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For people who write regularly, one of the most disheartening experiences is that of “writer’s block.” It is an unpleasant feeling, to say the least. No matter how hard I try, the words do not come. Or, they come in fits and starts, only to be censored before they reach the page. 

Words, the building blocks of the written product, seem to reside somewhere in my mind. They float around up there, waiting for me to scoop them up and spread them around. But writer’s block is a dam for words, gunking up the passageway that brings the abstraction of thought to fruition in the material world.

This is, at least, how I have pictured the problem of writer’s block. My fears and anxieties attached to writing seem to come from mental obstructions. Most of the time, I attribute the lack of consistency and clarity in my written work to brain fog, tiredness or carelessness. 

At worst, the harshness with which I critique my work — even while I am still in the process of drafting — results in me charging myself of intellectual dishonesty; not plagiarism, but dissociation from my own writing because it does not represent what I want to say. What you intend to write is full of lies, half-truths and sophisms, I tell myself, as I continue to stare at the blank page in front of me.

Where do these damaging thoughts and emotions about my writing come from? And where might they end?

***

In general, I believe my fears and anxieties about writing stem from my equating of writing ability to intelligence. I have been prone to say that a “bad” piece of writing functions as proof of an intellectual failure on my part. The same can be said of almost any exam, test or paper I have turned in: These are “tests” in the sense that they measure something about me, not merely my knowledge about a particular subject.

This is a counterproductive way of thinking about assignments, academic or otherwise. It presupposes a binary of comprehension — either you understand completely, or not at all — and obscures the role of practice and active engagement with the subject matter at hand. Though the ultimate source of this “Caesar or nothing” attitude towards writing is ambiguous, I do have some intuitions about its provenance.

At university, I started to study philosophy and began to internalize the long philosophical tradition of privileging the mind over the body. For many philosophers, this has amounted to a repudiation of the body as the site of innumerable aches, pains, lusts and other biological hindrances. Though there is debate around this issue, Plato often talks about suppressing bodily desire in order to cultivate the soul [psuchê], which is similar to our contemporary notion of mind as something inanimate and potentially transcendent. The same themes of denying oneself pleasure and ignoring the body are explored by later schools of Greek philosophy, early Christian philosophers and, in some cases, in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Though philosophers have had a somewhat strained psychological relationship with their bodies,  many have also been skeptical about trusting sense experience altogether. This elevation of the mind over the body can be traced to the Platonic theory of forms, though in my view it was stated most succinctly by the French philosopher René Descartes in his “Discourse on the Method.”

The “Discourse” contains the famous logical formulation je pense, donc je suis, (“I think, therefore I am”), the result of the philosopher’s search for an indubitable truth. Or, rather, in training his sights on pure reflection, free of the biases of the senses, Descartes seeks the truth in avoiding error. Similarly, in the “Meditations on First Philosophy,” he writes that, in order to avoid deception, “I shall imagine myself as if I had no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses at all, but as if all my belief in these things were false.” 

The Cartesian mode of thinking amounts to a denial of the role of the body in grasping the truth. For me, however, this brand of body denial has led to innumerable confusions regarding the articulation of thoughts through the process of writing — a process that involves drawing from the well of pure reflection only to sully the waters.

My reading of Descartes here is admittedly condensed, though it points towards broader questions about the relationship between my thoughts and my written work. If Descartes were in front of me today, I would have two questions for him: Why have you dared to write philosophy, if writing can only be achieved by means of the body? Why have you written, given that the human body is the cause of so many deceptions against humanity?

In fact, especially in the “Meditations,” Descartes does describe the considerable effort required to abandon his old ways of thinking that were influenced by bodily senses. Despite his best efforts, the philosopher admits, “a kind of laziness brings me back to what is more habitual in my life.” This laziness resembles a half-sleep, one in which the dreamer is partially aware that he is in a dream but wants to preserve the pleasant illusion. Thus, tiredness of the body represents an obstacle to contemplation. But even in those moments where Descartes seems to grasp the truth, relying only on his mind, the act of writing brings these reflections into the physical world. How did Descartes relate to his arms, his quill and ink, his parchment, and all the other physical  “things” that permitted him to communicate his ideas to future generations? What anxieties may he have held about the subjection of the mind, the “thinking thing” [res cogitans], to the instruments of language, writing tools and the body itself; the material things [res extensa] on which writing depends?

I am not sure what Descartes thought about the act of writing, but I do know other thinkers have expressed their reticence about it. The 20th century philosopher Jacques Derrida, for instance, expressed anxiety about challenging authority in his own writing.

“Nothing intimidates me when I write,” he explained in an interview for a documentary. “I say what I think must be said.” However, Derrida goes on to describe the self-doubt that invades his psyche when he is away from his papers. Especially at the moment when he is falling asleep, an internal voice admonishes him for his arrogance. The philosopher is suddenly seized with the destructive desire to burn all of his papers and start over.

