Gustave Flaubert once griped to a friend, “You don’t know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands, trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word.” Why do some writers labor for months over a sentence while others write at frantic paces? Is the cure for writer’s block found without or within? Sometimes, like a river, the words just flow. Other times, writers be dammed.
After Eminem’s fourth studio album, Encore (2004), he withdrew from the limelight for half a decade, blaming his absence on drug addiction and a “pretty bad case of writer’s block.” He emerged from his lyrical logjam with several songs about it, including “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” in which he raps, “One foot on the brake, one on the throttle / Fallin’ asleep with writer’s block in the parking lot of McDonald’s.”
As Eminem suggests, the way to cure writer’s block may be to write about it. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) sampled this technique during the several years it took him to adapt The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean’s 1998 nonfiction best-seller about poaching rare flowers. The resulting critically acclaimed film, Adaptation, is not, strictly speaking, an adaptation of The Orchid Thief (though it’s billed as such in the credits) but a semiautobiography about Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) and the devastating creative blockage he suffered while adapting the book. The New York Times dubbed Kaufman’s self-referential remedy the “‘I’ Cure for Writer’s Block,” evoking Charles Bukowski’s observation that “writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.”
Larry Donner (Throw Momma From the Train) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) are probably the most recognizable blocked writer characters in cinema (with a nod to Barton Fink). As they hunch over their typewriters, one question torments them: How to begin? Larry (Billy Crystal) continually agonizes over the first sentence of his novel, “The night was.…” He runs through a list of weather-related adjectives to finish it (hot, humid, wet, foggy—“hot and wet. But that’s humid!”) and distracts himself with various procrastinations (fidgeting with a tape dispenser, playing trashcan basketball, cleaning his typewriter). Charlie (Nicolas Cage), a self-loathing screenwriter, is trying to adapt a patently uncinematic book, Susan Orlean’s Orchid Thief, for Columbia Pictures but can’t keep his mind from wandering to upcoming dentist appointments, the length of his coattails and his schlubby appearance. Thoughts of a banana nut muffin interrupt his first attempt at the typewriter.
As the writer’s block builds, the men’s love lives suffer. Larry kills a romantic moment with the words no woman wants to hear: “I can’t—I have writer’s block.” Charlie never advances beyond masturbation, his primary form of procrastination.
Throw Momma From the Train is about a blocked writer who is unwittingly drawn into a comical Hitchcockian murder scheme. It’s also a dark study of an abusive mother and the psychological trauma she inflicts on her middle-aged son, Owen Lift. The title references the 1956 Patti Page song “Mama From the Train,” whose ambiguous opening lyric—“Throw Mama from the train a kiss, a kiss”—initially sounds like a command to off your mother but resolves into instructions to “throw her a kiss from the train.” Likewise, Owen shifts between caring for his mother and wanting to kill her.
A love-hate ambivalence for one’s mother may cause creative blockage, according to Edmund Bergler, the Freudian psychoanalyst who coined the phrase writer’s block in 1947. Bergler characterized the condition as a manifestation of psychic masochism—the unconscious desire for pain—originating in a maternal complex in which the writer simultaneously needs and rejects his or her mother. Bergler psychoanalyzed blocked writers and found his most psychologically complex patients would, upon sight of a blank page, crave alcohol or want to vomit—one a sublimated desire for mother’s milk, the other a psychosomatic rejection of it.
Writer’s block is often attributed to an author’s insecurity about creativity or production. While it’s true that self-doubt besets many blocked writers, this anxiety is more psychologically complex than “I’m not good enough.” Psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, a Freudian disciple who was the first to study writer’s block, placed it in the same category as alcoholism, drug addiction and compulsive gambling. Indeed, many alcoholic writers, such as Hart Crane, Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald, suffered from writer’s block. Bergler classified the condition as one of psychic masochism; if masochism is the derivation of pleasure from pain, psychic masochism is this behavior unconsciously fulfilled or, as Bergler writes, the “unconscious wish to defeat one’s conscious aims and to enjoy that self-constructed defeat.” In The Writer and Psychoanalysis (1950), Bergler submits that both the substance addict and the blocked writer are unconsciously drawn to defeat by self-destructive impulses stemming from childhood conflicts, maternal complexes and exaggerated dependency needs. Bergler performed psychoanalysis on this premise and claimed to have a high cure rate—becoming a one-man Betty Ford Center for blocked writers.
When facing creative deadlock, many artists self-medicate. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a noted blocked writer, prescribed himself copious amounts of alcohol (though, adversely, he would often become too pickled to put pen to paper). Others, such as W.H. Auden, Jack Kerouac and Jean-Paul Sartre, attempted to avoid the lugubrious effects of alcohol by adding the heart-racing euphoria of amphetamines. Writers who drink coffee, for a near-universal example, may not even realize they’re self-medicating when they sip their morning brew.
Although moderate drug use initially fueled Eminem’s creative output (he used ecstasy, marijuana and Vicodin), overuse ultimately impeded it, leading to a debilitating addiction during which he popped upwards of 60 pills a day and endured four years of writer’s block. The Grammy-winning lyricist and producer entered rehab after releasing his fourth record, and he didn’t venture back into the studio until he began work on 2009’s Relapse, ironically the album that coincided with Eminem’s return to sobriety. According to the rapper, getting clean cleared the blockage. The album’s title, therefore, refers not merely to a drug relapse—for Eminem, a state of artistic inactivity—but to the creative clarity and vitality he’d enjoyed preblock.
The opposite of writer’s block is hypergraphia—dubbed the “midnight disease” by afflicted author Edgar Allan Poe—a frenzied, uncontrollable compulsion to write, ascribed variously to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and epilepsy. Vincent van Gogh and Fyodor Dostoevsky (the former a posthumously diagnosed manic-depressive, the latter an epileptic) both suffered from this insatiable need to produce. Neurologist Alice Flaherty, author of The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block and the Creative Brain, likened her own hypergraphia to a junkie’s jones: “The sight of a computer keyboard or a blank page gave me the same rush that drug addicts get from seeing their freebasing paraphernalia.”
Hypergraphia sits in the brain’s temporal lobe, as does epilepsy, and frantic writing can actually be induced by prescription drugs that, of all things, prevent epileptic convulsions. But most writers bearing down on creative blockage will stick to the tried-and-true. Coffee, amphetamines and other uppers often facilitate a midnight hypergraphic session: Robert Louis Stevenson penned his 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on a six-day cocaine high, and Jack Kerouac wrote his classic On the Road (1957) in three weeks while hopped up on Benzedrine, the Beats’ upper of choice.
Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf all suffered dry spells, but Ralph Ellison’s 41-year stalemate with his sophomore novel, Juneteenth, is generally considered literature’s most tragic case of writer’s block. Some have even claimed this novel killed him. Ellison admitted he had “writer’s block as big as the Ritz,” likely caused by pressure to live up to the success of Invisible Man (1952), his landmark debut. People who knew him confess that Ellison considered himself a failure because he couldn’t produce more.
But writer’s block may have been a misdiagnosis. After Ellison’s death, in 1994, his literary executor unearthed chapters, outlines and thousands of notes from the second novel, prompting The Washington Post to proclaim, “Ellison had not suffered from writer’s block, after all. He had writer’s fury…a spouting gusher of artistic creation.” Alice Flaherty, neurologist and author of The Midnight Disease, might diagnose Ellison with hypergraphia, an overpowering desire to write that, when paired with his notorious perfectionism, stalled him from publication. Ellison blamed his dormancy on a 1967 house fire that claimed hundreds of pages from the novel’s original draft and permanently broke his spirit.