A few weeks back I became involved in an online discussion with a group of writers on the topic of writer's block. Considering that we're usually a convivial bunch, the topic grew surprisingly heated. There were basically two factions: those, like me, who claimed to have never experienced it; and those who had experienced it and felt that the other side was dismissive of their experiences. The second side further said that it wasn't useful talking to people who hadn't experienced/didn't believe in it.
In the days since then, I've given a lot of thought to the nature of that discussion and the concept of writer's block itself, which is what I'm going to be discussing here today. Good timing, since I'm already tired of writing awkward phrases like "the second side," since there are really no sides, only differing perspectives.
Do I think that writer's block exists? Well, of course I do, since people I know have told me they've experienced it, so to deny its painful existence would be about as useful as telling someone that their broken arm isn't really broken. But here's the thing, or perhaps the first of many things: When I speak at conferences or do extended online interviews like the one I did at UCLA earlier this year, invariably someone asks: "What do you do about writer's block?" The problem I find with that question is the assumption that all writers will suffer the phenomenon at some point. And the peculiar thing? I sometimes get the impression that the questioner has never suffered it themselves but merely expects to, and it is, I find, a romanticized - in a bad way - view of the writing life. It reminds me of the woman I knew once who kept expecting the other shoe to drop in an amazing relationship until I explained to her that high romance didn't necessarily have to equal high (bad) drama.
I do think that expecting something to happen - and, sometimes worse, giving it a diagnostic label - can predispose the likelihood of an occurrence. (Please don't think I'd ever extrapolate this to things like clinical depression or cancer etc.)
I think that taking control of both our work habits and our mindsets increases positive productivity and decreases the chance of debilitation when what are simply natural parts of the writing life turn up stumbling - not writer's! - blocks.
So what do I say when I'm asked what I do about writer's block? I say that I've never had it, that my problem tends more toward hypergraphia, but that I do occasionally have writing stalls and then I discuss techniques for dealing with that.
Getting back to the original discussion and the assertion from - I can't believe I'm going to write this awkward phrase again - the second side that those who haven't suffered from it can't help those that have, I counterassert with a gentle: bollocks. If I was still a runner, and I was worried about developing problems with my Achilles' tendon, I might ask sufferers for advice on dealing with it, but in order to avoid it in the first place, I'd also want to look at the techniques of those runners who go their whole running lives without developing this problem. Are those runners lucky? No doubt, just like the writer who's never been blocked is lucky. But it's also possible that in both instances, the lucky person is also doing a few things right; or at the very least, things that work for them and that just might work for you.
Here are some of the things I think I do right (and before the charges of hubris come in, believe me, I'm aware that I do tons wrong both in writing and in life):
- I'm aware of my own habits as a writer and the places I'm likely to have a stall. They usually come during the middle game, when some of the glow of a new project has worn off or perhaps there's a less-than-thrilling-but-necessary scene that needs to be written; or the beginning of the end game, when niggling fears about whether I can pull it all together set in. If you're aware of how your mind works, the ways in which it likes to sabotage you, you can arm yourself with strategies to combat the self-destruction. For me, that means, in the instance of scenes I feel sluggish about writing, flash-forwarding to a scene I am excited to write - I know I can always come back later and fill in the connecting scenes, being careful to brush over the traces; in the instance of fear once I'm in the end game, or perhaps if I need to write a scene that intimidates me in some way, I recognize that I'm not ready to write it just yet - perhaps it hasn't fully percolated in my brain? - but rather than saying I can't write today, I work on some entirely other piece of writing, like a blog post on writer's block, so that I feel competent and don't lose faith in myself as a writer. That's part of the key: writing, at something, every day.
- Even if I'm not the slightest bit Protestant, I might as well be, my work ethic has always been that strong. For me this means the question is never "Will I work today?" but "How much will I work today?" and the answer to the latter is almost always "a damned lot." It's not a matter of whether I feel like it or not. It's what I do for a living. Some say that writing is an art and publishing is a business. I agree on the surface, in a knee-jerk way, but I also think publishing can be an art and I know that, in addition to being an art, writing can also be a business. If this is how you make your - OK, it's not a fortune, but more like a meager subsistence - money to pay your bills, yes, you still want to create at the height of your powers but you do actually have to produce something (preferably something creatively brilliant) in order to have a chance of keeping your job. And most writers I know - even if they start out just wanting to have one book published with their name on the spine and even though the sad reality is that most writers cannot make a living wage in this business - have a goal of writing full time. That's great, but you have to write to do that. So getting back to the work ethic thing, whenever I'm working on a project I set daily goals that I need to meet before I can call it a day, or night. For me those goals invariably involve word count or something specific like one complete chapter, but I know other writers for whom setting a specific goal of how much time they'll work for functions just as well. The key in either instance is making a mental commitment to what you can accomplish and then sitting in that chair until you're done. (Why, yes, my butt has gotten a lot wider since I started writing.)
- It's not that I want to minimize the real psychological stress people feel when they can't write - and believe me, impervious as I may seem, I suffer tons of self-doubt, perhaps I'm just better at timing the bouts - but why give something the opening to become a tyranny in your life by giving it a fairly useless umbrella label like writer's block? Maybe you're scared of a scene - understandable. Maybe you're writing the book in first person, are halfway done, and are reluctant to admit it will only work in third person - understandable. Maybe you have an overwhelming number of lousy things going on in your life, maybe you have too many distractingly good things going on in your life, maybe you're just flat-out exhausted because you've already written too damn much this year - understandable, understandable, understandable. But are you really blocked??? Honestly, the only writer I've ever thought of as being genuinely blocked is Henry Roth with his 60-year work stoppage. Now that's a block! But the thing that many writers call a block, the inability to produce something in a single sitting? That's just A Bad Day.
Finally, if none of the above is useful to you, when I looked up writer's block on Wikipedia for the above definition, I found they had a list of strategies for coping with writer's block that looked extremely practical: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writer%27s_block. (I hope that link works. I tried to make a pretty link, but alas, I may be hypergraphic but I'm still a tech-not.)
I'm sure I've left a ton of things out, but if this were comprehensive this would be a monologue and I'd always much rather have a dialogue. So c'mon, weigh in, tell me what areas I'm all wet about.
Be well. Don't forget to write.