Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Month of Elul
To dedicate this lesson

Writer’s Block


Rabbi Berel Wein

The pressure of having to write a meaningful article of general Jewish interest every week sometimes leads to that dreaded disease that sooner or later afflicts all authors, columnists and writers - writer’s block. This article is a product of that problem; not having anything truly meaningful to say about anything of importance I am writing about the problem itself. Desperation is the mother of creativity. The truth be said, there is always something of great worth to be written about. But there are definite impediments to so doing. Among them are weariness of brain and typing finger, the necessity many times to keep private thoughts and opinions private - I am by nature a reticent person - and the fact that what the writer feels to be important or wise the reading public abhors. As such, discretion with the written word is as important if not more so than even with the spoken word. People of talent resent criticism even more so than do we ordinary mortals. Book reviewers who publish their criticism of other’s works always court anger and enmity thereby. As a rule therefore I never write book reviews though I do quote extensively from books that I like and have value to me. I appreciate the effort that must have gone into writing a book - even a book that is written poorly - and therefore I know the anguish of the moments or days of writer’s block that the author must have undergone. In my sympathy for such a fellow sufferer I cannot bring myself to criticize his efforts publicly in writing. So I am usually voluntarily blocked out of that area of comment and writing.

As any writer will tell you, the only way to overcome writer’s block is to write anyway. It is like falling off the proverbial horse - get back on it and ride anyway. It is interesting that the process of writing itself - even writing unwillingly, painfully and inefficiently - gets the writing juices going again and the block is circumvented if not completely eliminated. In Yiddish there was a great phrase that meant "with the eating comes the appetite." So too with the writing comes the ability to write. I think this article is a good example of that, of how to make an article out of nothing. Writing requires thought. There were gifted people who never wrote with pen and ink or with a typewriter. Churchill dictated all of his books orally to a cadre of ever changing scores of secretaries. We ordinary mortals usually have to see the thought in our minds put to paper and then decide if that is really what we want said and published. Thinking is free flowing and unlimited. Writing is laden with self censorship and much doubt. Good writing is laced with nuance, associative memory and piquant ideas. This being the case the appearance of writer’s block on a fairly regular basis to all writers is understandable and to be expected. Getting back on the horse quickly and effectively is the challenge that faces all writers. The timing and effectiveness of getting back on the horse naturally varies from one individual to the next.

There is a spiritual writer’s block as well. Not always do we feel enthusiastic about our religious observances, charitable commitments and Torah studies. It is difficult to maintain the proper intensity of feeling and reaching for holiness on a constant daily basis. And the Torah, though certainly making allowances for human frailties and foibles, never relaxes its standards or compromises its goals. Oftentimes this leads us to be frustrated in our service to God and our observance of Torah commandments and values. In spiritual matters "burnout" often occurs. We witness this with "children at risk" as well as with those who opt out of the Torah society later in their lives. Basically these people, well intentioned as they may be, are simply unable to overcome their spiritual writer’s block. Shlomo writes in Mishlei that the righteous also fall seven times but they pick themselves up and continue. The mark of the righteous therefore is the ability to get back on the horse and continue in spite of all of the writer’s blocks that impede our spiritual growth and progress. In essence that is the main theme of the month of Elul and of the Days of Awe and Judgment that follow it. We admit our failures and failings but we pledge ourselves nevertheless to keep on trying and to eventually write a page of worth and glory in the volume that is our lives. So let us not be discouraged by writer’s block. You see from this article that something can be written even when the creative well appears to be dry.
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