by Jay Stringer
I’ve been thinking a lot about writer’s block lately. I was recently asked for some advice on how to deal with it. I did manage to give a practical tip, but I'll leave that for the end.
Writer's block, in my opinion, is nothing more than a bogeyman to scare us at night. William Goldman believes in it, and I tend to go with what he says, but in this instance I’m not so sure.
Okay, perspective check; Goldman is an award winning writer. I’m a guy on a street corner, shouting ideas from a soapbox. I’ll let you decide who to believe, okay?
I see there being three kinds of problem that get labeled as writer's block:
The first kind seems to be an epic affliction. It’s the sort of illness that can only be suffered by very loud and angst-ridden people, who want to share their everyday drama with the world. It seems somehow both noir and arty at the same time. It can cause a writer to go decades –or in some instances half a century- between books. Now, this first kind seems very romantic. You can imagine Raymond Chandler being able to describe this kind of block in very writerly prose.
But myth buster time – is this an affliction, or simply a lack of ideas? Just because everybody has a novel in them, doesn’t mean that we should all be able to crank things out on a yearly basis. Sometimes we just don’t have anything to say, and it seems a peculiar thing to turn this into a great dramatic affliction. Let's face it, the vast majority of people in the world go their entire lives without feeling the urge to write a full-length novel, and yet they don’t go around stressing about being blocked.
The second kind, and the one I have most discussed with people, seems a very specific thing. There’s a deadline looming and the words won’t come, or chapter thirteen just doesn’t want to start. Maybe there’s an action scene that won’t make its way from your head onto the page, or no matter how you try, you cannot make the third paragraph flow. Douglas Adams called it “staring at the page until your forehead bleeds.”
There’s no drama here, though. Not that I can see. No great affliction. This isn’t writer’s block, this is writing. Your brain needs time to work these things out.
Maybe it’s just that I’m a different kind of writer, maybe the above issues are very real concerns for people who work in a different way. For me, I’m very comfortable with the fact that sometimes I may go awhile without setting words on the page. In that time, I may not sit and type, but I’ll be taking a lot of long walks, or way too many showers in a day. Maybe I’ll be re-wiring my guitar or learning a new recipe. Most likely I’ve just found a very interesting crack on the wall to stare at for a few weeks.
This is all writing. It’s giving the cogs in your brain time to spin, time to let things fall into place. I can’t find the exact quote, but I’ll paraphrase as best I can. When William Goldman was asked how long it had taken him to write Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, he answered “It took me a fortnight to write the script, but I’d been thinking about it for six years.”
Is there a third kind? Well, there’s always the issue of deadlines. And sometimes nothing can stop you working better than a deadline. Especially if you have the newest version of Football Manager. But this third version is to be expected, really. If you’re forcing yourself to do something unnatural –to force out the work before it’s ready- of course you’re going to struggle. So again, no drama, no mystery, no affliction.
So far I’ve found three versions of writer’s block. The first and the third one seem to spring out of not paying any heed to the second one. And the second one is not block at all. So I think it’s a myth. A romantic idea we’ve sold ourselves.
But what do I know? I’ve not even got a book out yet. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts; maybe someone has a story they could share about struggling with it?
I do have one piece of practical advice to offer before I wrap up, something that I’ve found useful: Leave your brain wanting more.
Never finish the chapter you’re on. When you’re reaching the end of the day, or morning, or whenever it is you sit and write, stop early. Step back from the computer halfway through a scene, maybe even halfway through a sentence.
That way, when you sit down for the next session, you already know what happens next. You already know how the sentence ends, and you can simply start typing without the worry of a blank page ahead of you.