Understanding Writer's Block: A Therapist's Guide to Diagnosis and Treatment
Understanding Writer 's Block: A Therapist's Guide to Diagnosis and Treatment
L. John Brinkerhof 0
0 hT e Center for Individual and Family Services
Follow this and additional works at: http://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/csr Recommended Citation
Understanding Writer's Block: A Therapist's Guide to Diagnosis and
Treatment, by Martin Kantor. Westport, CN: Praeger, 1995. 195 pp. $55.00
cloth. ISBN 0-275-94905-2.
L. John Brinkerhoff, PhD, CCS
The Centerfor Individual and Family Services
In September 1996, while this book was being reviewed, an Associated
Press news item regarding the prolific writer Iris Murdoch was released:
At 77, after 26 novels, Dame Iris Murdoch has her first case of writer's
block. 'I'm in a very, very bad, quiet place,' she said....'I feel asthough
maybe the whole thing has packed up.' Doctors have been unable to find a
medical reason for the block, Dame Iris said. Murdoch began her string of
novels in 1954 with Under the Net.
Twenty-six published novels, spanning forty-two years, without once
experiencing writer's block! Twenty-six published novels, spanning forty-two
years, without once experiencing writer's block, until now! Equally
remarkable statements, it is the latter mat might be of particular interest to
Dr. Kantor, a psychiatrist.
In his book, the author uses "writer's block" and "creative block"
interchangeably and broadly applied: "Block is a relatively common disorder
mat affects the genius and the merely talented alike: the composer and the
assembly worker, the painter of canvases and the painter of houses" (p. 3).
Most examples of "block" cited, however, are drawn from the lives of
writers, musicians and artists.
In writing about block, the author posits ten categories of mental and
physical disorders of origin: Affective Disorder, Anxiety/Phobic Disorder,
Conversion Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress
Disorder, Schizophrenic Disorder, Sexual Disorder/Paraphitia, Personality
Disorder, Substance Use Disorder, and Organic Disorder. Separate chapters
are devoted to each, within which there is much descriptive material that
might interest the casual and clinical reader, alike. Indeed, a strength of the
book is in the description of the interrelationship between manifestations of
block and disorders of origin.
The author hopes mat clinicians, better informed about the concept,
dynamics and treatment of block, will prove more sensitive to its presence,
thereby reducing the chance of it being missed during assessment or
treatment He states:
Block can be covert/hidden because it is in its early, formative stages
(preblock); because it is transient; because it is embedded in the art as
distinct from in the artist; because it affects what we consider to be a
nonartistic skilled profession like law or business, or semiskilled
profession like plumbing; because of poor insight on the part of the
blocked artist, who might deliberately or unconsciously skew the history
he or she gives the therapist away from block; because of poor insight on
the part of the therapist trying to understand the artist; because it is
acted-out interpersonally or professionally, say in derivativeness or
plagiarism; and because it is not absolute, but relative (p. 117).
Undiagnosed, the presence of block might serve to prolong unnecessary
suffering for the client, hindering or thwarting clinical efforts directed towards
changing other aspects of functioning and life. The author notes that,
professionally, some individuals who appear to be "misfits" might actually be
blocked. Similarly, precipitous job quitting or changing of careers might
indicate the presence of block.
At other times, what appears to be block might be otherwise: "Some
artists think they are blocked when they are n o t . . . they are talented, but lazy"
(p. 131). Sometimes it is a matter of unrealistically high self-expectations:
"Even the most dedicated, talented, and hard-working artists should not expect
themselves to work effectively nonstop. Creating is in general a discontinuous
process" (p. 132). Hormonal imbalances or side-effects of medication might
produce block-like symptoms, too.
The ten chapters on block and disorders of origin are four to eighteen
pages in length, or a mean of about nine pages each. Some chapters seem
spare. Given this, at least an already good working knowledge of essential
psychopathology and its treatment is recommended for the clinical reader,
even though the reading material itself is presented in a clear and
straightforward style. Additional chapters are included on chronic, missed and
false blocks, internal and external causes of block, and positive aspects of
With regard to the role of disorders of origin in manifestation of block,
the author quotes
, p. 761) on the many block-like symptoms of
depression: "Reduced capacity to experience pleasure (anhedonia), reduced
interest in the environment (withdrawal), and reduced energy (anergia)... a
loss of interest or pleasure in ... [one's] usual activities." With anxiety,
however, block might develop consequent to imaginary fears which become
associated with the creative process: "Every creative act becomes an occasion
for anxiety beyond what the actual circumstances warrant" (p. 45). Such might
then progress into phobic-like avoidance. "The artist hesitates or refuses to
venture out into the world of art just as the agoraphobic hesitates or refuses to
venture out into the world of life" (p. 45). Then, too, block might result from
anxiety induced by feelings of guilt originating in "existential conflicts, such
as the one between writing something popular for money and something
academic for glory" (p. 47).
