Between a block and a hard place (Mistake #74)

Three or four times over the few years this blog has been running I’ve been asked ‘why don’t you write about writer’s block?’ – and I’ve never got around to it.

Reasons? I feel a lot of it has been said already, and most writers who write about writing have had something to say on the subject before. There’s a lot of it out there.

Besides, what if I were to get blocked while trying to write about block? Would this be some kind of ultimate block – a meta-block – and would I be the first writer ever to suffer it? Would this be the final nail in my coffin? Being unable to write about being unable to write: a sure sign of a career at its terminus? (At the moment I’m struggling to get through Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a hefty philosophical, mathematical-ish fairly uncategorisable tome which deals which strange loops and infinity and paradoxes and consciousness – and which, to some extent, is giving me reader’s block …)

But another reason, and to be a little more serious now, is that I’m not sure I’ve ever quite made up my mind about it. A weak position, as you risk contradicting yourself. I’ve never experienced it myself – at least, I don’t think I have; if I have, I’ve mysteriously forgotten about it (or perhaps I’ve suppressed it – blocked the block?); but certainly never to the degree that it deserved to be named ‘writer’s block’ – much like a bit of moping around the house cannot claim to deserve to be called ‘depression’ – so perhaps a part of me has felt it’s a little unfair of me to comment on something others go through and I may not even be able to adequately articulate or imagine. I’ve swung – and continue to swing – from thinking it doesn’t really exist, to thinking how bloody tough it must be if the one thing you love doing, you really want to do, is the one thing you frustratingly cannot do due to an inability to take a step forward.

Students have of course told me they have felt blocked before, and I usually advise them to get away from the keyboard and go out and live a bit. In their hurry to chain themselves to the keyboard, I think some writers – new ones, certainly – forget the importance of living and, well, nosing around. It’s usually not a ‘words’ block but an ‘ideas’ block, they have. I encourage them to ask questions of the world around them, and to see where that leads. Sticking your nose in – anywhere, to anything, provided within the bounds of law, ethics – often pays dividends. Eavesdropping is great. Replaying the events of a day at the end of the day and constantly asking yourself ‘is there an article in that?’ is an excellent idea-generating tactic.

The thing I won’t do is go ‘there, there’ and offer a little metaphorical pat on the head. Practical guidance is better. Some new writers can be, I’m afraid, a little guilty of being too quick to diagnose themselves with writer’s block – I think because they see it as something only affecting writers, obviously, and the consolation prize of having writer’s block is that, whoop, you are a bona fide writer – and although I don’t feel indulging this is beneficial, that doesn’t mean they don’t need a bit of help, and to be treated with respect.

I’ve heard it said often by some writers that they don’t believe in writer’s block. Fair enough if you hold that view, and some writers have expressed their opinion fairly and neutrally, but this quote by Philip Pullman is particularly severe, I think. I would never tell a student what Pullman says: to me it’s not constructive.

There are, in ways, elements of truth in what he says, but as a whole it fails, and mostly because the plumbing analogy fails: as it does with so many other jobs you might care to insert instead. You’ll have maybe come across this sort of argument too: writer’s block doesn’t exist because teachers’ block doesn’t exist, or because accountants’ block doesn’t exist, but this fails to take into account that with writing, the end goal can be intangible, the next word could be one of thousands. You may not know what you are doing. With teaching, your lesson is planned: you know what you will be doing. With plumbing, you may be fixing a leak: you don’t get blocked because you have fixed a leak before, and you know what you have to do to fix it again. Writing is not like that. It’s something new and different each time (part of what makes it a wonderful job). For me, the analogies are invalid.

Having written that previous paragraph has now reminded me that I did once sort of write about block, in a post called Waiting for Inspiration, after which there was a little discussion about block in the comments. I don’t think I’ve changed my view much since then – though having briefly mentioned block in my post, I now wish I’d perhaps rephrased that bit a little. It’s perhaps a little careless to tell people they’re kidding themselves if they feel blocked: it may not be right thing for some sensitive souls to hear.

Because if someone feels blocked then there’s a problem there, and while telling them to write, write, write (as mentioned in comments to that post) at any cost is not always wise, I think telling them that the expression that they have chosen to use to describe themselves and whatever it is they’re currently experiencing does not exist can be damaging, or at least confidence knocking.

