Your Questions Answered: How Have You Overcome Writers Block?

A misremembered quote, self forgiveness, and attending to the unmade decisions of a draft.

Alexander Chee
6 min readDec 7, 2020


A French engraving from the late 19th Century with a series of eyes in a sky chasing a figure who is running from them.
Paul Constant Soyer’s Crime et expiation, after J. J. Grandville, from the Met’s Open Access Art Collection.

I deal with writers’ block several times a year, usually in the form of other people’s writers’ block. Specifically, I find myself every year with a few students trying and failing to write their stories for class. Teaching creative writing inside of a liberal arts institution means putting creativity on a clock — the quarter or semester — and over the 25 years I’ve been teaching writing, I’ve learned my blocked students are usually high-achieving young people who are used to being able to power their way through a paper, get the answers, get the grade and move on. Fiction writing doesn’t really work that way.

That said, we know clocks can work. To wit: the number of people who say they thrive on a deadline.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received on the topic came to me wrongly attributed to Joyce Carol Oates. I even finally checked the quote with her and she kindly replied and said, “That doesn’t sound like me.” In any case, here is the quote, which I think is wise but does not come from her:

The writer stops writing when they believe the idea is fraudulent. When they believe the idea will trick them into making a mistake.

Which brings me to the inspiration for today’s post:

The idea of the fraudulent idea, the idea that you are tricking yourself into humiliating yourself, and that stopping yourself from writing is the only way to protect yourself, this is a potent source of writers’ block. You begin with the fear of humiliating yourself, which takes you to the fear of losing the love of someone you care about who might read it and who you fear will think less of you, or even punish you, even end the relationship. From there we move to the fear of failing to achieve, which is a shadow to the fear of success, which brings us back around to the fear of your own ideas.



Alexander Chee

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.