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Franz Kafka Agonized over Writer’s Block (2017) (openculture.com)
42 points by taylorbuley 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments



One of Hemingway's personal book's had the best solution to writers block that I've been using for years with programming:

Do: Always stop working a bit early while you're on a roll (in the zone), for ex: while you still know what to write next. Then the next day, or next writing spurt, you know exactly where to start and get back into the flow of writing. The juices will flow easier.

Don't: Push yourself too hard during moments of productivity, for ex: staying up late pumping out everything you have in your head until you can't write anymore. The next day you'll be starting from zero and more liable to find a hundred distractions before starting 'real work'.

If you're scared of forgetting something in your head write some summary notes after you stop, then use them the next day.


+1, This has been my favorite technique as well.

Also, I would higly recommend experimental poet Kenneth Goldsmith's [1] book "Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age" for those struggling with writer's block. In the context of this discussion one could say that his entire art deals with issues of writer's block very closely (e.g. he has "Soliloquy", a 800-page book consisting of every word he spoke during a week, etc).

A passage from "Uncreative Writing":

"There’s one solution that each and every book on writer’s block offers: write five words. Any five words. Follow this advice, Mr. Ashbery, and you’ll never have writer’s block again."

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Goldsmith; see also Ubuweb, the massive avant-gart art catalogue he curates, at http://www.ubu.com.


> Always work stop early while you're on a roll, while you still know what to write next.

Oh, that's easy: tests, documentation, ... :)

Seriously though, one way to stop on a roll is simply not to commit the code into the repository, even though it appears good to go. The next day there is a git diff waiting for you. You now have to write a bit of prose in the commit comment to explain it, and that can get the ball rolling.


I'm not sure it caters to his style, but did he have anything to say about research for writing? Like when to stop?


Its so strange that I’ve heard so many people talk about their struggles with writing, yet no therapists who focus on it. If you search online for writing anxiety, you can find academic papers discussing how effective Writing Process Training[1] is, but you cannot find anyone who practices Writing Process Training.

Then again, the same is true for software task estimation. Lots of people talk about how hard it is but the only ones who can teach it are those who blithely say “you learn it by experience” or find it so simple they think it is a matter of “go with your gut and multiply by 2”. Does anyone have any guesses at the reason behind the absence of therapists and tutors who offer services in teaching people how to overcome these commonly-held challenges?

[1] http://ei.yale.edu/publication/efficacy-cognitive-behavior-t...


Someone who advises / tutors in improving efficacy rather than mental health, isn't typically referred to as a "therapist" but as a "coach". Writing coaches exist as a specialisation of coaching.

Of course there may also be mental health issues that interfere with, or are caused by a person's work, and to some extent therapists deal with this, such as in "career counselling".


A most relevant historical paper on the matter:

Upper, Dennis. "The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of “writer's block”." Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 7.3 (1974): 497.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1311997/pdf/jab...


I think the reason for writer’s block is when the complexity of the plot of the story (or the architecture if the software you’re writing, or...) becomes too great. To write another page it’s not enough to just come up with some new ideas. Whatever you write must simultaneously satisfy the existing strands of the story, obeying their internal logic while tying it all together. If the writer has a strong philosophical core to their work, then this could halt output all together rather than just for one individual story (because their whole output is really a continual development of their philosophy).


Yes. This is exactly the case with music, too. Once the song's basis is created, everything that comes after has to 'fit in'. It's much harder to do sound design without that blank canvas effect.


I say we should call this hypothesis the George R. R. Martin Theory of Writers Block.


Philip K. Dick had perhaps the most effective solution for writers block: amphetamines. Over his 30 year career, he wrote 44 novels and 121 short stories.

Of course it wasn't without its downsides, including psychosis, multiple suicide attempts, being abusive to his partners, and eventually dying aged 54 of a stroke.


> effective solution for writers block

> (…)

> psychosis, multiple suicide attempts, being abusive (…) dying aged 54 of a stroke

It’s an alternative to writer’s block, for sure, but I’m not sure I’d call that a “solution”, just like smoking cigarettes isn’t a solution to nicotine withdrawal.


Kafka was a genius writer and his work has my highest respect.