Block manifested as avoidance might also be associated with a history of
In blockage due to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder creativity slows or stops
because the act of creating or the personal or professional consequences of
creating are in themselves newly traumatic, or they revive one or more old
traumas. Both new and old traumas stop creativity because they are
painful; they make the creator feel helpless and afraid (p. 73).
For others, however, past trauma might actually foster creativity:
One artist said, in essence, 'I will create something beautiful to undo the
feeling that my life has been one ugly traumatic incident after another, and
to leave something behind to deal with the sense of meaninglessness that
as a consequence I feel about myself, and my existence (p. 76).
Similarly, some symptoms of schizophrenia might impact positively upon
Thought content disorder such as paranoid and grandiose delusions can be
inherently interesting. The thought process disorders of circumstantiality,
tangentiality, and loosening of associations can facilitate the artistic
development and elaboration of idea. Sometimes spillage of unconscious
material looks like, and probably is, good poetry (p. 20).
Unfortunately, "for most schizophrenics, schizophrenia neither spares nor
causes creativity. Instead, in most cases, schizophrenia causes the opposite of
creativity: creative block" (p. 17).
Sometimes, a partial block might develop, an emotional or intellectual
compromise that permits creative expression, albeit circumscribed. For
In the field of psychology, personologists, from whom we would expect
the most human of revelations, can often instead do no better than write
works notably free of humanity —turgid, cool scientific studies that view
the individual not as a person but as a compilation of traits determined by
answers to questionnaires (p. 92).
While the descriptive and diagnostic aspects of block were found
informative, it seems that relatively less attention was given to its treatment.
Basic, general treatment issues are presented, but a more detailed, dynamic
presentation would have been appreciated. There is relatively little explication
as to how the various types of block might be approached and treated
differentially. For instance, in what substantively different way might the
author conceptualize and work with a depressed client reporting block, than
with a depressed client not reporting block? This reviewer would have
welcomed the inclusion of a few, moderately long case studies, in elaborating
upon a briefly outlined "new therapeutic approach (towards block)" proposed
by the author.
In outlining his "new therapeutic approach," the author encourages the
clinician to adopt a warm, nurturing, sometimes "benign" attitude: "Blocked
artists are really demoralized. They need to hear something good about
themselves" (p. 167).
It is in the principles "Help the artist change his or her negative
environment, when necessary" and "Teach the artist what he or she has to
know to survive" that the author especially demonstrates his awareness of the
crucial role social forces often play in block:
Learning about why critics and audiences mistreat artists can help the
artist cope. No therapist can emphasize enough how jealousy is the real
reason audiences and critics put artists down So often critics devalue
an artist's works as part of a process in which they are using the work as a
stimulus for their own needs and fantasies (p. 172).
Most discussions of creative block emphasize internal over external cause.
In particular they let society, its audiences, and critics off the hook as
potential sources for creative block. By ignoring society's contribution to
blockage, they make things worse for the artist because, by blaming the
artist entirely for block, they add the element of external criticism to the
already heavy burden of internal guilt (p. 137).
In artist abuse society mistreats its artists emotionally like some spouses
mistreat their mates physically. Just as abused mates blame themselves for
provoking their own abuse instead of blaming their mates for being
abusive, artists, instead of blaming an unfriendly or openly hostile society,
block, then blame themselves —citing their laziness or lack of talent (p.
The author proposes a well-recommended corrective: "Though no artist
writes entirely without an audience and critics in mind, most should give up
their more unrealistic expectations of love and admiration from strangers and
settle for inner rewards" (p. 161).
Cancro , Robert. 1985 . "Overview of Affective Disorders." Pp . 760 -763 in Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry/IV, edited by H. Kaplan and B. Sadock . Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.