Writer's Block, and Why I Don't Get It

I came across an article on Lifehacker called You Don't Have a Creative Block. It references another article, which in turn quotes the author Jodi Picoult, talking about writer's block.

In it, she says:

"I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it—when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page."

I couldn't agree more.  I just finished up two outlines for two new novels, one 7,000 words in length, the other close to 12,000 words. Completing them took two months. An outline is creative invention in its most purest form: imagining a complete narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, incorporating characters, motives, action and theme. Each outline contains a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the story. This is something I've done since early in my writing career, and most often the resulting novel is pretty close to what you'd find in those outlines.

Behind each outline is a great deal of writing you don't get to see - notes totalling 55,000 words for both projects together. Add in the outline themselves, and that's 75,000 words I've written in the past eight weeks or so: equivalent in length to a short novel.

So why so many words? Because that's how I avoid writer's block. I just start writing. If I get stuck, I summarise what I have so far.

But you can't force it too much: there will be days when nothing comes. But the act of writing out what I've come up with so far, I find, forces unexpected connections to appear. And even if they don't immediately appear, they'll pop into your head at unexpected moments.

What I do most recently is have a 'work diary'. I put in the date, scan the previous entry, then try and think my way further into the story based on what I've already come up with. I scribble down anything, on the off-chance it might mean something. I explore connections. Even if no idea is immediately forthcoming, I keep making notes, waiting for something to come.

And I do it every day.

For instance, in one of the aforementioned outlines, I wanted character A to find out something about Character C. Except Character C is CEO of a major technology company, surrounded by private security, and therefore untouchable. There was no way for A to find out anything. I was stuck.

So I tried looking at it from a different angle. I thought: what about B, who used to have a close personal relationship with C? Is there any reason they couldn't find out the terrible truth about C? And what if they rushed to a phone to tell A the news, then the call got suddenly cut-off...as if someone had got to them before they could fully warn A? And then what if...

And suddenly you're coming up with ideas.

So, really, there is no such thing as Writer's Block. Procrastination, sure, we all get that. But block? Doesn't exist. 


Karl said...

Articles like this are the moral and logical equivalent of saying "there's no such thing as spinal injury or paralysis. I've never been physically unable to walk, and so people who do say they're unable to walk must just be lazy. Sometimes I feel lazy too, but when I do I just get up out of my chair and walk around. People who say they're "paralyzed" should just do that."

Blarkon said...

Necessity is the mother of invention. The father is a deadline

paul f cockburn said...

"So, really, there is no such thing as Writer's Block"

That seems a somewhat strange conclusion to come to, given that you'd just provided an example of it a few paragraphs earlier, followed by what appears to be your proven means of getting around it – or, to stretch the metaphor a tad, drive right through it.

I firmly believe that Writer's Block does exist. It's that state of mind when (a) you know something isn't right but haven't worked out yet how to make it right, or (b) you have so many options that you can't decide which one to go for. (I accept, there are likely to be others, but those are the two I've experienced personally.)

When it comes to the former, I've found it's often just a case of taking some time "out" to let the subconscious have a good old think, although that process appears (at least for you) also achievable by your regular habit of reviewing what you've already done and seeing what ideas suddenly pop up from it. As for the latter... well, I've found that looming deadlines do usually lead to the other choices fading away, leaving only the "obvious" option left. The father of invention is, indeed, a deadline.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Paul - to me, what you're describing is really being stuck with a problem that can be overcome by precisely your suggestions. My own personal definition of writer's block is the one that can be found on Wikipedia, where it says "Writer's block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown." That means not being able to produce anything at all, for months or years.

Part of the reason I wanted to talk about it here is that I think it can lead inexperienced authors to believe their brains are a limited well of ideas that, once used up, might never be refreshed, essentially because they haven't yet trained their brains into the kind of constantly creative mode necessary for creative writing and, indeed, journalism. Perhaps it's also a problem that there does seem to be more than one definition of writer's block. In fact, the solutions you suggest - all of which are good - are pretty much the same ones Picoult is indirectly referencing: give it time, or come at it from a different angle.

Instead, when some famous writers have claimed in the past to be blocked in terms of their career, they're really suffering a kind of performance anxiety, or fear of being unable to match previous successes.