Writer’s Block

I hate writer’s block. I know, I know: Who doesn’t? But writing about writer’s block is like what Virginia Woolf said about describing pain.

The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare, Donne, Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.

There’s no easy language for it.

I’ve been sitting here, in front of the computer, for weeks, trying to get going on this next section of the Thomas book. Just one false start after another. Every sentence falls flat, every paragraph is dead on arrival. And those are the good days.

When the writing is happening, there are few things better. When it’s not…you get posts about how it’s not happening.

Speaking of which, I’ve been thinking about writing that flies and writing that flails. Maybe because I’m reading so many Supreme Court cases and law review articles.

There is writing that has attack: I don’t mean it’s polemical. It just moves. Every sentence says something, every paragraph advances the position. For a good example, read anything by Doug Henwood. His writing flies. As do the opinions of Clarence Thomas.

Then there is writing that dawdles. It goes nowhere or takes forever to get there. And not in a good way. As Nietzsche said of a group of French writers (including Flaubert!), “Fundamentally they all lack the main thing—’la force.’” He was talking about the writers more than the writing, but the point still applies. For a good example of writing without la force, read the opinions of Lewis Powell.

Needless to say, I dislike the latter kind of writing, and try to avoid it.

But here’s the concern: Like all writers, I’m always filling in the blanks of my own writing. I extract from the noise in my head a faux-logic, coherence, and force, and then ascribe to my sentences that assemblage of logic, coherence, and force, an assemblage that is simply not there. Call it the writer’s mode of import-substitution. Only in reverse.

So, how can you tell if the attack you hope is there is really there?

Lapses in logic and coherence are easy enough, with time, to identify.

La force? She is harder.


  1. Theo June 21, 2016 at 4:58 pm | #

    you are adorable, professor
    vivre la force!
    it will come, never fear

  2. Ramesh June 21, 2016 at 5:41 pm | #

    I am not a writer. I am a software engineer. I used to have a type of writers block for writing software. In my case I would write software totally unrelated to the task at hand as play or experimentation. After couple of days ideas start forming related to the task I could not approach before.

    • Ramesh June 21, 2016 at 11:44 pm | #

      Corey, I want to thank you for making Politics ALIVE as you write. I used to think this was the most boring subject. You give life to it. Thank you brother 🙂

      • Corey Robin June 22, 2016 at 8:42 am | #

        Many thanks, Ramesh! Very kind of you to say.

  3. Roquentin June 21, 2016 at 5:45 pm | #

    Bukowski famously had “Don’t Try” written on his tombstone. It was meant in regards to writing, that if you didn’t feel it you should just stop. I don’t know if I buy into his take on it. If you waited until you were always into it, you’d barely finish an essay. Let alone a book.

    I managed to get an (unpaid) piece in an online philosophy/critical theory journal around the beginning of 2016. It’s the first time I’ve really been published, in any form, ever, so even though it was a no name publication it was a big deal for me. I’ve been working on the follow up, using Deleuze & Guattari, Marshall Berman, and Thorstein Veblen to analyze gentrification in NYC and the US on the whole. It’s been slower going than I thought it would. At least I’m writing again.

    My method for writing, particularly with essays, generally goes something like this. First, make a “draft” that is nothing but sentence, paragraphs, and anything else that pops into your head. It doesn’t have to be a coherent whole, it doesn’t even have to make any sense. Just get the ideas out on paper and clean them up after the fact. After that, I do two to three more drafts where I actually try to mold it into a coherent, smoothly-flowing essay. I’m no pro, but that’s the best advice I have. The “attack” you talk about is the last step in the process, at least for me. It’s like the makeup you put on the rest of the ideas. In my experience, when you get that feeling it’s generally because something is off structurally. The larger focus is off. When you start writing something, usually somewhere halfway through it you realize you had the project all wrong. That it was really about something else, or the things you thought mattered didn’t. That’s another reason I just scribble out the notes first. It’ll get all switched around by the time it is over.

    One last thing, more than school, I cut my teeth on internet message boards. I had thousands of posts on one devoted to weed and heavy metal in high school, another several thousand on one from college. They were bad then, but eventually grew so toxic, mean, and nasty, that the best people left. But it was the verbal equivalent of a vicious street fight. I got my taste for brawling there. It’s like in boxing when they talk about once you have your nose smashed in a couple of times, it isn’t as scary. You don’t lose focus when someone swings at you. I do a decent amount of Reddit now. I guess it’s the same.

  4. jerrysisti June 21, 2016 at 7:47 pm | #

    La Force happens when you’re in a zone. The denser the material the more rarefied the zone. When immersed fully past the point of saturation the flow begins. Live with it; think it forward backward and forward again. Once more backward for good measure — all when not attempting to write. The flow will happen. You’ll be back in the zone saddle when you least expect. Your writing leaves me no doubt: you’ve got this.