Fortunately, these moments of crisis occurred away from his desk. But what if he had allowed those moments of censorship to invade the practice of writing itself? 

During the act of writing, we make decisions about what to say and what not to say as we go; there is not a clear line between the writing process and the editing process per se. But writer’s block, at least for me, represents the counterproductive disciplining of the mind and body in the creative process. My block is not just in the mind but reverberates throughout my entire body. The physical aversion of writing utensils and devices complements the mental aversion of error, resulting in a perfect storm of stagnation.

***

Breaking writer’s block, then, is not a movement that happens solely in the mind; the act of writing is just that — an act — and must be performed at the physical level as well as in the quiet of one’s mind.

Perhaps that is not a remarkable realization, but for a writer like me who is trapped in the equating of writing and intellect, it represents a way to engage the body in order to free the mind. In this framing, writing is not a means of liberating the mind from the body, but of strengthening their connection. For one way of thinking about writing is to see it as a neutral medium for the presentation of ideas, and another is to regard writing as part of the process of thinking itself.

Letting oneself write is an act of generosity, too, because it allows an inner dialogue to materialize without immediately censoring the outcome of this dialogue in the written product. When I am in the flow of writing, there is indeed a feeling of necessity that drives the flushing of words onto a screen or wherever else I happen to be recording my thoughts. Writing anxiety blocks the overall process of making my mark on the world around me, trapping my thoughts “inside” of my body despite my will to mark them down somewhere on the outside.

Etymology provides a clue to this traditional sense of writing as a cutting, marking, or scratching of the world which bodies inhabit. Roughly speaking, the Old English verb writan, as well as the Latin scribere, were related to the physical notion of scoring, outlining or drawing. To take a broader view, historians believe that the first full writing systems in history were formed independently between 3400 and 600 BC, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica. The evidence, of course, is from the inscriptions of pictures, characters and scripts made onto various writing surfaces. These ranged from the first clay tablets in Sumer to the invention of reed brushes and ink in Egypt and beyond.

Writing as “making marks,” however, no longer conforms to a broad and inclusive conception of the craft. Technological advancements have dislodged the historical connection between writing and marking, especially with the introduction of typewriters, keyboards and word processors. Further, the ancient practice of dictation, where I verbally dictate what I want to write to a scribe, no longer has to involve another human. Modern speech-recognition technology such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking provides a technological method for translating verbal speech into the written word. This, too, is writing, according to a conception of writing that emphasizes the general rapport between humans, written expression and the mode of written expression, without presupposing a particular configuration of the three.

History, as well as my own experience, has shown that writing can take on an indefinite number of forms. This leaves the definition of writing ambiguous, and I think that is ultimately a good thing. Experimenting with the writing process in this open-ended manner has been helpful for me as an “un-blocking” mechanism, particularly by engaging my mind with my body. Even though I usually have Google Docs or Microsoft Word open as I write, if I feel stuck it helps to scribble on a few Post-It notes or draw out an outline in my journal. Recently, I have taken to recording voice memos on my phone that I can later use to jog my memory. My use of these different writing technologies has constituted a hybrid creative process, one that emphases the materialization of my ideas rather than the protection of their mental purity.

I recognize, however, that the employment of these technologies as an able-bodied person is a privilege that not all writers enjoy. The design of the standard computer keyboard, for example, can be an impractical writing medium for some people with visual or physical disabilities. These keyboards are designed for two-handed typists, not people with the use of one hand; some functions require pressing two keys at once, which is difficult for people who have difficulty with fine motor control; small keys and little to no separation between them present difficulties for people with motor, vision and cognitive difficulties. Writing, therefore, is an accessibility issue, though not one that is limited to the availability of certain technologies. The ambiguous practice of writing implies a non-neutrality of writing instruments and launches questions about the design of things that have become a part of many people’s everyday lives, but that do not necessarily take everyone’s needs and preferences into account.

***

Everyone has the right to self-expression — writing, for example — but not everyone employs the same means of self-expression. The reasons for this are not limited to the abilities allowed of the body, but it can be argued that writing and the body are inseparable.

I used to frame writer’s block as an obstacle of the mind, but reframing it as the engagement of the body in a habitual activity has increased my sensitivity to the possibilities of writing practice. Especially in philosophy, there is sometimes a tendency to erase, ignore and reproach the body that contributes to anxieties about its role in intellectual activity.

For me, however, the image of the embodied writer represents a door to empathy, from writer to writer, even though the individual writing experience of each remains unique. Nevertheless, here is an invitation to reflect on my own writing practice and connect it to that of others, remaining altogether grateful for the opportunity to make my mark, however that happens to manifest itself.

Statement Correspondent Alexander Satola can be reached at apsatola@umich.edu.