Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational. James M. Cain
This is a dangerous thing to say. Perhaps my hubris will come back to haunt me. But I don’t believe in writer’s block.
Or, if not a full atheist of the condition, I am at least a skeptical agnostic of the God of Blocks. I can only speak for myself, and I am a writer of reasonably straightforward narrative prose. I’m willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to my brothers and sisters in Modernism and the more experimental branches of literary fiction, and to my cousins of poetry and playwriting, of course, for their witchcraft is strange and mysterious to me. Perhaps for other, better, writers it does exist. Perhaps my lack of blockage is proof positive of my status as a hack.
But I think it is mostly used by aspiring writers who don’t actually want to write. It’s a good excuse to throw oneself onto a sofa, flamboyantly crying “I’m blocked, I’m blocked!”. I know all too well that when you are starting out, you’ll do anything to live the life of the writer, and if you can achieve this without actually writing then so much the better. Writing is hard, time consuming, and often boring. It takes years to get any good, years more to write anything worth publishing. The temptation to get out of this hard work by attending spoken word events, writers groups, literary festivals and above all by convincing yourself that you are blocked is very strong.
Now, I cannot deny that there have been times, many times, when I have sat down and been defeated at the keys. There are things which can stop a writer writing, but they are not writer’s block as it is traditionally imagined – the complete failure of creativity, the inability to think of a single thing to write. They fall into three broad categories: fear, exhaustion, and catastrophe.
This is the most problematic, at first. The petrifying fear of the blank page, the blinking cursor. The terror of writing the wrong thing, of writing something unpardonably, embarrassingly bad. In truth, this never entirely goes away, but the seasoned writer develops strategies to deal with it.
Write every day and set up habits, so that you may numb fear with routine. Plan thoroughly and read widely, so that you know where you’re going and why you’re going there. Above all, give yourself permission to write badly. The paralysis of fear weakens when one discovers how much work is done in editing and redrafting, how much of the first draft is revised and discarded.
When you begin, you will write terribly. This does not matter. Later on, you’ll still write terribly. This matters even less. You get better at writing by writing. You advance your project by writing. Write your 20 or 200 or 2000 words for the day. Write them terribly. You will always advance by writing something, no matter how bad it is and no matter how slight your progress. Every day that you don’t write, you grow weaker. That is what you should fear. Be afraid of not writing. Never be afraid of writing.
To write, one needs time and space, and the mental, physical, and nervous energy to make use of this time and space. If any of these things are lacking, writing can be difficult, or even impossible.
But the problem is not on the page. What needs to be done is to restructure the life so that more resource can be directed towards the writing. Sometimes these changes are minor. Get up an hour earlier. Drink less. Eat better. Get some exercise. Sometimes they are moderate to major. Go part time at work, move to a less expensive city, leave your failing relationship, take a sledgehammer to your wireless router or TV.
Sometimes you can make the changes in a week, sometimes it takes years to get to a position where you have enough resource to write. But if you’re consistently too tired to write, something needs to be done about it. Not enough of your time and energy are free to throw at the writing. Solve your problems off the page, then you can get to solving them on the page.
Very rarely, the writer may be halted by catastrophe. This is not a catastrophe in the personal, physical, or romantic sense. This falls under exhaustion, for personal difficulties, severe illness or relationship disasters are powerful sappers of time and energy that will put you out of the game for a while. By catastrophe, I mean a catastrophe on the page.
This can’t be a garden variety difficult chapter, or a character who stubbornly refuses to come into view, or a cluster of malformed, hopelessly clumsy sentences that you can’t seem to fix. These can all be written around or edited later on. We’re talking about a serious stylistic, structural, or thematic problem that simply cannot be written through. You’re several tens of thousands of words in, and think that you’ve made a fundamental error in the planning and execution of the book.
You’re allowed to take a few weeks off in this case, so long as you spend it planning and reading, taking action. Maybe you have to chuck your draft out and start again. Maybe a retreat, replanning and rewriting of a few chapters will give you something that intensive redrafting may salvage. But the process is the same. Act, work, and keep at it. Don’t stare at the blank page and wish that you were dead. Do something.
When you’re writing a novel, there’s just so much stuff to get to. Forgetting all ideas of stylistic brilliance, thematic significance, six figure advances and lifetime legacies. Just putting together a novel requires a lot of work, and not all of it will be very inspiring. There will be 70,000 words or more in your book. Surely you can find a few dozen or a few hundred of them today, in temporary, wobbly first draft form?
Surely there is something that can be done?