My writing specialism is food intolerance, and I know that a lot of people suffer from psychological food aversion where the physiological intolerance doesn’t exist. This does not make it any less real, or the symptoms less severe to the person suffering them, or the condition less important, and sufferers deserve the same respect and rights to treatment as those with an immune or digestive intolerance or allergy.

Same here. If you feel you have this, it can I’m sure be very real to you, even if you are one of Pullman’s ‘amateurs’. I also speculate that people who have it more ‘severely’ or ‘real-ly’ may be those least likely to say they have it. They may be resorting to looking for help online: stumbling across Pullman might not be a good thing.

Look, whatever it is you have or feel – blocked, stuck, devoid of ideas, having nothing to write, ‘dunno what to say’ – understand that it is not permanent. Also know that if you having something to say (using your mouth), you have something to write. Are you never going to speak again? Of course not. You’re never going to not write again either, then. And yes, I know that we can get tongue-tied, but we all eventually recover: and you will too.

As I said, go out and find something to write about if you have nothing to write about. If you’re stuck on an article, focus on your end goal. Travel article? Well what’s the goal? “I want to convince readers what a great place Moscow is to visit – and why they should go.” Well, if the words don’t come from your fingers, speak them from your mouth, to a friend – imaginary if necessary. If you’ve told people about your trip to Russia you can write about it too. I also think writers can be wedded to writing linearly – but you can jump around. Write a middle bit if you’re ‘blocked’ on an early bit. Things tie up later. Start with the best bit. Work around it. You’ll be ‘unblocked’ before you know it.

Now, if some of the stuff in this blogpost has not been that well expressed or ordered it is because I wrote it without really editing it, and I let it take on a bit of a stream of consciousness ‘mood’ (this is still happening here…) in order to make a very important point, and that point happens to be the next one, and the last one: which is that if you are ‘blocked’ in the sense that ‘good’ words, ‘publishable’ words, are failing to come out of you with regularlity, and instead slightly rubbish words are coming out of you, THAT IS FINE, just keep going, because everyone has off days and you are still moving forward. Keep typing the words, even if 10% of them are blah, blah, blah, and allow yourself to be a crap writer for a bit. It really doesn’t matter and the best way of convincing you I believe that is to pop up a pretty unedited blog here for you to see. Thanks for sticking with it through all its waffle and structural misdemeanours – I really tried to write this without getting blocked. It worked.

Key point: the block or not-block that you have is not permanent. Remember that, if nothing else. Agreed?

Comments 5

  • For some reason, I actually find Pullman's harsh take on this quite motivational. But that might just be me. Great advice at the end as well, Alex – I'm writing my first book at the moment and have found that the only way to get through it is to just write pretty much whatever comes into my head then go back and make it good afterwards (hopefully).

  • Ah, yes – who was it who called it the 'vomit draft'? I'll wish you happy chundering …

    Hadn't occurred to me that Pullman's take may be motivational. I shall reconsider … and perhaps canvass more opinion …

  • Alex Gazzola's writing on Block really unblocks!The psychological block simply evaporates….Hey! its exhilarating to know that one can get away from the keyboard to explore the world around and even indulge in eavesdropping! So Alex Gazzola really puts our mind at ease and we discover that writing profession can be an experience of great fun! As you can talk and enjoy communicating your beautiful, boring, sensational, funny or dismal moments so can you pen these moments down in your paper or type them away on your computer….I admire the idea of living life just to feel it intensely, observe closely, perceive the mundane and the extraordinary and return to your keyboard with a welter of ideas and let your fingers tap away Words, as Alex quips, even if one feels they are craps….. Such an inspirational message given to the beginners to start and there is not a trace of snobbery!Invaluable motivation given to the newcomers in the profession yet so unconventionally and informally done, bringing in the analogy of food intolerance..Thank you Sir.

  • Thank you, Mandy! Great comment – glad it worked for you!

  • Hey Alex,

    Really a great blog. I absolutely agree with your statement that a professional writer is the one who keeps on writing whether they are inspired or not. I am a content writer and most of time, I have to write stuff, which is absolutely boring and uninteresting. I do this day in and day out to earn my bread and butter. How can I get blocked in that? But for my leisure writing (I am trying to pen a fictional novel), it's another matter altogether. Sometimes I can write thousands of words in few hours and sometimes just a few, and that too bad ones. And if the latter keeps on happening frequently, I literally give up my personal writing for few days. However, I am trying to get out of that habit. Any ideas?

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