The anguish that he felt, in writing as well as in life, is exactly what made his work so great. The absurd eagerness to continually perform and deliver, in a world which makes so little sense and where all meaning is relative, is what made his books so human.

I'm not surprised that his books were difficult to write. They are also difficult to read. They feel like swimming in mud with no clear direction, under immense pressure from others arbitrarily chosen, only to realize in the end you were going in circles. That is what makes them profoundly human. I don't think his work would have had the same impact if it was not imprinted by the same kind of anguish that made writing it so difficult.


> He has the feeling that merely by being alive he is blocking his own way. From this sense of hindrance, in turn, he deduces the proof that he is alive.

also Franz Kafka:

> Don't spend your time with the search for an obstruction. Perhaps there isn't one.


I find it amusing that he is writing about not writing. The diary extracts are very well written for someone with writer's block!


what is it that causes so much anguish over block ? writing or else ?

is the brain so hooked up on some passion ?


Writer's block is a specialized case of procrastination. It is a problem of emotion management. Doubt and fear over ability cause a person to prefer avoiding the writing.

"What if it's bad?"

"What if I destroy this work that I so badly wanted to be beautiful?"

"What if no one understands it?"

"What if I over-explain it and ruin it?"

"What if people understand it and hate it anyway?"

You face the blank page (or blinking cursor) and these questions run through your mind. Often, rather than agonize over these questions, you do something else so that you don't face these doubts. If you're not staring at the page, or that cursor, you're not feeling what those doubts make you feel.

You do things that are tangentially related to the writing, like cleaning the writing area, or fixing tea, or obsessing over the proper editing software that ought to be used to produce the work. You rationalize these things as preparation for the actual work.

I've done this as programmer. I've done this as a writer. When writers do this, we call it writer's block.


> You do things that are tangentially related to the writing, like cleaning the writing area, or fixing tea, or obsessing over the proper editing software that ought to be used to produce the work. You rationalize these things as preparation for the actual work.

100 times this. When you're not working it's guilt, then when you are working it's pain. So instead you fuck around trying to turn org mode into an ersatz Scrivener with vim motions.


I don't agree with your premise that procrastination is based only on doubt or fear. I certainly didn't put off ironing my clothes for 3 days because I was nervous about my ironing performance. I think it's a combination of expected pain of the actual task (ironing sucks), ambiguity on the scope of the task, and potentially fear of how your output is perceived.

That's why many times, the best suggested procrastination treatments for a task are just starting the task (where predicted pain of the task disappears and you get clarity on next steps) or breaking down the subtask into very small subtasks that are digestible.


It isn't based only on doubt and fear. Those happen to be predominant with writer's block, though.

I might point out that ambiguity of scope may be summarized as doubt, and you do proceed to use fear as the third part of your list.

But yes, procrastination in general is not only those things.


It's like debugging a byzantine system, but it's you, and you've lived with yourself all your life. You know you've written- you have existing writing to prove you are capable of writing. You follow the algorithm you have set for writing, the exact same circumstances that caused writing to happen before- one's favorite coffee, time of day, computer or notebook setup, etc.

But the behavior isn't happening and you're not sure why, so you dedicate internal cycles to debug yourself, your process, and apply patch fixes like "if I just sit and force myself" or "if I grow more discipline by forcing myself" or "if I just write nonsense".

Behavior still isn't happening. Nothing is clicking. You've got a bug in your system and you have no idea what's causing it, but it's happening in production and you are both the client and the developer. Have fun!


If you are professionally creative, then a decline in your creativity is directly linked to your livelihood. Other than that, people often derive their self worth from their creative abilities; a failure of those abilities is interpreted as a feeling of worthlessness.


This is happening to me. Been in a severe burnout for a little over 6 months (since before the 2018 holidays) and possibly as much as a year before that.

Got put on a project that ended up being my Waterloo. Ruby was the language, but I'm more of a php/shell/MATLAB data swizzler functional programmer. It had 100 developers over a decade, roughly 100:1 code bloat, an order of magnitude more side effects than I've ever encountered in any other code, no straightforward way to unit test the critical path I was tasked with fixing because it ran live in AWS, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I think my brain got so saturated with antipatterns that it went into a kind of survival mode and started overwriting anything nonessential. Which basically meant that all the precious neurons we use for finding outside-the-box solutions were being used to find the safe path through minefields day in and day out. When the inspiration ran out, the brute force path was so much rougher to traverse that my productivity dropped an order of magnitude or more. I assume it might be similar to what a professional artist experiences when they're forced to be creative to meet a deadline but in the end produce subpar work or even nothing at all.

