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Books by Design: Authors to Cure Your Writer's Block

Updated on June 22, 2012
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Well blimey

Writer's block: this common affliction was first described by a Dr. Edmund Bergler, the psychoanalyst who famously said "Man's inhumanity to man is equaled only by man's inhumanity to himself." Okay, fair enough. And surprisingly appropriate when considering the psychological roots of the affliction we're here concerned with.

While writer's block has probably as many causes as there are writers, the "cure" offered here is for especially suited for those suffering from a dearth of inspiration, or a general sense of futility in writing. To get you past that "what's the point" existential angst. The authors and works features here deal variously with the processes of writing, what has drawn them to create in this medium, and meditations on the place of literature in civilization.

Or, you know, they provide inspiration through their own excellence and their own obvious love of the craft - leading by example, as it were.

So if you're suffering through a dry spell yourself, or if you just want to be prepared in the face of its eventuality, do please peruse the authors' work on offer here and see if perhaps one of them doesn't hold the key to your rejuvenation and release.

Writers on Writing: just what are you trying to do?

Okay, we don't run into burning buildings. We don't save babies or puppies or cure cancer. But even if there aren't parades to celebrate the heroism of writers, can you really say that what we do doesn't matter?

Virginia Woolf is no poster child for psychological health, but her collected letters are a testament to a great strength of conviction that through writing one can bring about real tangible change. She and her husband, so different in their literary approaches, were both deeply involved in the social and political landscape of their time - and as Virginia works to dig herself out of one depression after another, you'll find that she commiserates with your feelings of helplessness and irrelevance and that she's nevertheless found something worth coming back for. Be heartened, dear reader: Mrs. Woolf knows of which you speak, what causes you to flounder, and she thinks you probably have a little more in you to give.

For a more scientific and mechanical (but still well-written) tack, you might try Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. From the jacket: "Language... is at the heart of our lives, and through the way we use it - whether to inform, persuade, entertain, or manipulate - we can glimpse the very essence of what makes us human." Melodrama and essences aside, it's a very readable look into the science of how we use language and how it shapes our world.

The historically inclined will find Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word: a Language History of the World to be a fascinating and holistic look at humanity's linguistic genealogy. It goes through the rise and fall of previous 'universal' languages, with an eye to the cultural and political aspects of language communities' interaction. Absolutely delightful.

Ex Libris, essays by Anne Fadiman
Ex Libris, essays by Anne Fadiman | Source

Inspirational Approach: sharing a love of language

Ex Libris, a collection of essays on books and reading by Anne Fadiman, is of course the obvious place to start here - providing as it does both a re-examination or new-found appreciation of the craft and, delightfully enough, exquisite writing.

Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination is primarily the latter: reading just a few pages of this book will leave you gobsmacked. Not only does he write beautifully, but the strength and depth of the arguments and views thus shared are well worth the effort. He writes at a pace and quality to which we should all aspire.

Waving from an entirely different genre, we have Haruki Murakami - his short stories and novellas are startling and musical. Rather like the literary equivalent of a double espresso.

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Which Recommendation is Most Likely to Help You Shake Writer's Block?

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    • buckleupdorothy profile image
      Author

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Your objection has been entered into the log-book, but I'm afraid I know too many people who've been completely paralyzed by that book to add to any list that claims to offer respite from writer's block! But anyone who has read it and loved it has, I'm sure, added it to their personal list of reinvigoratum.

      My very best,

      e

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 5 years ago

      I object! Why isn't Joyce's Ulysses on this list?! Great Hub, fantastic suggestions (except for the aforementioned oversight of my true beloved of course). Love it :)

    • dannelmarchese profile image

      dannelmarchese 5 years ago from Hammond, Louisiana

      The best way to get through it is to read stories and articles, watch movies, and absorb media of all kinds.

    • buckleupdorothy profile image
      Author

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      They're classics for a reason! I'm sure CD would be pleased as punch to know what an inspiration he is for you.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      It may sound crazy, but for some reason anything Charles Dickens inspires me, maybe because I read him a lot as a child. Other than that, it's usually just random. I'm going to check out the books you recommend. Thanks again!

    • buckleupdorothy profile image
      Author

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Thank you so much for the suggestions, Vanderleelie. I've enjoyed Stanley Fish's writing in the past, and will definitely look for How to Write a Sentence.

      And the hill idea sounds like a wonderful marriage of mind and matter! There are plenty around me, so I'll give it a try soon. If the heat doesn't forbid it. =)

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      An excellent reading list for writers. I would also add "How to write a Sentence and How to read one" by Stanley Fish. This book gives you structural forms for composing sentences based on examples drawn from the work of famous writers. If you master a few of the forms through practice, you have the tools to get going again. I also like the very practical advice of poet U A Fanthorpe who said in an interview, "And the other useful thing which I recommend to people who write is when you're stuck, go upstairs or, if you've got a hill handy go up a hill. The actual motion of going up a hill or going upstairs seems to dislodge whatever it is that's got in the way."

