Writer’s block was first described as a “condition” in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler. An unimaginably prolific writer himself, Bergler wrote 25 books and published 273 scholarly articles in his distinctly non-afflicted lifetime. A famous disciple of Freud, he described writer’s block as one of the many manifestations of “psychic masochism” — or, “the unconscious wish to defeat one’s conscious aims, and to enjoy that self-constructed defeat.” Other behaviors falling under Bergler’s rather large umbrella of psychic masochism included gambling, pathological blushing, criminality, homosexuality, kleptomania, and “retirement neuroses.”
But at what point does drawing a blank (and another, and another) officially qualify you for diagnosis with psychic masochism?
Truman Capote spent nearly twenty years on his follow-up to In Cold Blood. (“Oh how easy it will be in comparison!” he said, comparing it to his just-published masterpiece. “It’s all in my head.”) He died in 1984 without publishing more than grandiose snippets of the novel, which he had unfortunately titled Answered Prayers and declared to be America’s version of In Search of Lost Time. In all fairness to Capote, many of these years spent overhyping his ever-upcoming novel were also spent alternately drunk or in rehab, but a bad case of writer’s block can certainly not be ruled out.
Other famous cases abound. Ralph Ellison worked for forty years on a novel to succeed Invisible Man, to no avail. Gustave Flaubert is purported to have once groaned to a friend, “You don’t know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands, trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word.” Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and Joseph Conrad all also bemoaned the existential difficulties of extremely dry creative periods.
But perhaps no words have gotten to the heart of the psychic masochism issue quite like those of Eminem, in 2010’s “Talkin’ 2 Myself”: “Falling asleep with writer’s block in the parking lot of McDonald’s / But instead of feeling sorry for yourself, do something about it / Admit you got a problem, your brain is clouded / You pouted long enough.” Well, Eminem, what does one do about a terminal case of the block?
According to the Internet, you could “eat a snack,” “find God,” “cannibalize your older writing,” or undergo a painless 33-minute hypnosis session. But Bergler himself seemed to have even less to offer. According to him, psychic masochism, and thus writer’s block, are inevitable symptoms of occupying the cursed mental space of The Writer. In his seminal work on the subject, The Writer and Psychoanalysis, Bergler explains that “the writer is a perpetual defendant accused before the high tribunal of his unconscious conscience.” Writers’ super-egos, he says, are just kind of out of control. And, well, what’s more masochistic than that?