I had an idea put to me on this subject – that I was just playing with semantics when I talked about writer’s block, the myth, and the process of writing, relaxing and such. So, not wanting to be misunderstood, I have updated this post. I still don’t believe in writer’s block – except as something that others believe in, and harm themselves in so doing. I hope, sincerely, that this little post does some good in that regard. And thanks, Henry Tobias, for your point about semantics.
Here’s my newer, and I hope, clearer, version.
The scourge of writer’s everywhere; that menace every novice author or poet is told of, almost at once; writer’s block sits in the writer’s consciousness like a stone succubus. We all accept, when we are too young to know better, that writer’s block comes with the territory. We all accept that we will be attacked and overwhelmed by it regularly, and that it represents agonizing frustration and a source of depression and (hopefully fleeting) madness unique to the writers’ calling.
It certainly has become shopworn and cliche. “Expect writer’s block. Dread it.” At the same time, the subtext runs, “Celebrate it, as a sign of the writer’s martyrdom to the profound cause.” After all, there is nothing like suffering to ramp up one’s value, in any field of endeavour. Ironically, it is the image, the belief in the myth – of a huge, immovable brain blockage – which is so effective in making us ineffective as writers. The more we believe in it, the more implacably effective it seems to be.
I no longer believe in writer’s block. It is a myth at best, and a writerly excuse at worst. It is an excuse if the writer does not try to see around or through it, and does not do the internal exploration and assessment to clarify what it truly is. How is it triggered, for instance? Fear? Insecurity? A sudden, indifferent exit by one’s muse? What makes it this monolithic ‘block’? Some deep, Freudian-like psychic impediment which attacks only writers? Something inherent in the mind of one who imagines greatly and often? Simply a fact of writerly life, which does not bear or need investigation?
At the risk of being vilified for shooting the literary Holy Cow, I stick to my guns. There is no block. There is nothing outside oneself that descends, blocking words from appearing on a blank page or screen. There is no special malaise, unique to the writer, any more than there is ‘painter’s block’ or ‘sculptor’s block,’ – the exception being perhaps an actor’s near literal block while performing; when one’s throat and mind block utterance and memory of the script. This, I think, is born out of a sudden dissociation from being “in character,” and suffering that horrible vulnerability which attacks one performing live before other humans.
But back to this mysterious “writer’s block.” I much prefer to slay this dragon by considering it and envisioning it in a more manageable and positive way…
If we dispense with this Romantic cliché; if we are truly dedicated to the commitment of writing, then it is a good thing to let go of that monolith. Let it float into the arctic black of the cosmos, never to return. There is no writer’s block, unless you accept that there is; unless you revel in the myth. And I really do think it’s a myth, born out of the Romantic notion of the artist/writer suffering for their art, and suffering agonies when the “muse” deserted them. I’m not even sure that the Romantic writers we read actually believed in this. They were writer’s after all, and understood the many demands and tasks involved in completing a work. Sitting around waiting for their individual muse to show up was not really part of the job.
I don’t have a muse. I just work, in some task or other that contributes to the writing, almost every day. And when I don’t feel the urge and don’t have ideas, I don’t attribute it to writer’s block. I accept that nothing’s coming, and get on with something else. For me, there is no block – there are just different days, each with their own kind of work. My point, in short, is that there are many things a writer needs to do. That’s not semantics; it’s the reality of the creative life.