  5. Rolf Wiegand June 21, 2016 at 7:53 pm | #

    You wasted good bandwidth sending me THAT?
    Take your monitor, crumple it; wad it up; and pitch it across the room and off the wall into the trashcan — “Nuthin’ but net.”
    – Rolf Wiegand

  6. John June 21, 2016 at 9:18 pm | #

    Latch onto something that you really care about and the force will be with you.

  7. Michael Mirer June 21, 2016 at 9:52 pm | #

    The best writing about writer’s block I’ve come across is in Peter Elbow’s “Writing Without Teachers.” Good lessons about pedagogy too.

  8. Hangaku Gozen June 21, 2016 at 9:53 pm | #

    Sometimes you just have to get away from the computer, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “What story are you trying to tell here?” I got that advice from my very patient editor, back when I was a beginning reporter, as green as they get. I was given the heady assignment of covering a press conference by independent presidential candidate John Anderson. (History has barely given him a backwards glance. He ran against Reagan and Carter and was blamed later for wrecking Carter’s shot at reelection.) I eagerly took notes and was allowed to ask one question, which I can’t recall because my brain was spinning. I was sitting next to reporters from the New York Times and the Associated Press! I had a press pass just like theirs, cleared by the Secret Service!

    When the conference ended I went to the pay phones in the hall behind the hotel conference room to dutifully tell my editor about my potential story. When I heard his voice, I froze; I couldn’t think of what to tell him, let alone give him a clear topic sentence. He sighed loudly—as I said, he was terribly patient and I was lucky not get reamed out, as another editor might have done—and said, “What story are you trying tell here? Just tell me a story.” Somehow the words came tumbling out, and I went back to the newsroom to write a six-inch story, which was slashed into a two-line caption for a photograph of the candidate.

    I quit the business two years later, in large part because I couldn’t stand being an “impartial” observer of events. But I still remember my editor’s advice when I have to write a long, difficult piece.

  9. Joel in Oakland June 21, 2016 at 10:15 pm | #

    Maybe skip to something you feel some emotion about – hopefully in the material you’re writing about, but if not…

    Then just “talk on paper” about it. (Swearing on paper can be even better). Contradict yourself from one sentence or block to the next if that’s how what you’re saying evolves. Talk about how boring the subject of your work has become to you. Talk about how dead (or whatever) you feel reading Thomas now, how dead you feel reading your own work. Write about how it feels to feel dead (or whatever) about what used to interest you. Write the story of how the deadness or depression or feeling of being burnt out arose. Write about what you’d prefer doing to what you are doing.

    I.e. keep writing about you vis-a-vis Thomas (or maybe somebody else). (That’s kind of what you’re doing here. Keep it up).

    Force yourself to write for 5 minutes about whatever’s going through your head at the moment. Pay no attention to coherence or anything else other than staying with what’s going on in the internal dialogue.

  10. mark June 22, 2016 at 4:55 am | #

    I suggest you watch this sublime video at http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/thunderrun.html

    “Bristol Old Vic revives its Georgian Thunder Run to celebrate 250th Birthday.

    To mark Bristol Old Vic’s 250th Birthday, our building’s 18th century Thunder Run has been successfully restored, aided by theatre consultant and historian, David Wilmore. The Thunder Run is a Grade I listed instrument which spirals round above the celing of our auditorium and, operated by weighted balls, produces the bellowing sounds and vibrations which mimic thunder.”

  11. J. Otto Pohl June 22, 2016 at 8:12 am | #

    It is always good to have several writing projects going at once so that when one stalls you can go to one you can still make progress on. Try writing a short piece on something different and therefore new and interesting to you. It will get you writing again.

  12. Mark June 22, 2016 at 11:31 am | #

    Maybe you’re too happy with your life to bother about writing stuff. Ask Mark Ames about the urge to write.

  13. Michael June 26, 2016 at 8:03 pm | #

    I just finished Reactionary Mind a few weeks ago. If the Thomas book is written as crisply, I can’t wait!

  14. DIss2016 July 5, 2016 at 10:13 pm | #

    Hi Corey: I’ve been following your blog for a while now and it’s been illuminating. In one of your blog posts you decribed how you grade and teach your students to be better writers. If you were to suggest a couple of books (or more) on writing to a non-native speaker of English, what would they be? Thank you.

    • Corey Robin July 6, 2016 at 10:05 am | #

      Oh, gosh, I wish I could. But I can’t. I just teach my students how to do it (I don’t always succeed). I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful.

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