Sunday, June 28, 2015
Once or twice a year, some of my writing friends and I gather at a pretentious café, order whatever is cheapest on the menu, and talk about what we’re working on. Invariably, someone brings up writer’s block.
The discussion gets deep and personal. I generally look on with what I have been told is supercilious arrogance because, you see, I don’t believe in writer’s block. As a matter of fact, I think it’s nonsense.
There. I’ve said it. Bring on the literary firing squad.
Many decades ago when I was still in school, Professor C, whose pipe-smoking demeanor I thought to emulate by purchasing an expensive Peterson’s Irish Sea Fishtail briar, gave me an F on what I thought was one of my more excellent efforts. The piece of writing was an unfinished short story. I told Professor C that a deep and dark episode of writer’s block had prevented me from concluding the tale. He flunked me.
I resented this. Not only was I struggling with learning how to look good with a pipe sticking out of my mouth—which is close to impossible—but the good prof’s belittling of my literary struggles was insulting and unsettling.
It’s been a long time since Prof. C gave me a piece of advice I still use from time to time when I’m at a writing impasse. Here it is: Type the letter “I” and stare at it. Let your indomitable ego takeover, and you’ll find that the “I” will take you places. I have. I will. I won’t. I might. It never fails.
Regarding writer’s block, here’s what I think. Writer’s block is you not wanting to write. That can occur for a variety of reasons. One might be that what you’re working on is simply not good, and your subconscious is telling you to let it go—or start over—before you waste more of your time. Or your stuff may be good, but it doesn’t have the necessary legs to take you anywhere meaningful. In other words, what you’re struggling with might be a viable short story but it’s going to be a lousy novel.
Writer’s block may also mean you’ve written yourself into a corner. That’s tough, and you’re likely to waste a lot more time searching for the way out than you are recasting the situation or plot to make it work smoothly.
I remember once working on a novel where it was imperative that one of my characters commit a violent crime. This was a well-written personage; I’d carefully built him over 200 pages of plot, and his refusal—because that’s what it was—to do what I wanted him to do had me stymied. Writer’s block! I moaned and whined about it to a non-writing friend who said, “So change the plot.”
I think a lot of us, when we’re writing, haven’t fully worked out where we’re going. Personally, I think this is fine. For me, half the joy really is the journey. I may have a basic story in mind, but the details of my people’s actions and workings are revealed as I write them, and this is where the fun starts. I may have to pause, but that’s not writer’s block—that’s taking a deep breath and assessing the situation. Having gotten to here, how do I get to there?
Someone said that writer’s block is when your imaginary friends stop talking to you. Okay, that’s cute and eminently quotable. I prefer to think that it’s my shortcoming. I’m lazy today, or tired, or have something I’d rather be doing than writing. I have options. I can stop writing, or keep writing. I can write something I know is bad, a few pages that will not survive the first edit. If I do that, there is the very slim chance I may end up with a salvageable sentence or two. If I decide to not write, I’ll have nothing. Come to think of it, not a very difficult choice at all.