The 5,000 year history of writer’s block

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(THE CONVERSATION) Ann Patchett, who has written eight novels and five non-fiction books, says that in the face of writer’s block, it sometimes seems like the muse has “gone out for a cigarette.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re an award-winning novelist or a high school student tasked with writing an essay for an English class: writing fear and frustration don’t discriminate.

My most recent book, “A Writing Studies Primer,” includes a chapter on the gods, goddesses, and patron saints of writing. While researching, I was struck by how writers constantly sought divine inspiration and intercession.

It turns out that frustrated writers who yearn for a muse or help from above are following a 5,000-year-old tradition.

The first writers look to the sky

The first writing system, cuneiform, appeared in Sumer around 3200 BC. to track wheat, transactions, real estate and receipts. Scribes used clay tablets to record information – think of them as the first spreadsheets.

Originally the Sumerian goddess of grain, Nisaba became associated with writing. She was depicted holding a gold stylus and a clay tablet.

As it was common for people to adopt a god or goddess for their professions, a new class of scribes clung to Nisaba. The practice tablets of schools that trained young scribes invoke his name – “Praise be to Nisaba!” Poets trumpeted her influence and credited her with giving fine writing to diligent students.

Her Egyptian counterpart was Seshat, whose name translates to “woman scribe.”

Identifiable by a stylized papyrus as a headdress and a stiletto in his right hand, Seshat guided the reed quills of scribes as priests communicated with the divine.

Writing was 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 notably stands out, not only because a musical instrument bears her name, but also because she was considered the first of the sisters for her eloquence.

The Muses have since evolved into an all-encompassing “muse” that serves as a source of inspiration.

World gods and goddesses of writing

The gods and other legendary figures in writing are not limited to Western civilization.

In China, the historian Cangjie, who lived in the 27th century BC, is said to have created the characters of the Chinese language. Legend has it that he was inspired by the pattern of a turtle’s veins. (At the time, the Chinese often wrote on turtle shells.)

A competing story says that cultural folk hero Fuxi and his sister Nüwa created the Chinese character system around 2000 BC. standard QWERTY keyboard.

In India, writers still invoke the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganeshab before putting ink to paper. Known as an obstacle remover, Ganesha can be especially useful for those who struggle with writer’s block. There is also Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning and the arts, renowned for her eloquence.

In Mesoamerica, the Maya culture viewed Itzamná as the deity who provided the pillars of civilization: writing, calendars, medicine, and worship rituals. His depiction as a toothless, 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 examples or martyrs who serve as heavenly role models and advocates. Various groups – professions, people with a certain disease and even entire nations – will adopt a patron saint.

Within the Catholic Church, a range of patron saints can serve as inspiration for writers.

Saint Bridget of Ireland, who lived from 451 to 525, is the patron saint of printers and poets. A contemporary of the better known St. Patrick, St. Brigid established a women’s monastery, which included a school of art which became famous for its hand-crafted decorative manuscripts, particularly the Book of Kildare.

After St. Brigit in Ireland is St. Columba, who lived from 521 to 597 and founded the influential Abbey of Iona, an island off the coast of Scotland. A renowned scholar, Saint Columba transcribed more than 300 books during his lifetime.

The influence of patron saints dedicated to literacy – reading and writing – continued well after the Middle Ages. In 1912, the College of Sainte Scholastique was founded in Minnesota in homage to Scholastique (480-543) who, with his twin brother Benedict (died in 547), had fun discussing the sacred texts. The two Italian patron saints have been associated with books, reading and school.

Objects charged with power

Some writers may think that supernatural characters seem a little too removed from the physical world. Fear not, there are magical items they can touch for inspiration and help, such as talismans. Derived from the ancient Greek word telein, meaning “to achieve,” it was an object that, like an amulet, protected the wearer and facilitated good fortune.

Today you can buy talismans drawn on ancient Celtic symbols that are believed to aid in the writing process. One provider promises “natural inspiration and assistance in all your writing endeavors.” Another vendor, Magickal Needs, promotes a similar product that’s supposed to help “find the right word at the most opportune time.”

Others turn to crystals. A writer’s block crystal gift set available through Etsy features agate, carnelian, tiger’s eye, citrine, amethyst, and clear quartz crystals to help those who have trouble formulating sentences .

What makes a writer?

What motivated the creation of divine beings and objects capable of inspiring and interceding on behalf of writers?

It’s no mystery to me why writers have sought divine intervention for 5,000 years.

Of course, counting sheep or bushels of grain can seem like rote work. Yet, in the early development of writing systems, the physical act of writing was extremely difficult – and one of the reasons why schoolchildren prayed for help with their writing. Later, the act of creation — coming up with ideas, communicating them clearly, and engaging readers — might make writing feel like a herculean task. Ironically, this complex skill doesn’t necessarily get any easier, even with lots of practice.

The romantic image of the writer in the attic doesn’t do justice to the tedious reality of spouting word after word.

In his memoir “On Writing,” Stephen King said, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work.” At the suggestion of a friend, writer Patchett attached a sign-in sheet to her writing room door to ensure she was writing every day.

No matter how accomplished a writer is, 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 demeans some writers for life. Another famous New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, was hit with writer’s block in 1964 and just sat and stared at his typewriter for 30 years.

I even struggled with this article, writing it and rewriting it in my head a dozen times before typing the first word.

Poet and satirist Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate to write; I love having written.

You and me, Dorothy.

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