Writer's Block

Let’s face it. Writer’s Block isn’t a reality, it’s nothing but an excuse us writers hide behind when we aren’t able to stare down the blank page. It’s a handy concept to haul out when you find yourself mired in your own mud. Writing is hard, no question about it. As Stephen Fischer says, “The paradox of writing is that you are trying to use words to express what words can’t express.” Like a stonemason whose rocks refuse to fit together or a violinist whose strings keep breaking each time he touches his bow to them, words ultimately fail to precisely capture what they are intended to express.

So writing is a “can’t win” challenge for a writer and having an innate tendency to shy away from the impossible is an understandable human trait. Living in horse county, I go to a bunch of horse shows and its always interesting to me to see a horse pull up short when faced with a jump. “I just don’t feel like jumping over that goddamned thing,” it appears they are thinking. My jumping friend Sandy explains that it’s fear, they’re afraid they won’t make it over, or they’re having a bad day, or their feet hurt and they’re worried that landing will make them hurt more. Or they just plain spook. Or all of the above.

Same with writer’s block. Hillary Rettig is quoted on Wikipedia as saying, “Writer’s block” itself is a misnomer because “block” implies one monolithic cause, and most people who struggle with their writing really suffer from many causes. She says the condition is better thought of as a kind of “spaghetti snarl” of those causes, which include: perfectionism (itself, a conglomeration of many causes), ambivalence (about the topic one is trying to write about, or publishing it, or writing itself), time constraints, resource constraints, ineffective work processes, unhealed traumatic rejections, and a disempowering context. Each of these causes is entangled with the others, and can reinforce them . However, she says the spaghetti snarl model is ultimately a positive thing for writers because snarls can be untangled, and the more you untangle the easier the remaining untangling gets.

So let’s assume you’re “blocked”—what’s the creative laxative you take to get things moving again? First is understanding that you’re not alone, every writer trembles a bit when facing the blank page. Second, you have ultimate ability to crash through the block by simply beginning to type. Your fingers become your bulldozer. Say you’re starting a novel. Try typing the title page. Good, now go on and name the first chapter. Don’t worry, you’ll change it a million times before it’s over. Then bang out the first sentence, then the second. Maybe it’ll suck but you can fix it later. Suddenly you find you’re over the hump, over the jump, broken through writer’s block, untangled the snarl and moved through it.

Will you keep what you’ve written? Too early to tell. But as time passes and you’ve moved through your plot and accumulated two thousand or ten thousand words, your book will begin to take shape and you can go back and recraft, rejigger and refine or take the whole thing, junk it and start over with a new approach.

I started my second comic novel on advertising and wrote about twenty pages when I realized my main character was an unlikeable asshole so I chucked it and began again. But the first draft cleared a path for me and it was a breeze laying down a new road forward.

So the lesson is, writer’s block is of your own doing and you have the total power to undo it. Keeping the wall up between you and your writing is a willful choice on the writer’s part.

But ask yourself since writing is so goddamned hard, why in the world make it harder? Hemingway has a good trick I’ve adopted. Every day, stop writing when you see daylight ahead. That way it becomes so much easier to pick up the next day where you left off and keep writer’s block locked in the closet where it belongs.