That slippery term, that sentimentalized and romanticized condition perceived as an elusive virus – Oh, she’s suffering from that right now – oft illustrated as a writer with bowed head staring onto a blank page, written about as the inevitable prowler of every serious writer’s mind, is not the haunting of the hit-and-run ghost you have come to dread, but a creaky door that needs oil, a bulb that needs to be changed, batteries that need to be replaced, complaining floor boards in need of a few screws or an adept contractor, or curtains that need to be thrown wide over a dim light playing tricks. Whatever it is, ten to one it ain’t that paralyzing, spectral infection: writer’s block.
Have you heard the camp skit I Hurt All Over? It goes like this:
Johnny: Betty, you know first aid. Maybe you can help.
Jenny: What’s wrong?
Johnny: When I touch my forehead, it hurts. When I push on my jaw, it hurts. When I press on my stomach I almost cry. What can it be?
Jenny: I have no idea. You’d better go and see the camp nurse.
Johnny goes to see the nurse and returns half an hour later.
Jenny: Well? What did he say? What’s wrong with you?
Johnny: I’ve got a broken finger.
[Johnny, Jenny, it may not be as bad as you thought.]
Ten Strains of Writer’s Malaise that are Not Writer’s Block:
1. Someone asked Ernest Hemingway if writing was hard work. He replied that it was the easiest job in the world. He simply sits at his typewriter and lets blood. Or take the poet Seamus Heaney, who in his autobiographical poem Digging compares the physical labour of slicing through sod with a shovel to writing. The poem ends: Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it. It’s hard work, writing; it demands a disciplined routine and perseverance, commitment both material and spiritual, and now more than ever, a compartment of the hard drive exclusively partitioned for running a business. Writing, like all labour, demands rest. Fiction writer’s imaginations are particularly taxed. I know, for instance, I am getting tired when I describe wind in the canopy of a tree, a character’s movement pattern, a speaking quirk, in a repetitive manner – a sign my imagination is getting fatigued. If you are not taking breaks – walks, weekends or weeks away – the work will break you, maybe not today, but one of those consecutive, taxing, nose-to-the-grindstone days. But that is good news; the symptom of staring at your page as blankly as a trout is not writer’s block, it’s exhaustion.
2. You’re on a roll. Your mind is brimming with colours, characters and plot lines. In your exuberance you wade past the shallow end buoys over your head and swim in the glorious depths of your sub-creation. A few strokes later you are treading water. Chapters in, you are looking for the edge of the pool, or longing for a secure footing in the shallow end. Too late! You are doing the dead man’s float. But writer’s block it isn’t! You’re drowning in your own labyrinth of ideas. You’re overwhelmed. Step back. Go to the index cards, physical or virtual, and put some design to that pantsy writing. I do not judge; I write by the seat of said pants. And sometimes, like trudging lost through a swamp, you want to turn back. But then you remember the moisture-protected map you packed away. You spread it over a stump and see that dry land is but fifty sodden feet ahead. You couldn’t see it for the fog (in your mind), but the map puts everything back into place. You follow the trail, divide and conquer the terrain one plateau at a time. It isn’t writer’s block; you were merely drowning!
3. Writing a novel is a huge task. You begin with an idea, a character, an event, and soon plot lines, flora and fauna, dialogue, side stories, back-stories are screaming for attention – and it’s only the first draft! If you knew how many times you would weary yourself with the langue of your own created world when you started the thing, you may never have written the first phoneme. Revisions, edits, rewrites all await you. If you look ahead too early you will seem to be chipping away at the foot of an impassable mountain, thinking, “I’ve got to tunnel through this! This is making the construction of the Suez canal look like a back yard project!” Okay. The Suez Canal took – swallow here – more than fifteen years, so maybe your 70,000-word construction project may not be that big. But the months! Oh, the grinding months! But if ever there were a job in which incremental improvements amount to a monumental achievement, it is the task of writing a novel. You set a word quote for each day, one thousand, say. Times five for the week. Times four for the month. Hey! That’s 20,000 rough-cut gems for the month. If ever there were an investment that paid out in compounding interest, it is your stake in a novel. Take your eyes off the mountainside – It’s not Mount Block – and chisel off the first thousand chunks.
