Every writer has had those moments when the words simply won’t come. Sometimes it lasts an hour; sometimes a day. In the case of Henry Roth it lasted for sixty years.
Writer’s block can come in many forms and arise from many causes. Hemingway struggled with words for the last few years of his life. Five concussions, electro shock therapy, alcohol and depression may have been involved.
His friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald frequently found himself unable to write — his struggles with alcohol and his wife Zelda may have been a factor. Leo Tolstoy often went months or even years when he wrote not a word (though War and Peace pretty made up for those gaps). J.K. Rowling was less afflicted but had a creative gap of five weeks while she was writing the second Harry Potter novel. Interestingly it was the success of the first book that paralyzed her.
Despite these examples, most professional writers don’t believe in writer’s block. Harlan Ellison once joked that he had had writer’s block once — it was the worst ten minutes of his life. Phillip Pullman relegates writer’s block to the trash heap of amateurism, right along with inspiration. For him, writing is a job and a damn hard one at that. Professional writers no more suffer from ‘blocks’ than plumbers do. (Though it strikes me plumbers do have blocks; it is what they spend most of their lives trying to fix).
Of course, many of these same professionals offer plenty of advice on how to overcome these blocks, so perhaps they doth protest too much. And not everyone is a ‘professional’ in the sense they entirely make their living from writing fiction. That doesn’t make them amateurs, either.
It is worth considering what may be happening when you feel you don’t want to or can’t make yourself write. You may want to write but can’t do it; you may find writing easy but have no desire to do it. The problem may be getting started or it may arise when you are part way through. Devastating for full-time writers of course, but no less frightening for us part-timers. So what to do?
First not all gaps in writing are because of writer’s block. Between 2001 and 2003, I wrote almost no fiction. However, it wasn’t a matter of being blocked. I was in a relatively new relationship and had a busy, stressful job. In January 2002, I moved from Calgary to Ottawa and no longer was surrounded by fellow writers, egging me on. I had a new job with considerable demands on my time and energy. I was learning all about a new city. I quite literally lost any interest in creative writing — whatever it gave me I was getting somewhere else.
I eventually came back and have written steadily ever since, that is, until I became over whelmed with being an editor and publisher. This time the hiatus was shorter — but for six months, I just didn’t have the time to write, though I occasionally had the inclination. I have started up again in case you were wondering.
So the first thing I would say to those of you who find they no longer are writing as much as they did or they want, examine your life. Do you have a new job or has your existing one become busier or more interesting. New relationship? New baby in the house? New city to learn? You probably have enough on your plate without beating yourself up about not writing. So quit it. Enjoy the other creative aspects of living and come back to writing when you are ready. Just don’t wait as long as Henry Roth.
A friend of mine recently complained that his output has dropped dramatically in recent years. Whereas he used to pump out 2000 or 3000 words a day, now he finds 300 words in a sitting to be tough. He finds himself constantly re-writing even as he struggles to compose. I know my own writing has slowed over the years — but for me it is quite simply a physical limitation: I can’t sit at a keyboard for long stretches of time the way I once did. I don’t think it is the same for him — he’s fitter than I’ve ever been and still young (in writer’s years).
I’ve always made liberal use of the backspace key while I write and will often skip back a paragraph or two to fix something that has created a problem later on. It is quite possible that my friend’s editorial chops have increased over time so that he can no longer leave bad writing on the screen. He claims no – he needs to edit later as much as he ever did — but sometimes writers are the worst judges of how much their writing has improved.
Of course, over editing can fall into the trap of perfectionism — which has been identified as one cause of real writer’s block. Needing to have the absolute right word, the perfect turn of phrase, the ideal degree of clarity and mystery can all hamper writers. The flip side of perfectionism — the feeling that every paragraph is a load of shite and that any bozo could write a better story than me is equally devastating if you let it be.
There are no perfect works of literature. No-body can write your story better than you can. Keeping those two ideas front and centre might help liberate the words you want, ideally, to flow from you like a clean clear stream.
Freeing yourself from your internal editor is worth the effort. Nothing gets done if you constantly second-guess yourself while writing. Editing is for after you finish the first draft. If you don’t finish the story you have nothing to edit. (Which, if you hate re-writing as much as I do, is yet another incentive never to finish.) Learning to turn your editor off is critical both while you are composing, but also after you finish. Lots of writers find their productivity fall as they attempt to polish a draft until they can see their faces in it. I even know a few writers who want to make changes even after their work is published. You don’t have to be crazy to be an artist, but apparently it helps.
What if the words you want won’t come? Write other words until they do. A friend of my, playwright Gordon Pengilly, helped me by telling how he coped with that experience. He would simply start two characters talking, along the lines of this:
One: What are you working on?
Two: Nothing. I can’t think of anything.
One: Me neither. Why do you think that is?
After a while, sometimes five lines, sometimes twenty five, an idea would occur that was worth pursuing. Sometimes, he said, he got bored with the sheer inanity and would have one of them say something crazy. Bingo, he was off at a gallop.
Getting rejected can spur people to try harder or, conversely, it can contribute to a desire to quit. Like it or not, we all respond to reward and punishment. Continuous rejection as a writer (especially if you are experiencing success in other areas of life) may eventually make you realize you should find another creative outlet. And maybe you’ll be right. Amazingly, for most of us, even the promise of a reward can drive us forward. Like rats, the occasional appearance of a pellet of praise (often in the form of a minuscule cheque), is almost more effective at keeping us going than a regular diet of success.
Yes, perversely enough, success can also lead to writer’s block. J.K. Rowling’s brief period of creative paralysis was caused by exactly that. It was the sudden, growing success of her first book that made her fear she couldn’t do as well the second time around. Sudden early success — followed by difficulty in following up — can be a tremendous jolt and can create a ‘Cinderella’ complex — the feeling that you are not really who you pretend to be. Living a lie leads to anxiety; anxiety can easily block the process. Overcoming that can be difficult — my suggestion is that you have to accept early success as proof positive that you can in fact do what you are attempting. Hard work and determination (as well as publishing deadlines) can often pull you through to the end.
Occasionally, you need to go back to the beginning and remember what it was like to write without a goal in mind. Staring at a photograph or painting or listening to a piece of complex or evocative music and then simply writing what you feel can lead to fascinating explorations of sense, setting, character or even story. If that isn’t your cup of tea, try some writing exercises. What If? Is a great place to start.
Finally, writer’s block can be a good thing. Creative processes often engage our entire brain and may not follow the linear path demanded by our cerebral cortex. Getting your thoughts, emotions, and instincts in line may require a period of inner reflection. What appears as a block may simply be your brain saying: Not Yet! Learning to recognize that internal process may be as simple as being open to the possibility that the story isn’t ready to be written. One way to cope with these sudden halts might be to have two or three projects on the go at once — so you can flip from one to the other as the need and desire arise.
If you do feel blocked, I hope this blog will give you a bit of perspective to move on to the next thing. If not, there is plenty of good advice out there that might help. Try some of these tricks or consult Sherry Peter’s book, Silencing Your Inner Saboteur.
Keep writing (unless you don’t want to).
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