Pondering Writer’s Block

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”

—E.L. Doctorow

Writer’s block can be an obstacle to creativity. Just ask Fran Lebowitz. On second thought, judging by Martin Scorcese’s seven-episode documentary, Pretend It’s a City, she has made an art of what she calls ‘writer’s blockade’. Not the person to ask, but then again, perhaps the ideal person.

Lebowitz is often compared to Dorothy Parker because of her ingenious facility with epigrams. Not a minor accomplishment for one who claims to have been expelled from grade school for ‘nonspecific surliness’. Her last published book was Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (1994), a children’s book about giant pandas living in New York City who long to move to Paris. New York Times journalist, Ginia Bellafante suggests that Lebowitz has made her living and maintained her celebrity as ‘a road show’.

What does Lebowitz, herself, have to say about chronic writer’s block? According to The Writer’s Almanac, she considers writing to be ‘more of a psychological problem than a writing problem’:

“I have a hard time writing. Most writers have a hard time writing. I have a harder time than most because I’m lazier than most. … I would have made a perfect heiress. I enjoy lounging. And reading. The other problem I have is fear of writing. The act of writing puts you in confrontation with yourself, which is why I think writers assiduously avoid it.’’

Lebowitz is living proof that in no way does it mean creativity is limited or blocked. On the contrary. In the documentary, Pretend It’s a City, her sardonic wit is much in evidence. She contemplates what it might be like to be the Night Mayor of New York based on a perceived need to divide this impossibly complex, all-consuming job into Day Mayor and Night Mayor. While implying that the actual nightmare for New Yorkers might be the reality of her actually employed in the position, she manages political commentary and comedy through seemingly effortless keen observation and a lifetime of painting with words. She offers an opinion on whatever she personally finds irksome yet inspires her to comment verbally.

For many, writer’s block or creativity block is a very real dilemma. Theories abound ranging from fear of failure to fear of success, perfectionism to procrastination. Psychologist, Dr. Richard Koestner, founder of the McGill Human Motivation Lab suggests that survival and coping goals are very different from aspirational goals. In addition, how ambitious the goals are affects motivation, particularly during this coronavirus pandemic, possibly due to fatigue, uncertainty and stress compounded by loneliness and isolation. Goals are more about survival at this time. A goal oriented action plan requires at least minimal focus, attention, effort and persistence, Koestler highly recommends routine to give one a sense of control in accomplishing small things.

In terms of goal setting, Koerstler has stressed the importance of discovering what works for you and what is fulfilling to you, even if it just going out for a walk once a day. Personally, the pandemic has revealed a lack of routine in my life generally. In my case, writer’s block might be overcome by setting a goal to routinely write a blog post as I am doing now. The research indicates that motivation does change over time and momentum can build with small steps.


January 22, 2021 by Big City columnist, Ginia Bellafante


The New York Times, Everybody Loves Fran Leibowitz But Why?

CBC Radio Noon call-in program heard across Quebec

Out of the Dark series episode, January 22, 2021 with guest Dr. Richard Koestler: Are you able to motivate yourself during a global pandemic, when every day is exactly the same?


McGill Human Motivation Lab