractor, dealing with my 12-year-old, teaching cooking classes, responding to emails for my Bed & Breakfast, and -oh gosh- you don’t want to know what else.
    I can’t imagine being able to sit at the computer with nothing to write.
    So, maybe that is the answer for those with writer’s block. Stay very busy, let your head fill with words, and then sit down and let it spill.
    Pamela in Tuscany

  • Miss T

    I don’t believe writer’s block is laziness. I believe it’s the manner in which the subconscious forces us to take a break so that it can work through ideas in peace. I always emerge from even the most frustrating periods of writer’s block with new ideas, but they don’t come if I try to force the work.

  • Lisa the Waitress

    I totally agree with the article.

    I do think one weird thing in the world of blogging is needing produce great (okay, at least decent) content on a consistent basis.

    Usually my brain is so full of ideas that I can’t write fast enough, so the times when my brain is blank it is very unfamiliar and frustrating, which usually makes the problem worse, because I also agree with what Miss T said above – you have to relax and let your brain work through it for a bit.

  • Becky and the Beanstock

    Well, I like spinach….

    What you’re saying, in a nutshell, and I Believe It’s True, is that you can’t wait around for inspiration. And I expect that this is the real difference between people who write for a living and people who want to. I’m not entirely good at it, but I have to accept the value in sitting there until I’ve eaten the soggy mashed potatoes (’cause that’s what it was in my childhood home. Still not a fan…) I also think that the regularity of routine like that ultimately becomes ritual — which is to say that this is the way you are able to engage all those unconscious parts where real creativity resides. If you make a pact and tbat part knows you’re coming to the table every single day, then eventually it starts showing up too.

  • Fuji Mama

    So well put. It reminds me of my mother’s response growing up to me or my siblings when one of us complained, “Mom, I’m bored.” She would say, “There’s no such thing. Go read a book or run around the block.” Boredom/Writer’s block are labels that we put on ourselves to make us feel better, but I think it is healthier to recognize our occasional difficulty with calling forth words as a necessary part of the process, rather than a hinderance to it.

  • Chris Walker

    Wait a minute; Ruhlman, you’re on Twitter? What is this world coming to? I’ve clearly been out of the loop. First Trent Reznor, then Tony Kornheiser, now you?

    I may have to finally give in and give this thing a chance.