Monday, August 3, 2009

Writer's Block And Other Urban Legends

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.


Steve Weddle said...

Good points. Seems the best way to get rid of writer's block is to just write. Or, as you point out, stop writing when you want to keep writing. So, either do one thing or the exact opposite. This writing stuff is tough.

Some folks I've spoken with have said a daily routine helps them. If you write at the same time every day, you'll never have writer's block because you'll just write. Your brain is ready to go at the same time. Tough to schedule, I'd imagine.

Mike Knowles said...

I'd write a comment, but I have writer's block.

Dana King said...

I think it was Stephen King who said, "Writer's block is what happens when you try to be a better writer than you are." No pejorative implied; sometimes we just set the bar too high for where we are. I know I've done it. (Not being published yet, I might be doing it every day.)

I'm glad I got the word on this new blog, and happy to be one of the first readers. Looks like it will be a lot of fun, and educational besides.

Lein Shory said...

There are as many different processes and routines as there are writers. That the words flow easily for some doesn't make writer's block a myth. Many great writers found themselves struggling at various points in their careers.

It's like saying, "Whenever I've been sad, I've been able to talk myself out of it. Therefore, depression is just a myth, a scheme cooked up by therapists and the pharmaceutical industry."

Maybe one day we'll completely understand the brain and how creativity works. Then we can make some definitive statements about writer's block. But as nice as it might be to get some answers, I personally hope I don't live to see that day.

Scott D. Parker said...

Like Dana, I'm a writer who hasn't yet published a novel. Take what I have to say cum granis salis (that's my fancy Latin-based education for you).

I joke that it's taken me longer NOT to write my second book than it did to write my first. I think part of my problem is summed up in the Stephen King quote. In the months and years since I wrote that first book (historical mystery) and didn't write the second (modern crime), I think it was my desire to be "Just like Pelecanos/Lehane/Whomever" that doomed me. I wasn't trying to be Parker (me, not Robert). Goes back to finding one's voice, a subject of recent blog posts on another group blog. Speaking of blogging, I think it's helped me find my voice. Sure, I sound different in my own head when I write a review vs. a chapter of a piece of fiction, but it's still me. My friends who know me say that they hear my voice as they read my stuff. That's cool, you know, since I fancy myself a storyteller.

When I wrote my first book, I had it all blocked out via note cards. Every evening, at the same time (10pm), I'd pick up the next note card, glance at the comments I wrote on said card, and bang out that scene, which was usually a chapter. I never had to think "what happens next?" because I *knew* what happened next. And I couldn't wait to get to it.

At times when I've had issues writing a short story that *I wanted to write*, I avoided writer's block by just writing whatever came into my head and shot out through my fingers. True, the end result wasn't what I thought I needed but it was something my brain needed. That's all fancy metaphysical gobblegook but it goes to the point I'm trying to make: for me, personally, writer's block is an excuse. Just. Friggin. Write. It may not be what you want to write but you're writing nonetheless. In the meantime, my brain is cogitating on the story I am having troubles with (see Jay's second point) and when I do get back to writing what I want, the results are better.

Jay Stringer said...

I think Scott made my point better than i did with his last paragraph. Just keep going, don't rush it, and let your brain figure out the difficult bits in its own time.

Al Guthrie recentley told me another approach to hi working routine, that ties into this in a roundabout way. He said his routine wasn't so much about sitting and writing for a certain amount of time, as sitting and not allowing himself to do anything else. If that means staring at a wall, well, the wall is there to be stared at. And the brain will chug away.

Dana King said...

Scott makes an excellent point. (True, the end result wasn't what I thought I needed but it was something my brain needed) As The Stones said, "You can't always get what you want, but you might just get what you need."

pattinase (abbott) said...

That last piece of advice about stopping while you still have an idea of where you want to go has saved me so many times. If you have no idea, that computer waits like an irate boss.

Winslow Eliot said...

Although initially I thought I was going to resent this piece, your presentation of the essential quality of 'unwriting' ('looking at the crack in the wall') was encouraging and inspiring. YES!
(I'm quoting you in something I wrote on my site - hope that's okay with you. Let me know if it's not.)

Jay Stringer said...

Quote away!

You hit exactley on the point i was aiming for there. Those times of 'unwriting' cause a lot of people stress, but they're a big part of the writing process.

Jay Stringer said...

just checked out Winslow's piece on writers block (, it's well worth checking out.

Aditya Mittal said...

For me a writer's block is what happens when I mess up. And I'm in no mood to go back and correct. It causes me to stop writing and keep waiting for when I want to go back and fix it.