Monday, September 5, 2011

My Thoughts on Writer's Block

First, unrelated, and from the Department of Misheard:
Me: I just noticed that this bag I'm carrying discriminates against lefthanders!
JD: Against werepanthers!!!?
(Those of you who watch True Blood may have surmised that my friend JD watches it too.)

Now. I get questions from time to time about writer's block and how I deal with it, and I thought I'd try to write some thoughts down. My problem with this issue is that I don't really understand what people mean when they talk about having writer's block. Philip Pullman says he doesn't believe in it. "All writing is difficult," he writes. "The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don't get plumber's block, and doctors don't get doctor's block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?"

Now, I won't go so far as to say that I don't believe in writer's block... maybe I'm misunderstanding, or maybe I've just been lucky. But when asked, my thoughts take me in two directions.

1. If "writer's block" refers to the hopeless confusion of not knowing what to write, having an "I don't wanna" feeling, and knowing that if one sits down to write, it's going to be hard and the product isn't going to be very good... well, then OF COURSE I've had that. I've had it for weeks and months at a time. That's not writers block. That's writing. Or more accurately, it's one of the possible states of writing (maybe I should write a post sometime on the multiple states of writing). Welcome to writing! Get used to all those bad feelings and don't let them make your decisions for you. Understand that the only way out of that kind of blockage is through (to paraphrase Robert Frost). If you wait until you feel like it, or until some higher power starts sending genius inspiration through your fingers, you're going to be waiting a long time. Just WRITE. Write crap and keep writing; figure out what you hate about it and write it all over again; then again, then again; and eventually, through the process of elimination, you'll start to get a sense of the nature of the things you're writing that feel wrong, and this will lead you to some clues about what it is you do want to be writing. Writing something right is often about writing something wrong two or five or ten times first.

Plus, in the process, you'll be getting practice at one of the most important skills a writer needs to perfect: the ability to be objective about his or her writing and recognize when something needs to be fixed/rewritten/revised. It's a kind instinct to contradict the writer who says that what she's working on isn't very good -- to tell her, "Oh, I'm sure it's not that bad" -- but I think that a lot of the time, the writer is merely being honest. After all, the writer knows. It's a writer's job to know when something isn't what she means it to be; it's a skill writers work really hard at, to be able to step back, look at their writing as a reader, and see the ways in which it isn't nearly good enough, yet. Hopefully the writer also knows that hard work can, and will, make it better.

Don't ever let other people minimize your work or convince you that writing should be easy. Don't look at your crappy writing and let it convince you that consequently you must be a crappy writer. If you can recognize that it's crappy, that's the first step! :o)

If what I've described here is what you're calling writer's block, I do have sympathy, because I've been there and will be there again. But if you really want to write, then you'd better get used to it and soldier on.

2. On the other hand!

I firmly believe (having learned from both experience and observation) that a writer is not always meant to be writing, and sometimes can't. We have to learn to listen to ourselves. Sometimes, in addition to the whiny feeling of "I don't wanna," there's a voice that's trying to tell me, "No, quite seriously: I do not want to do this right now, and in fact, I can't, not without pushing too hard and doing damage to myself. It's not working and I need a break. I need to let my energy rest with something else for a while." Maybe that "something else" is something that's arisen in my life -- a crisis, a transition, a pending decision, something else I'd like to try -- or maybe it's nothing special or particular, just a new focus, or a quietness, stemming from the realization that now and then, a person needs a break.

If this is what people mean when they talk about writer's block... well, I think that in this case, if circumstances allow, a person should respect the block. Stop cold. Do something else for a while, and wait until you want to write again. There is nothing wrong with needing a break and there's nothing wrong with not writing. There's nothing wrong with the break you take lasting days, weeks, months, even years. There's nothing wrong with never writing again, if you decide that's what you want.

I guess the tricky part is knowing whether the block you're experiencing is the whiny "It's hard and I don't wanna" or the more serious "For whatever reason, my craft is in need of a break." I think the distinction is something you learn from experience; or maybe it's a distinction you never really learn, and end up spending a lot of time muddling through it messily. That's fine. Sometimes messes are necessary; they should be allowed. Great things come from throwing yourself into a mess; peace comes from messes.

On that helpful note... sigh....

Before I go, I want to acknowledge again that I speak only from my own experience, and if what I'm saying doesn't gel with your own experience, don't feel like you have to take me seriously. You know yourself and your process better than any outsider can. Just make sure you're being honest with yourself.

And good luck. I think that if we're strict and kind with ourselves, we writers can muddle through :o)