Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My Block and Your Block

Writers talk a lot about writer's block. How you get it, how you get over it, what it means (deep down), whether it's about fear or laziness or trauma, who's had it the longest, which famous writers have suffered from it... but really, for every writer, their block is their own. No one's is ever like anyone else's. If you really want to write, but you can't, it can be hell. You sit at your desk and nothing happens. Mostly, you don't sit at your desk if you can avoid it, because then you really know nothing is happening, whereas if you are busy doing chores or school work or housework, you don't have to admit you're blocked. You're just very busy.

Writers who are gaily writing pages and pages of stuff heap scorn (even if only privately) on writers who say they are suffering writer's block. "Just write anything" is common advice. "Free writing works" is another, because if you're free writing, even if it's awful, you are at least writing. There's a belief among some people that there is no such thing as writer's block. If you are a writer, then you write. If you have a book due on 31 December, then you write. If you have two articles due next week, then you write. Writer's block? Rubbish!

To some extent, this is true. If you are a writer, then you write. Do you hear of plumbers having plumber's block? "No, I'm sorry, Mrs J, I can't fix your toilet today. I have plumber's block. Can't tell you when I'll get over it. You know how it is." My own theory is that it often has to do with confidence. Writer's block is not about not being able to write - after all, you only need to pick up the pen and start scribbling and technically you are writing. Writer's block is about believing you can't write. And that's a whole different issue.

What does can't mean? It may mean "I can't write anything good so I might as well not try." It may mean "Everyone rejects what I write so I may as well give up." Plus some of these: "I never have any original ideas", "My husband/mother/teacher says I'm not a good writer", "I sit down to write and my mind goes blank", "I try to write but only garbage comes out". None of these are actually about writing, they're about what the writer thinks their writing should be.

It should be (pick one or any): brilliant, publishable, approved of by everyone I know, inspired, full of wonderful language, totally original, perfect, prize-winning, exhilarating. The truth is that none of these things occur in a first draft. On rare occasions, you might get close. Those almost-perfect first drafts are a gift to be treasured, but not to be constantly emulated. It's not possible. The more you expect that your writing will be wonderful and perfect and amazing in the first draft, the more you are setting yourself up for disappointment and disillusionment, and yes, probably a case of block at some point.

The one thing I've learned over the years is to keep writing. It's why I often do the writing exercises that I set for my classes. This year, along with my Poetry 2 students, I've written about 100 poems. Many in class, more outside of class because I'm "in the habit". But I have to admit that over the mid-semester break, apart from poems, I did very little writing. And I realised that the reason was I was waiting to start a new novel. I'm not quite ready yet, so I wrote nothing else, despite the fact that I have other projects to work on, or rewriting to do. I just plain avoided it because I was waiting for the perfect moment to begin.

There is no perfect moment, except for right now.


Snail said...

In some cases, might writer's block also be something to do with the the concept of writing as an 'art' rather than a 'craft'. Putting the blame on a fickle muse. I dunno. (But I am guilty of all the above.)

(BTW, I am faintly disturbed by the idea of plumber's block)

Kristi Holl said...

When I got done laughing about the plumber's block, I had to admit that you hit the nail on the head. I even have "getting out of writer's block" block, since I've spent the last two days journaling, doing free writing exercises, reading about writing, etc. INSTEAD OF WRITING. Thanks for reminding me to give myself permission to write a horrid rough draft and get it over with!

Sherryl said...

The muse. Hmmm. Never seen one yet, although I know a few writers (mostly male poets) for whom the muse seems to live inside a bottle of red wine.
Kristi - writing is writing, and sometimes I think journalling is getting ready to write, then you go "OK, now". But if you didn't journal first, then getting to Now might be harder.
I have tricks - I tell myself, just do 1000 words in a writing session, or one hour of writing anything. Getting me to the blank page is the hardest part, then I'm usually OK.

Anonymous said...

Here is my horrible confession. I read your blog when I am supposed to be writing. But you must be congratulated on being so inspiring. I rarely visit another webpage before I begin working on my writing!

Tracey said...

James N Frey (and, yes, isn't that "N" important now!)talks about someone getting bricklayer's block in his _How to write damn good fiction_. (The bricklayer's cured when his wife hits him over the head with a rolling pin when she finds out that they're not going to get paid.) Frey's of the oh-phooey-there's-no-such-thing brigade, and sees it as a failure of nerve. I think for me that's often exactly what it is. But there's a lot to be said about having a regular practice, isn't there? Still, I tell myself, you can fix a crappy page, but you can't "fix" a blank one!