4. My desk goes up and down. That means I can stand at my desk; but I mostly sit, sit and think and write while my body congeals. Soon the sludge hits the brain and I hit a wall. In the next ten minutes I will either melt off my chair onto the floor in a primordial puddle or I will tear myself off my Velcro patch and teach my dog a new trick, clean out the recycling bin, walk to the hardware store to buy a nail, visit my post office box and lick a stamp, talk to a nameless neighbour, or dig for worms in the garden. Take your pick, but get off your beanbags and shake those legumes! You’re not punchy from writer’s block; you need some physical stimulation. When I resume the pilot’s seat, fresh with a coffee, after a quick review of my material, I’m riding the uplifts once again.
5. I once asked a famous poet how to write a bad poem. After she and the small studio audience snickered, after she made us wait while she unpacked what I was getting at, she finally expounded on how a poet can make a poem bad: “By over-carpentering it,” she said. A poem has an inner life, a circulation that gives it life; and you can choke the life out of it by meddling, by too much engineering or micro managing. “I’ve worked this poem over and over and it still missing something.” You’re right. You’ve strangled it with too much love, too many obsessive tweaks, and too many cogs for the mechanics to whir into life. So, you give up. Toss it. Or you might ask yourself, what prompted the poem at its genesis? What was its life-giving stream? A caveat: This suggestion doesn’t come with a full coverage guarantee. And let’s face it; some poems will never breathe the air of an opened page. But others, with a little sensory memory, will spring back to life, set you back on the trail. If you’re stuck, and shuffling the index cards is not helping, drink from the spring that fed the stream. Are you navigating a tributary? Or did you wander too far from the stream and dig a canal; and now, you are withering away for lack of water.
6. I am, or was, ahem, fairly athletic. I adapted to new sports like a squirrel to a new climbing apparatus. But not this time. I thought I would try windsurfing without any instruction. I paddled the board out onto the Ottawa River on a suitably windy afternoon, scrambled up onto the board, lifted the mast, and fell off; take two: hauled the sail and mast from the water and wrestled with it till I fell off again, and again, and again. Embarrassing, but instructive. A cottager, who also happened to be an ex-windsurfer-instructor-gal, met me at the shore with a wry smile. “Having a little trouble?” she asked. “I don’t get it,” I answered, “I tried everything, holding it gently, tightening my grip, forward mast, back leaning mast, feet wider apart, one foot forward.” Her reply shocked the puckered wrinkles out of my river soaked skin. “I could have had you going with one little tweak.” “Really?” When we are midpoint in a novel or story, we can cling to our formative ideas so strongly we may be overlooking the smallest detail that will clear the white fog. Determined to stick to our script, we try to bend our material into place, but it ends up contorting, not only the next chapter, but also the whole book. It’s like compressing an industrial sized spring into a Swiss watch. No matter how you try to insert into the plot your non-negotiable, it simply doesn’t fit. You keep falling off the board and floating dead and red in the water. So, you stop. You close the file, drag it to a folder and let it stew. You move on to another project, but the folder, the chapter that defeated you taunts. You return to the chapter a few days later and it’s Pete and Repeat to greet you again. Boom! Writer’s Block! – Nope. You’ve got a grip on idea, a way of proceeding that isn’t working. Here’s a prescription for said malaise: What’s the realtor’s mantra? Location, location, location. How about index cards, index cards, index cards. Step back. Reread your summaries chapter by chapter. The cure is in the cards – or your characters. You need to extract yourself from the immediate obsession and take a look a the big picture. You are not the fly caught in the web; you are the spider who constructed it. If chapter summaries are good for one thing, it is keeping a spider’s multi-eyed view of the landscape. The answer’s there; maybe it will come from another set of eyes or getting some instruction from a skilled technician – windsurfing is easy-peasy, right? Take a break from the same old song and let your cards do the singing.
