authors life

Sertillanges and Writer's Block: Interaction

2:53:00 PMJulia Premus


What did George Orwell describe as “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness...One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand”? (1)

Well, it's either bubonic plague or writing a book, and considering Orwell wasn't lucky enough to catch the former...

Any writer knows that Orwell's sentiment hit the paradox of artistry on the head. If you're like me and aim to take over the world via short story, you've already experienced firsthand the personal biohazards that come with the process. Writing is the parenting of characters, and while these brainchildren are miraculous to witness, they also, like growing children, demand a constant personal investment of attention, time, and energy. And seeing as the brain is built to sleep on occasion, feeding the fire of plot and character development without stopping to collect more fuel is only counterproductive. And once the fuel is finally gone, the writer reaches the point of writer's block.  

Writer's block is an age-old tradition.

It's likely that even cave painters, with clay and berries in hand, got stuck from time to time debating which colors best suited the townspeople, rituals, and animals they sought to feature. And despite advances in technology, we still have no lasting cure for this halting of imagination. Or do we? 

To answer this question, we first need to define where we're getting our fuel from in the first place.

Stanford researchers have reduced storytelling to be a fascinating biological act of transferring neural patterns between storyteller and listener. Essentially, their research demonstrated that stories cannot exist biologically without active listening and participation on the part of both the storyteller and the listener. Storytelling depends on attentiveness to and investment in the world around us.

Anyone who has writer’s block simply needs a turn at being the listener rather than the storyteller. 

A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. (1863 - 1948), a French philosopher and spiritualist writer, brings this thought to life in his book The Intellectual Life. The cure for writer’s block, Sertillanges theorizes, is active living. It’s a common behavior for us as writers to migrate into our bat caves, withdrawing from the toxic distractions of the outside world. However, Sertillanges notes that it’s precisely this behavior that becomes so stiflingly unhealthy. Instead, the philosopher suggests that the only definite course to regaining intellectual momentum begins by removing our mental hazmat suits - and investing ourselves in the world.

What I've attempted to do is break down some of Sertillanges' quotes into four practical self-help steps for regaining momentum during times of comatose imagination. I'll be sharing one step a week, giving you enough time to devote attention to each.

The first step: Leaving behind the bat cave. 

Sertillanges' words of advice begin here:


"As life-giving as is solitude, so paralyzing and sterilizing is isolation." (2)

A wonderful woman on Humans of New York once said, “Every time I go outside, something wonderful happens!” (3) And she’s right. The only possibility the indoors has to offer is stillness - but the outside world contains endless inspiration for characters, plots, and lessons - all unlocked the moment you roll away the stone and take that first step. Agoraphobic writing is detached. Authors who fear the outside world are cutting themselves off from real people. And while your interactions with other real people will prove essential to the authenticity of your characters, it’s important to remember from the start that these people aren’t just source material - they are unpredictable wonders. 

Find yourself a cultural marketplace - even if that means the suburban culture of Wal-Mart’s imported fruit section - and stroll around it as if you intend to buy something. (You’re a writer, and apparently one without many ideas, so I’m assuming that you’re not currently in possession of any fortune, large or small.) What Sertillanges suggests is to be attentive to the lives carrying on around you, lives totally unaware of your own. If you must use binoculars, conceal them as best as possible. Whatever you do, remember that it’s your turn to be the listener. Remember this and anything that was once appealing about vicarious cave life (i.e. talking to yourself) will quickly begin to slip away.

Interact with strangers. Inquire about fruit. Be welcoming of their voices and listen. Try to be as present to the world as a child - or at least, as the poet William Wordsworth described his young self, a pure sensor. The first chip in the ice of writer’s block happens when you focus completely on a moment without attempting to multitask.

Sertillanges writes on the necessity of these hyper-focused moments:

"Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy; only in the second place does the talent of arrangement, the technique of transitions, connection of ideas, construction come into play." (5)

"We enter into the intimacy of genius only to be sharing the same inspiration; to listen from outside is to condemn oneself not to hear. It is not with the eyes, nor with the ears, that one hears a great saying; it is with a soul on the level of what is revealed to it, with an intelligence illuminated by one and the same light." (6)

What Sertillanges describes here is exactly what the Stanford researchers discovered: transferring a story involves engaged telling and listening--a communion of neurons. Therefore, storytelling demands being able to focus on raw experiences before attempting to analyze them. Hasty reflection wil taint the integrity of the moment and lead to a detached focus. This haste essentially builds a glass wall between you and the world, turning you into an observer of goldfish and removing from you the expectation that you will respond to the world. This deletes a crucial part of the Stanford storytelling circuit.

Think of the thousands of people who, upon seeing an electrifying  street performance, see only an Instagram opportunity and reach for their phones.


The magic is diminished when it is viewed through a glass screen. The moment itself is valuable and unrepeatable, and, as writers, we must learn to treat moments as such--not simply as data for analysis, data which can be replayed. We must acknowledge that we have a responsibility to focus and listen receptively during these moments, because they are telling a secret that will only be told once for all time. Keep Sertillanges' ideas in mind: 


"Most great discoveries are a sudden lightning-flash of concentrated thought." (7)

"Every being is a witness; every fact is a divine secret." (8) 

I'll expand upon the next step of Sertillanges' advice in the coming week.      
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Julia Premus


I can't seem to read enough Ray Bradbury. When I'm not reading, I'm playing violin, Super Mario, or Super Mario songs on violin.



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(1) George Orwell: “Why I Write.” First published: Gangrel. — GB, London. — summer 1946.
(2) Sertillanges, A.-D, and Mary Ryan. The Intellectual Life, Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Westminster, MD: Newman, 1948. Print. Page 12.
(5) Sertillanges, A.-D, and Mary Ryan. The Intellectual Life, Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Westminster, MD: Newman, 1948. Print. Page 56.
(6) Sertillanges, A.-D, and Mary Ryan. The Intellectual Life, Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Westminster, MD: Newman, 1948. Print. Page xix.
(7) Sertillanges, A.-D, and Mary Ryan. The Intellectual Life, Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Westminster, MD: Newman, 1948. Print. Page 169.
(8) Sertillanges, A.-D, and Mary Ryan. The Intellectual Life, Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Westminster, MD: Newman, 1948. Print. Page 19.

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