A Stoic Response to Writer’s Block

The Stoics were writers. Real writers, too. Marcus Aurelius was such a brilliant writer that his private journal has survived and become one of the most beloved philosophy texts in history. In his own time, Seneca was considered one of Rome’s great playwrights, and was popular enough that a line from his play Agamemnon is actually preserved in graffiti on a two-thousand-year-old wall at Pompeii.

Although none of Epictetus’s writing survives to us, he did pass along plenty of good writing advice to his students, telling them “if you would be a good reader, read; if a writer, write.” (Indeed, his student Arrian not only wrote down his teacher’s lectures for us but was the author of a classic biography of Alexander the Great.) Epictetus understood how critical it was for his students to undertake the right habits, and each habit and capability grows by “its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running.”

He would say habits were about routine:

“If you don’t wish to be a hot-head, don’t feed your habit. Try as a first step to remain calm and count the days you haven’t been angry. I used to be angry every day, now every other day, then every third or fourth…For habit is first weakened and then obliterated.”

The same is true for writers. Echoing Epictetus, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld once told a young comic named Brad Isaac some advice about how to write and create material. Keep a calendar, he told him, and each day that you write jokes, put an X. Soon enough, you get a chain going— and then your job is to simply not break the chain. Success becomes a matter of momentum. Once you get a little, it’s easier to keep it going. Build a chain and then work not to break it. Don’t ruin your streak.

You observe the same sentiment in many of the writers and great communicators interviewed for WritingRoutines.com (which has a great weekly email with one brilliant writer each week). These writers are of different backgrounds, styles, genres and levels of success. Each works differently but in the most important way they are all the same: They have a routine. Writers have to. Without rituals and habits, they would never get their difficult job done. They would be, as Steven Pressfield has termed it, victims of the Resistance.

But what about when a writer gets stuck? What about when the words don’t seem to come? John Avlon, the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Beast described writer’s block as “getting stuck in a desert, a nightmare.” Similarly, Esquire writer Cal Fussman has said this on his ten year war with writer’s block on a particular article: “On the sunniest day of summer the fact that I couldn’t write that piece hung over me like a dark cloud.”

The first key is simple: Do not despair. As Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself as consolation: “Not to feel exasperated or defeated or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit you’ve embarked on.” Marcus talked a lot about rhythm, about how important it is to return to it, to stick with it.

Again, this is why routine matters so much.

So you build a habit and a routine to write no matter what—that’s how you overcome writer’s block. John Avlon who we mentioned earlier has said that “writing is a muscle: it gets stronger the more you use it. If you let yourself fall out of the habit, it can be hard to get back in form.” Same goes for author Jeff Goins: “What do I do when I feel blocked? I write through the block.” How would you get rid of runner’s block or talker’s block? By doing those very things.

Of course it’s not just about putting your ass in the chair. The Stoic advocate and bestselling author Tim Ferriss has talked about how his routine involves just “two crappy pages a day.” The goal is just to make progress, anything more ambitious can be intimidating or cause paralyzing anxiety. But those pages add up and eventually crappy pages can be polished and refined in editing.

Being disciplined and establishing a routine can help you beat writer’s block, but the bigger lesson is this: Creating a habit and a routine is true for just about any profession and any desire to live a better life. Routine and habit are the only way to do it. You can’t just randomly improve. You don’t do great work or make great decisions on accident—not, by definition, with regularity anyway.

Routine is everything. In writing, philosophy and in life.


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