I don’t believe in writer’s block. There, I said it! Phew. What a load off. I said that once to a writer friend and he responded, “Oh, this I can’t WAIT to hear.”
Let me explain. I’m not saying there aren’t times when writing is a struggle–for me, or for anyone else. Actually, I’m in a period of relative writing inertia right now–I like to refer to it as peaks and valleys. I’ve never been the type of writer to force anything out of myself, conceding that, at least for me, forced writing ends up reading like it was, well, forced. I work on my novel(s) every day, but a lot of that work takes place in my head and my word/page count can stay static for days, weeks, months at a time while I puzzle out the intricacies of my story and try to figure out just who my characters are. It’s a different sort of work–you can’t measure it in hours spent in front of a computer or pages coming out of the printer, but it matters in the end, maybe more than some of the words you type and then discard.
But that’s not a block. It’s a slow period, or a hibernation, or sometimes just a difficult stretch of road that takes time and determination to cover. I doubt any writer would call that a block. What people mean by writer’s block is the complete cessation of all creative output and the panic it brings–”What if I’m just a one trick pony? What if I’m a talentless hack who never should’ve been published in the first place? What if I never write again, or, WORSE, never get published again?”
I’m not saying I’ve never been there, because I have. Some people blame it on their “muse” (if there’s a writerly self-indulgence I hate more than the muse concept, I’ve never come across it), but of course that’s not it at all–this isn’t ancient Greece, or Andy Warhol’s Factory. There isn’t any such thing as a muse. It’s just you and your pen and your mind. Sometimes, that doesn’t seem like enough. It’s as if a great stone wall has been built up in your head overnight, and it separates you from your work. It looks insuperable; it certainly doesn’t yield when you throw yourself against it or try to scramble up its smooth facade. The situation feels hopeless, like swimming against a strong current in a vast ocean.
So what’s the problem? To illustrate, I’m going to use a scene from one of my favorite shows from a little while back.
In the first season of Joan of Arcadia, average everyday bratty teenager Joan Girardi begins seeing God and receiving “suggestions” from Him. When Joan acts on those suggestions, good things happen. But a third of the season in, God asks Joan to do something that tests her faith. Joan’s friend Adam is a budding sculptor, and he’s entered his best piece in the school art show. God tells Joan to make sure the piece is removed from the art show. Joan makes a half-hearted effort at doing what she’s been told–she tries convincing Adam to take it out of the show, and when that doesn’t work she tries to buy it, and when that doesn’t work she tries to steal it, all the while entertaining doubts about her task and the true nature of the being who gave it to her.
Finally, the day of the art show arrives and Adam’s piece goes on display, despite Joan’s mediocre attempt at preventing this from happening. And something great happens–some old lady pays Adam $500 for it! Now, setting aside for a second the fact that random old women don’t normally go trolling high school art shows for new avant garde purchases (although maybe they should), this is not as good as it sounds, because Adam (because he is a teenage boy and also ridiculous) decides to drop out of school to become a full-time artist. Finally, Joan realizes why God didn’t want Adam’s piece in the art show–he wanted Adam to stay in school! (It’s much less stupid than it sounds.)
So Joan, overcome with the consequences of her own mistake and desperate to undo what has already been done, ties back her hair and goes charging into the gymnasium. She picks up a chair and starts swinging, smashing Adam’s precious sculpture to bits.
Now, backing up a bit. When Joan originally ran out of ideas, she confronted God about the shadiness of Her mission and a litany of things Joan already did to make it happen. “What else is there?” she whines. “I mean…you want me to smash it?” God shakes Her head and smiles. “Don’t blame me for your failure of imagination,” She says. “What you have to ask yourself is: What are you going to do now?“
So when the school administrators and her parents confront Joan about the “solution” she came up with, she mutters, “I had a failure of imagination.”
Okay, so Joan makes a couple of mistakes here. The first one is that she tries to guess where God is going with this whole Adam thing, which God initially praises her for (“I like the way way you’re beginning to consider the results and ramifications of our work together,” He tells her), but it becomes clear that when Joan tries too hard to predict the future that will emerge from her actions, she becomes blind to her own part in the process and decides that she knows best, throwing up her hands and abandoning her task.
