If Tolstoy Could Do It: Some Thoughts On Writer’s Block by Paul Saevig

If you had an assurance that your next story or novel would be published and read by an audience, would you write with more ease and confidence? I believe I would, but I have no such assurance for the fate of my writings. Most writers are in the same position as I am, too. No wonder we get writer’s block from time to time. It’s like baking pies and cakes that might never be eaten. What’s the point?

On the other hand, every celebrated author in history has suffered from some writer’s block, with the exception of Mr. Harlan Ellison, if you want to include him in this discussion. Euripedes struggled with writer’s block. So did writers like Dickens, who found an eager market for his work. A writer’s block is not an author’s illness that occurs with abnormal frequency in a small percentage of the authorial population. It is a normal and maybe essential part of the writing process.

Few writers except Ms. Joyce Carol Oates and practitioners like Mr.Tom Clancy and Mr. Dean Koontz write continuously, without break, every day of year, almost hour by hour. The rest of us have halts and hesitations. We stop to plan, or to replenish our energy, or to think, or to rest. We write when we’re ready, although some writers report that they can “force” themselves to write, as if they were technical writers or advertising copy writers. The situation with most writers is analogous to the situation of people who stutter. Many people who stutter are under the mistaken impression that normal-speaking people talk with perfect fluency, when in fact the only beings with perfect fluency are robots. All of us are somewhat dysfluent as speakers and as writers. There’s no sense in thinking we should be able to write ten pages of a novel every day.

But what if you feel stuck? You’ve been blocked for weeks. In this type of situation, you should examine why you want to write. Do you write for fun and satisfaction only? Or do you plan to make a living at it some day? Or are your aspirations somewhere in between? The more you expect from your writing, the more often you will be blocked. Very few good writers are able to relax with their writing; for most, the exercise is tense and full of anxiety. As Dorothy Parker said (or was it Mary McCarthy?), “Writing is easy. You just put a clean sheet of paper in your typewriter and wait until beads of blood pop out on your forehead.”

When I’m blocked, I know that I am working with ideas and images in my unconscious mind – something is gestating and ready to give birth. Some have told me this belief is a rationalization, an excuse. Who knows? I can only say that I’ve always come back to writing with vigor and enthusiasm. Of course, I know that I should keep a notebook and a journal. I should make notes of my thoughts and dreams. This is what many of the great writers have done.

Tolstoy was often blocked for months and even years, yet managed to write War and Peace and Anna Karenina, among others. Should we settle for anything less?

Copyright Paul Saevig June 2001

If you would like to send us an article, email:

Black Expressions 4 books for $2 plus free gift