I think it’s more accurate to conceive that what happens, is writer’s fatigue. It comes when one has put countless words on scores of pages. That is only, however, the fatigue of being in that particular writer’s “zone” and putting down words toward the finished piece per se. But being a writer is more than that – and that is where “writer’s block” is a myth and an impediment. Realistically, writing is not all sitting at the keyboard hammering out the inspired prose or poetry or non-fiction. It’s plotting story, developing characters, adding notes about ideas, developing a section not yet added to the work per se, doing essential research so that you can move on to the next idea. I guess what I’m saying is that writing is multi-tasking,(for me, at least – and, I suspect, a good many other writers) and that there is always other work to be getting on with. That other work, in itself, can be the “holiday” from writing the actual prose or poetry, if you must think of it that way, but it’s still essential writing work. It is all the work of the writer, pure and simple, no less important than actually typing the work in question. Emma Donoghue gave a talk in which she described doing research for her bestselling novel “Room.” It included talking her young son into rolling himself up in the living room carpet, so that he could tell her how it felt, and she could see how it looked, how it could be carried, and so on. Okay, that’s an extreme example; but it’s no less true. Writers work at the desk and away from the desk. And, like anyone else on the planet, sometimes they choose not to work at all. Why should the writer only be validated, and guilt-free, when hammering away at the keyboard in that exquisite zone of writerly “inspiration”? The notion is a crippling one, and “writer’s block” is part and parcel of this unrealistic notion.
I object to the myth of writer’s block, also, because so many people take it as a given, in that Romantic sense, and blame it for their inability to work, sometimes even before they have so much as sat at the desk, or opened the note-book. Does “writer’s block” attack before one has written a syllable? Is it something like a migraine, or the horrible vacancy and helplessness of depression? (something I know intimately, having lived with it for decades). I believe that people believe it is – but it’s not something I want any part of. It’s too likely, seen in this light, to be an excuse, the submission to one’s imagined fear and struggle, and a continuing source of guilt, which in itself creates impotence and misery.
When effective images, phrases, words do not cohere, when they stumble and stutter and finally thin out and evaporate, these inarticulate moments are the fumes from a tank that is now empty of fuel, in terms of focusing on the specific ‘keyboarding’ of the story or article or study or essay. Every mind, in this process is stretched taut, so to speak. Like a guitar string, if it is not stretched taut, it has no note, no sound. But guitar strings suffer fatigue, lose their elasticity; then their brilliance dulls; and, stretched too long, the string snaps and one must buy a new one.
A new brain, it’s not possible to purchase; but if you take your metaphorical hands off it, stop crushing and manipulating it, squeezing it for those last fumes that will not form into words, then you will revive the mind. If you stop wringing your hands over the horrible “block” that has somehow appeared, stop automatically diving into guilt, then you might just find that that monolithic “writer’s block” dissolves, vanishes, and you are free of its weight. In fact, it suddenly becomes clear that it was a creation of guilt and myth, and not a real obstacle at all. Sometimes, all your brain needs – and that includes the vast percentage of mind we don’t think does much of anything, which is a vicious rumour – is new focus. Focus the brain away from the draft of the work per se, and get on with something else related to pushing the work forward. Your mind will tell you when it’s ready for the particular work of the prose or poetry itself. It will return and stand in your mind’s hallway, with the taxi ticking outside, dump its luggage and say “I’m hooome! You owe the cab $55.” Which, of course, you will rush out and pay, because you are so happy to see your rejuvenated mind in fine fettle, ready for the story or essay or poem. After all, writing the story, or poem or essay itself is the most fun of everything you need to do.
There is no writer’s block; it’s simply that you haven’t the fuel (which could be the solidified idea, the extra dimension to the character, the particular piece of research that completes the puzzle) to carry on directly with the next chapter or paragraph of the novel or poem line or essay line. Focus on something other than that specific part of the work. Make a cup of tea while ruminating. Look at photographs, or simply wash dishes. I do all of these, but all the while I’m working things through, listening to my mind, which never really stops except to sleep. And 99% of the time, I find that my mind is still working on the writing. All I need do is listen, and follow its dictates. There is no block. There is the multi-valent process of creation, which some days asks different things of you. That’s a constant process of solving the puzzle or mystery of the thing being created, rather than imagining, and then surrendering to a horrible, well-nigh immovable impediment to one aspect of the process. And if you don’t want to write at all one day, is that a crime? Perhaps it’s just a choice, something allowed most humans on the planet. What it certainly is not, is a block, a curse or a cause for guilt.