This is one cause of so-called writer’s block. As writers, we try too hard to catch a glimpse of the future–typing “The End” on a beautiful manuscript, our agent calling with a significant deal, holding the finished copy in our hands. It’s much too big of a burden for us to carry, and nobody can possibly know what the end of the process is going to look like. If you tell yourself, “I have to write a bestseller,” or anything similar, you might not be able to write anything at all.
Joan also puts too much stock in her past experience. Because she has been able to see the positive outcomes of following God’s directives before, she expects to always have that luxury. God’s former suggestions were puzzling, but in a morally neutral way–get a job at this bookstore, play chess, try out for cheerleading. But “make sure this nice thing that Adam wants doesn’t happen” is morally ambiguous and for the first time, Joan’s choice is predicated not on her own personal motivations and desires, but on her interpretation of right and wrong as it applies to the effect she can have on the lives of people besides herself. She can’t imagine a good thing coming of her mission, so she doubts it and doesn’t try very hard.
The burden of expectations puts an altogether different sort of pressure on a writer. If you’ve been published before–or even if you’ve finished a novel before, and are in any stage of the publication process–it’s easy to get caught in a whirlpool of “It wasn’t this way with my last book” or “My last book was easier to write” or whatever. You feel as though, since you’ve been through it once, twice, forty times before, you should know how to do it by now. It should be a breeze. But of course it isn’t–it can’t be, if you’re going to grow and learn. Each book presents new challenges and problems, and when we psych ourselves out about what we should be as writers and think that we already know the depths of our own creativity, we stymie ourselves.
Joan’s final problem is her crisis of faith. But it isn’t God she questions, although that’s how she thinks of it–it’s herself. She doubts her ability to handle the situation she’s found herself in, and rather than work until she finds the correct answer, she throws up her hands and admits defeat, falling short of her objective, then taking drastic measures that only make the whole thing worse. The episode ends without Joan reconvening with God to talk about her mistake, because you know what He/She would have said, because She said it earlier, when Joan wasn’t listening: “What you have to ask yourself is: What are you going to do now?“
A crisis of faith is the worst sort of obstacle for a writer, because it comes from a deeply discouraging place inside of you, one that’s incredibly difficult to shake. In Joan of Arcadia parlance, it’s the dwelling place of the Adversary, the bit of you that says, “I can’t do this. Last time was a fluke. This is who I really am–a complete failure.” I was in this place about a month ago, when I reached a point in one of my current works in progress where I felt the wall spring up. I almost did a very Joan-like thing–I nearly abandoned the nearly one hundred and fifty pages I had written–thinking they were terrible, the sloppiest writing I’d ever done, I almost destroyed them. I believed they–and I–were completely worthless. Thankfully, I put them aside for a little while, even opened up a brand new Word document and began rewriting the book from page 1, but after going back to the original partial manuscript and I found my path again and continued on, salvaging all but a few pages of what I had previously written. It’s a first draft, it’s bare-bones because that’s the way I work, and it’s not publishable–yet. But I know I can get there.
There’s no such thing as writer’s block. If you find yourself unable to write, it’s not because some unseen force that previously guided your work is gone, it’s because you have had a failure of imagination. The wall we throw our shoulders against is a manifestation of doubt and disillusion, not a something that has risen up on its own.
The creative process is always an inner struggle for clarity and purpose; that doesn’t change after you’re published, or after you’ve finished a few books. I won’t presume to say why it happens for other people, but it happens for me when the compulsion to speak is overcome by the fear of having nothing to say. I find I can become discouraged by the problems my books pose, believing that because I haven’t found the solution yet it means I never will. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia or selective memory or what, but I expect the next book to be just as easy to write as All Unquiet Things was–forgetting, of course, that AUT took me seven long years and countless revisions to get somewhere in the neighborhood of just right, and that the reason I avoid reading it now is that I know it will never be perfect.
I’m not going to pretend that this is an easy situation to overcome. Of course it isn’t. It takes a lot of faith and stubborness to figure out a way to turn a failure of imagination into a triumph of imagination. To paraphrase another favorite show of mine: the solution is there–you just haven’t found it yet.