Nobody ever told me when I was young and bouncing off the walls with exuberance and creativity that someday that wellspring might run out. That I'd wake up one day tired, so impossibly tired that when I sit down at the computer I'm asleep within 15 minutes.

Similar things have happened in other departments. Like: my teeth are super strong so I've never had a cavity, but nobody told me my gums would weaken and threaten all my teeth. Our greatest strengths can fail at any time, for reasons we don't anticipate. Then what do we do?

I'm a big picture thinker so I worry that this sort of systemic fatigue is beginning to affect world politics. Like, if automation increases wealth inequality, then we're royally hosed. Or at the very least, something has to change (maybe even capitalism itself). And we know this, deep down inside. Everywhere I look, I see compounding dysfunction. I see the gears within the dysfunction. I see the people turning the thumbscrews of the people fixing the gears so that the machine becomes the thumbscrew crushing the world.

But hey, maybe I'm just burned out.

And as a footnote, I've been improving. But healing takes time proportional to the original insult, which is a great deal longer than I had hoped for.


Been there too. What I got out of it besides the burnout is the experience not to work on such projects ever again even if my job is on the line. Or set low expectations and take my time with it. I think I burned out 3 times but the intensity of the latest burn were most signigicant. Took me a while to get back to work, about a year, and at the time I felt a bit desperate, felt like I lost my livelyhood. Felt scary. What helped me cope was painting; through painting I felt like i was doing a purge for my brain and and at the same time like I was meditating. It just happened to be painting for me, but something tells me that using my hands/my body had something to do with it. My burnouts were luckily not chronic. Im sure that whoever exposes themselves to these stressors for a longer periods of time can become permanently damaged. Things turned around quite well to me and am as good as new or at least I feel that way. Do take some time off, live thriftily and try out things like old hobbies, ramdom things that are not computer related. Sports/physical/nature/performance/arts/volunteering. Good luck to you!


Ya I've been taking a break from programming for a few months, doing recreational programming (like learning Unity) and remodeling our home. I also think that painting is uniquely therapeutic.

For anyone reading this, don't discount the physical. I realized lately that part of my burnout was chemical, so I've been taking:

* essential fatty acids (Nature's EFA)

* B 100 complex

* magnesium citrate before bed (Natural Calm)

* zinc

* iron (limit this to occasional small doses or it's dangerous)

I've also found that leafy green vegetables help, as well as walking a few times a week for 15-20 minutes.

I wasn't sure why I was so tired, so I searched the bodybuilding.com forums for advice since I lift. If you aren't sure what's ailing you, I would recommend taking all of the supplements you think might help for 1-2 weeks and then go back to your normal multivitamin or whatever and note any changes.

My gut feeling is that my omega 3s were way too low, and probably my electrolytes, and certainly I wasn't drinking enough water or sleeping properly. I got diagnosed with sleep apnea early in my burnout and wear Breathe Right strips but should have probably tried a CPAP machine.


> Nobody ever told me when I was young and bouncing off the walls with exuberance and creativity that someday that wellspring might run out. That I'd wake up one day tired, so impossibly tired that when I sit down at the computer I'm asleep within 15 minutes.

A metaphor I like for creativity is a forest. The wood of a forest is a renewable resource, and cutting down trees can actually make the forest healthier and grow more efficiently. The problem comes when the forest is managed unsustainably; trying to meet some external short-term demand.

I think that with mental health in general, many of us suffer the fallacy of thinking that because we're healthy now, we can take any amount of stress and abuse.


Thank you, that's a good metaphor, I'll remember that. I feel like I got just to the point where the trees along the bank of a river had been cut down, so the soil had begun eroding and the water table was dropping. Luckily (in a way) I'm off that project and beavers have moved in and started building dams, and it may take a while but the ecosystem in my brain seems to be recovering, albeit slowly :-)


fair point, no income => depression


I knew he and I had a ton in common as writers. Sorta...




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