    • buckleupdorothy profile image
      Author

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Thank you, Vespa! Considering how easy it is to get bogged down in horrible writing, it's only fair that excellent writing should provide inspiration (and propulsion!). Is there anything in particular that you've come across and found exceptional?

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      Wow, this is a well-written article. I've also suffered from writer's block and find inspiration in good writing. I consider reading the "fuel" that powers my brain and thus propels my writing. Voted up and shared!

    • buckleupdorothy profile image
      Author

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Illiterate? Hardly! Regarding their possible distraction, though, I suppose you're quite right if you're working on some journalistic piece, or something else with a set subject and deadline - I've only used this approach when I feel as though I'm getting lost during a creative writing endeavor - or when I was writing my thesis, for which I very much wanted to avoid academic jargon to the greatest possible extent. But of course if all of your sources are speaking in one language, and you'd rather relay the information in an entirely different one, you need a little pallet cleanser - at least that's what I found.

      In any case, it's hard to call reading a distraction, if you think that every quality you read can make you a better writer!

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 5 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      I am illiterate, considering I know none of these books! I would begin with The Liberal Imagination and go backward up the list. However I do not believe it would help my writers block- it would distract me from the task at hand. I love such distractions, truth be told!

    • buckleupdorothy profile image
      Author

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Consider it coined, by gum. I love it!

    • profile image

      whowas 5 years ago

      Well, I'm glad we've hubbed into each other (have I just invented a new verb?) and certainly, if the authors and books you've recommended here don't do the trick, nothing will.

      Happy writing!

    • buckleupdorothy profile image
      Author

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Thank you, whowas - and I might add that it's a pleasure to meet you.

      You're quite right about builders - I have a New Yorker cartoon on a wall somewhere that uses lawyers to the same effect. "I'm a lawyer and I *never* get lawyer's block!"

      In my mind, the reality of writer's block comes from a temporary lack of inspiration or overabundance of anxiety - purely psychological, and nothing to do with the writer's ability to 'lay one brick on top of another'. I first put this list together for my students and peers who complained of writer's block, with an eye to as many sources of anxiety, insecurity, and dried-up-ness as I could think of.

      I imagine we all need a little push now and again, and I hope the books and authors here will do the trick!

    • profile image

      whowas 5 years ago

      What a fantastic hub!

      That's a very commendable (and recommendable) list of excellent works by brilliant thinker-writers.

      Lucidly and engagingly written, too. If I had one criticism...I'd be making it up, because there is nothing wrong with this hub at all!

      I'd like to add, however, that I don't actually believe in writer's block.

      I'm of the Phillip Pullman school of thought on this. Namely, as he points out so bluntly, builders don't get builder's block. They just get up and go out every day whether they feel like it or not and start laying one brick down on top of the other until the wall is built. Even when it rains. Even on bad builder days, when they hate walls. They just keep at it until the wall is built. Then they get paid.

      All writers should learn from builders. We should get up and start writing, whether we like it or not. Whether we feel inspired or not. We should put one word down after another and keep on doing it until the article/story/biography/novel is complete. Then we will get paid.

      Writers write, by definition. When we're not writing, we're not writers. We're readers, or drivers, or cooks, or lovers, or cleaners, or excuse-makers or asleep or whatever.

      Writing for a living requires an iron discipline, a disregard for personal comfort and a devilish degree of secret confidence. Just like a builder.

      I'm following, voting up and clicking all sorts of nice buttons, too, because from what I've read here and in your profile it'll be worth it in good reads.

      Thanks!

    • buckleupdorothy profile image
      Author

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      I love reading Virginia Woolf's letters and journals when I'm feeling less than enthusiastic about my work - seeing the process, and the struggles of a writer I admire so much is often all the encouragement I need. I do hope the same holds true for you!

      Please do let me know what you think of any others you pick up from the list - I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Dee aka Nonna profile image

      Dee aka Nonna 5 years ago

      You have certainly put together a good list. Some I am familiar with because I have read them...some by name only. When I took your poll I checked Virginia Woolf because I do enjoy her. Now that you have suggested it, the next time I am experiencing a "block" I just may read her work and see what happens. I am going to also check out some of the others that I have not read.

      Thank you. Voted up and interesting.

    • katyzzz profile image

      katyzzz 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Very interesting and arresting, but a bit like taking a stab in the dark unless you know of these authors already, but I'm sure it is just as you say. Very helpful