13 Memoirs About Writer’s Block — And How To Beat It
You've cancelled your plans. You've hired a babysitter. You've quit your job and moved into the mountains with only a typewriter and a jar of peanut butter for company. In short, you've done whatever it takes to set aside some time to actually freaking write for one solitary hour. So you sit down at your desk, thrilled to finally have some hard-earned time to work on your novel/screenplay/collection of found poetry and... nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Your mind is blank and the page is blank and suddenly you are terrified that you will never ever write again. You have writer's block. It's so dreadfully common that it's a bit of a cliche. But having writer's block is still one of the great trials of writing, whether you're a professional or a hobbyist or somewhere in between. The most important thing is that you don't panic, because there have been many, many writers who've had writer's block before you, and who've managed to come out on the other side of it. Here are a few of the best writing memoirs for when you need some block-busting inspiration.
Not all of these writers suffered extreme, debilitating writer's block — but all of them dealt with the struggle at some point or another, and they have plenty of words of encouragement for the rest of us:
'Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings' by Shirley Jackson
Let Me Tell You combines all the best that queen of horror Shirley Jackson has to offer. There are wonderfully creepy short stories, hilarious essays about her big, sprawling family, lovely and weird illustrations, and, of course, a collection of straightforward lectures on writing. Jackson keeps it real while still inspiring young writers to try their own thing (and yes, she did push through a bout of midlife writer's block herself).
'The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling' by Charles Johnson
Charles Johnson is an award-winning author of novels, essays, and screenplays, as well as a philosopher, professor, and cartoonist. It's pretty safe to say that he knows his stuff. The Way of the Writer offers practical advice as well as writerly philosophy, with plenty of reflections on Johnson's life as well as writing exercises that you can actually use to trick yourself into actually writing.
'Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life' by Anne Lamott
Annie Lamott got the title for her beloved book on life and writing from a report on birds that her brother once had to do for school. He put it off for three months and ended up panicking the night before it was due, paralyzed by stress and surrounded by unopened bird books. Their father's advice was to "just take it bird by bird." This is Lamott's advice for writing, too: don't let yourself freeze up when confronted with the hugeness of the task ahead. Just take it one step (or bird) at a time.
'Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer's Block' by Jane Anne Staw
Unstuck is a bit lighter on the memoir aspects (although Jane Anne Staw certainly draws on her own experiences as a poet). But if you're looking for a practical book to help you get through writer's block with your dignity intact, this is the lovely, supportive guide for you.
'Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir' by Amy Tan
If you've read Amy Tan's fiction, then it'll come as no surprise to you that her memoir is a nuanced, gut-wrenching, beautifully written look at childhood trauma and a career in the literary arts. Tan candidly shares her own self-doubt as a writer, and how she's turned to storytelling to make sense of the turbulent relationships in her own past.
'The Writer's Block Myth: A Guide To Get Past Stuck & Experience Lasting Creative Freedom' by Heloise Jones
The Writer's Block Myth isn't trying to gaslight you into thinking that writer's block is just a myth and you, therefore, are totally making it up. But Heloise Jones makes the excellent point that "writing" isn't solely the process of putting pen to paper: you're still writing when you're researching, when you're gathering information and making plans and mulling things over in your head. Don't discount all that work just because it hasn't yet found its way onto the page.
'A Room of One's Own' by Virginia Woolf
Yes, everyone experiences writer's block, not just women. But sometimes you need a reminder that writing has, historically, been really difficult for women to pursue. Women have had a pretty tough time finding their own space for long enough to come up with a dang idea and then put it on paper. A Room of One's Own is a classic feminist essay that'll put your struggle in perspective, because sometimes writer's block just means that you haven't had enough time alone with your thoughts.
'The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles' by Steven Pressfield
Look, I'm not a huge fan of war metaphors when it comes to making art. But if imagining yourself going into pitched battle against your own writer's blocks is going to help you, then go for it. This book is no-nonsense and fairly light on the personal anecdotes, but it's a great kick in the pants when you need an extra dose of ferocious motivation.
'The Writing Life' by Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard seems to view the profession of writing as somewhere between a horrible burden and a divine, nearly religious vocation, and I'm very much here for it. She's equally good at commiserating and inspiring. The Writing Life is, simply, a memoir of a life as a writer, with all the frustrations, anger, and small victories that it entails.
'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' by Haruki Murakami
Look, I know that, strictly, this is a memoir about running, not about writing. However, Murakami cleverly manages to hide a writing memoir within a running memoir, weaving the two pursuits together until it is almost impossible to separate them. Plus, this book as a whole makes for excellent advice for any blocked writer: step away from the computer, and go for a walk. You'll be shocked at how much moving your sad, defeated body can help.
'The Motion Of Light In Water: Sex And Science Fiction Writing In The East Village' by Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany didn't suffer from writer's block so much as he suffered from being terrified to stop writing even for a second, no matter how much the rest of his life was spinning out of control. His memoir is just as important a read for blocked writers, though. One of the lessons of Delany's wild youth as a sci-fi writer on the Lower East Side was that it is perfectly OK to take a break from your work if it's not bringing you joy. And that's a reminder we all need from time to time.
'The Artist's Way' by Julia Cameron
Everyone responds differently to writer's block. Some writers need a swift kick in the rear, or a reminder to take a break. Some writers need to go for a walk. And some writers might even need to take a moment to re-discover their creative selves. The Artist's Way is a lovely, gentle approach to finding your voice again, filled with reminiscences on Cameron's own journey to artistic peace.
'On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft' by Stephen King
Of course, no list of painfully honest writing memoirs is complete without Stephen King's On Writing. King is famously prolific, the author of over 58 books. Yet even he has faced stretches of frustration with his own writing. After a near fatal accident, he essentially had to learn the discipline of writing all over again. And he is still writing today, just as weird and brilliantly creepy as ever, and still inspiring generations of young writers to pick up a pen for the first (or 58th) time.