7. You are scribe to a full-blown fictional world. Your character, you decide, in pursuit of her goal, wanders out of a forest onto open flat terrain and keeps walking, but under the sun the prose seems a little flat, a little predictable. It’s twelve noon. The sun is at its Zenith. There’s something missing, you decry. You are stopped in your tracks to die in a desert. Or, take another example. Your mind explodes with a whole new book package; characters, setting, plot, and themes spring up like manna in the wilderness. You open a new file, open a text page and begin to write. Five sentences in you stall. You try again. You putter out. What’s wrong? Have you lost your edge? Has your gift flown? No; you are out of your depth. Is it flat terrain? Is it limestone or sand? The ground so hard it feels like it is pushing back? Is it a moor of heather? Is it a volcanic spill way? Swampy? Spongy? Old Europe? Which year? Costumes? Fabric? Stop writing and start digging. Reading is writing! Research is writing! Fleshing out that world will feed the narrative. You cannot make bricks without straw, or so the story goes. The bricks are the character’s dialogue, the locations and everything else; the straw is your research. Look, non-fiction writers begin with research and try to make their facts, and information tasty, right? Fiction writers, the best of them, may be fanciful, but the flora and fauna, the societies and solar systems, the terrain and terraces need a healthy dose of non-fiction. It doesn’t matter what kind of project you’re constructing; you need material. Read one of Kenneth Oppel’s creations for a good lesson in the benefits of going on a ‘dig.’
8. You are out of your depth, part two. I am a Christian. Christ, the Holy Spirit and trying to walk-the-talk are the fabric of my everyday life. Does that mean my novels magically appear, as in automata? Not on your life. I do not want my blunders, my incompetence, attributed to the pen of God. Nor would I wish that miracle if it were available. Where’s the fun in being a mechanical recorder? What does Saint Paul write? “No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” Maybe St. Paul is not the best comparison. He did say he received revelations. But he did acknowledge the process, and I love the process. Okay, not all of it, especially the part when I’m stuck, when I’m out of my depth, when I have no idea where to turn, searching for that grace to which Paul alludes. So, what do I do? Throw my hands up and despair? Yep, but with a difference. You have heard of that popular title, Eat, Pray, Love. Do I need to fill in the blanks? Think it’s writer’s block? Fight it on your knees.
9. I have read a lot of advice for writers scattered over the web, much of which is useful, but there is a danger to blog guidance; complex problems are often reduced, for the sake of brevity, to monosyllabic locution. I have often read, for example, that a writer should, by no means procrastinate. It is the bane of all writers, so bloggers bemoan. There is always some ‘other’ to steal away those precious moments at the keyboard. Chores, visits to the store, and the eventual return to the keyboard are all done under the shadow of the guilt umbra, making for bad feelings all round. I will disclose that I write habitually. I write a prescribed amount of hours every work day, but sometimes I let the gremlins drag me away from my work. Is that always bad? Here’s my answer: I bake cakes. Making cakes is a process, but unlike some recipes which require its cook to hover over the entire process, in making a cake there comes a time in the process when you have got to stop your fussing and stick it in the oven, let it bake, let the ingredients coalesce. Think; make room for input outside of the office; synthesize with your orbiting diversions. Be a ruminating and prognosticating procrastinator. I promise; it’s not inviting Writer’s Block Creep.
10. I am a writer. Say it again. “And what do you do?” “I write books,” you say. Oooh. Aaah. Ugh! What have I done? Have I lost my mind? Where are all my like-minded, supportive scribblers? Where is the Inklings Pub Club where the magic happens? Where are the emails from my fans? The money? All I get is solitary and lonely labour. Where is the joy of sub-creation, the exhilaration of breathing life into my imagination? Most agents don’t want it, a lot of publishers don’t need it, and my readership is far, far away. Sometimes my artistic contribution to the world feels like throwing pebbles into a gravel pit. This is a tough business and all I can say is you had better really, genuinely, indissolubly love the craft – yes, my creampuff, that includes editing – or you will wilt like a rose petal in a roasting pan. It’s bad-tasting medicine, but you will have to ask and answer the big question. Do you love writing, or do you love the idea of being a writer? It’s not writer’s block; it’s the bottom line.