I Have Writer’s Block So I Argue With Epictetus by Kathryn Koromilas.

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we will publish a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Kathyrn’s post!
Every decade or so, I stumble off the Stoic path, I lose my way, I meet with trouble. That’s when I crawl back, in utter wretchedness, and beg Epictetus for directions. In the past, it’s been emotional trouble like lost love. Today, it is creative trouble. I have writer’s block.
According to my website, “I am a writer.” This is the role I’ve been given and although writing’s never gifted me happy fame and fortune, it has gifted me purpose and meaning. This has been happiness enough for me.
For the most part, I have played my role well. I’ve “shown up.” And, at the first sign of slow down, or loss of faith, Epictetus has always been at hand with practical direction: If you wish to write, write.

But, lately, nothing. I can’t do it. I won’t even start.

Blocked writers are deeply unhappy people: we lack motivation and ambition and feel no joy in writing.

I’ve identified the unlikely cause of my creative block: I have become devastatingly afraid of death. I think about it. I shut down. I suffer.

The psychoanalyst who coined the term “Writer’s Block” thought we were all masochists.

Which might explain why I’ve started arguing with Epictetus.

I don’t want to die.
Well, that’s just stupid, Kathryn. Everyone’s gotta die. That’s for sure.
I know that. I just don’t like it.
You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to dislike it. All you have to do is accept it. Otherwise, you will be miserable.
I am miserable!
With that sort of an attitude, you can see why I’m in trouble.
I know that the daily contemplation of one’s death is supposed to fire up our motivation to act. I know about the positive impact of time (and other) constraints on creativity and what better constraint to work with than the natural and unavoidable one imposed by our very own mortality.

If I had a clearer idea of this constraint, say a “death deadline,” I’d be able to schedule and complete a project within that timeframe. As a writer, deadlines offer choice and control about future projects and I feel happy when I see them and meet them. But, for I all I know, I could set one now and die tomorrow. What would be the point of that?

You will have written.
Sure, but what if I am interrupted before I finish and all I leave behind is a crappy first draft? Humiliating!

You’re going to have to die anyway, so of course you’ll be interrupted in the middle of some activity. So, what would you like to be doing when death comes?

I’d like to be putting the finishing touches on a fabulously-crafted, deeply-felt, and intellectually-rigorous novel-of-ideas that will be worthy of my noble role as a writer and contribute to the common good.

Okay, but what if you can’t be caught doing anything as noble as that?

Then, I don’t want to die!

Well, that’s just stupid, Kathryn. Everyone’s gotta die. That’s for sure.

The thing about arguing with Epictetus is that it is plain and simple masochism. Sure, I could live on as the suffering artist. But being caught by death doing just that? No.

If your time to die is now, then you die. But, if your time to die is later, start writing now since you are at your desk and your schedule says that the time for writing is now. (Discourses, Book 4.10)

The time for writing is now.

And, even if I’m caught in the middle of it, I’ll die writing and happy.


Kathryn Koromilas spent seven years living in Preveza, Greece, not far from Epictetus’s old stomping ground, Nicopolis. She’s a writer and educator who is exploring the potential for using Stoic philosophy to live a happy writing life. She’s hoping to build a community of like-minded writers at The Stoic Writer

One thought on I Have Writer’s Block So I Argue With Epictetus by Kathryn Koromilas.

  1. Eric O Scott says:

    Oh ho! This is close to home!
    I’ve kept Holiday’s “momento mori” medallion sitting on my desk this summer as I “masochistically” struggled to get myself to avoid writer’s block and procrastination surrounding a dissertation proposal.
    I’ve had the same argument with Epictetus. My wife doesn’t understand the medallion—if I were to die tomorrow, why bother with a dissertation!! Drop it all and go visit family or something!
    The “death deadline” (what a felicitous phrase!) is a powerful tool, and I still aspire to live with it.
    But thinking about our highest values is hard. What is *really* the honorable and worthwhile thing to do with my life? What would I like to be “caught doing” when it’s time to hand my little momento mori coin to the boatman on the river Stix? Its a bih question, and asking it too casually can backfire!
    Thanks for writing this, Kathryn. I can relate all too well.

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