The 5,000-year history of writer’s blockJoyce Kinkead, Utah State University
Ann Patchett, who has written eight novels and five books of nonfiction, says that when faced with writer’s block, sometimes it seems that the muse has “gone out back for a smoke.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an award-winning novelist or a high schooler tasked with writing an essay for English class: The fear and frustration of writing doesn’t discriminate.
My most recent book, “A Writing Studies Primer,” includes a chapter on gods, goddesses and patron saints of writing. When conducting research, I was struck by how writers have consistently sought divine inspiration and intercession.
It turns out that frustrated writers who pine for a muse or help from above are adhering to a 5,000-year-old tradition.
The first writers look to the skies
The first writing system, cuneiform, arose in Sumer around 3200 BC to keep track of wheat, transactions, real estate and recipes. Scribes used clay tablets to record the information – think of them as early spreadsheets.
Originally the Sumerian goddess of grain, Nisaba became associated with writing. She was depicted holding a gold stylus and clay tablet.
As it was common for people to adopt a god or goddess for their professions, a new class of scribes latched onto Nisaba. Practice tablets from schools that trained young scribes invoke her name – “Praise be to Nisaba!” Poets trumpeted her influence and credited her for giving beautiful handwriting to diligent students.
Identifiable by a stylized papyrus as her headdress and a stylus in her right hand, Seshat guided the reed pens of scribes as priests communicated with the divine.
Writing was all about communicating with the gods, and the Greeks and Romans continued this tradition. They turned to the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, known collectively as the Muses. Calliope stands out most notably, not only because a musical instrument was named after her, but also because she was considered the foremost of the sisters for her eloquence.
The Muses have since evolved into one overarching “muse” that serves as a source of inspiration.
Global gods and goddesses of writing
Gods and other legendary figures of writing are not limited to Western civilization.
In China, the historian Cangjie, who lived in the 27th century B.C., is said to have created the characters of the Chinese language. Legend has it that he was inspired by the pattern of veins on a turtle. (Back then, the Chinese often wrote on turtle shells.)
A competing story says that cultural folk hero Fuxi and his sister Nüwa created the system of Chinese characters circa 2000 B.C. Yet it is Cangjie’s name that lives on in the Cangjie Input Method, which refers to the system that allows Chinese characters to be typed using a standard QWERTY keyboard.
In India, writers still invoke the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha before putting ink to paper. Known as a remover of obstacles, Ganesha can be especially meaningful for those struggling with writer’s block. There’s also Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning and the arts, who’s renowned for her eloquence.
In Mesoamerica, Mayan culture looked to Itzamná as the deity who provided the pillars of civilization: writing, calendars, medicine and worship rituals. His depiction as a toothless and wise old man signaled that he was not to be feared, an important characteristic for someone promoting an anxiety-inducing process like writing.
Enter the patron saints
In Christianity, patron saints are exemplars or martyrs who serve as role models and heavenly advocates. Various groups – professions, people with a certain illness and even entire nations – will adopt a patron saint.
Within the Catholic Church, a range of patron saints can serve as inspiration for writers.
St. Brigid of Ireland, who lived from 451 to 525, is the patron saint of printing presses and poets. A contemporary of the better-known St. Patrick, St. Brigid established a monastery for women, which included a school of art that became famous for its handwritten, decorative manuscripts, particularly the Book of Kildare.
Following St. Brigit in Ireland is St. Columba, who lived from 521 to 597 and founded the influential abbey at Iona, an island off the coast of Scotland. A renowned scholar, St. Columba transcribed over 300 books over the course of his life.
The influence of patron saints dedicated to literacy – reading and writing – continued long after the Middle Ages. In 1912, the College of Saint Scholastica was founded in Minnesota in tribute to Scholastica (480-543), who with her twin brother, Benedict (died in 547), enjoyed discussing sacred texts. Both Italian patron saints came to be associated with books, reading and schooling.
Objects charged with power
Some writers may think supernatural figures seem a bit too far removed from the physical world. Fear not – there are magical objects that they can touch for inspiration and help, such as talismans. Derived from the ancient Greek word telein, which means to “fulfill,” it was an object that – like an amulet – protected the bearer and facilitated good fortune.
Today, you can buy talismans drawn on ancient Celtic symbols that purport to help with the writing process. One vendor promises “natural inspiration and assist in all of your writing endeavors.” Another supplier, Magickal Needs, advertises a similar product that supposedly helps “one find the right word at the most opportune moment.”
Others turn to crystals. A writer’s block crystals gift set available through Etsy offers agate, carnelian, tiger eye, citrine, amethyst and clear quartz crystals to help those struggling to formulate sentences.
What makes a writer?
What drove the creation of divine beings and objects that can inspire and intercede on the behalf of writers?
To me, it’s no mystery why writers have sought divine intervention for 5,000 years.
Sure, tallying counts of sheep or bushels of grain might seem like rote work. Yet early in the development of writing systems, the physical act of writing was exceedingly difficult – and one of the reasons schoolchildren prayed for help with their handwriting. Later, the act of creation – coming up with ideas, communicating them clearly and engaging readers – could make writing feel like a herculean task. Ironically, this complex skill does not necessarily get easier, even with lots of practice.
The romantic image of the writer in the garret doesn’t do justice to the tedious reality of churning out words, one after another.
In his memoir “On Writing,” Stephen King reflected, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” At the suggestion of a friend, the writer Patchett attached a sign-in sheet to the door of her writing room to ensure she wrote every day.
No matter how accomplished a writer, he or she will inevitably struggle with writer’s block. Pulitzer Prize−winning author John McPhee, who began contributing to The New Yorker in 1963, details his writer’s block in a 2013 article: “Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life.” Another famous writer for The New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell, was struck by writer’s block in 1964 and simply sat and stared at his typewriter for 30 years.
I’ve even wrestled with this article, writing and rewriting it in my head a dozen times before actually typing the first word.
Poet and satirist Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing; I love having written.”
You and me both, Dorothy.