Writer’s Block May Not Exist But It Could Be A Good Sign

I’m delivering a workshop at the end of this month in Westminster on strategies for dealing with writer’s block. This, rather unsurprisingly, has got me thinking about writer’s block again. I’m sure will be a relief to anyone attending the workshop. (Now full, apparently.)

Graham Stewart at Tradeschool Westminster

I agree with Chuck Wendig when he says that writer’s block “shares the same intellectual space as the bogeyman in your closet, as the serial killer under the bed.” But declaring something a fantasy doesn’t always help. For instance, I’ve spent many years trying to convince my daughter that spiders are harmless. She still won’t enter a room that is already occupied by some minuscule arachnid no bigger than a full stop.

(Coincidentally, my neighbour told me at the week-end that they have uncovered a nest of false widow spiders outside their back door. Apparently, they are not harmless. But you get the point. And I won’t be telling my daughter.)

So, let’s try another tack in thinking about writer’s block. What if feeling blocked was actually a good sign?

Wait a minute, you say. Has Graham gone off his rocker? Has all the time he’s spent away from this blog turned him into a soft-brained moron?

I can’t answer that with any confidence, of course, but what I can do is try to convince you that the idea might have some legs. (Not as many as a spider but legs all the same.)

Plucking an extended metaphor almost from thin air, can I suggest you think about asking a girl to dance. (I apologise for the male-oriented and heterosexual nature of this but I’m going with personal experience here as a heterosexual male. Change the example to something that better suits your own sex and orientation if that works better for you. Alternatively, just pretend you’re me, if you can bear that.)

Anyway, back to the dance. Imagine yourself about 15 or 16. You’ve seen a girl dancing with some of her friends. Your heart has done that little drop, rise, and drop again that tells you that if you don’t somehow spend a large part of the evening dancing and then talking with this girl, the rest of your life is quite likely to be empty of value. What’s more, none of your mates hugging the wall with you appear to have noticed this particular girl’s unique blend of beauty, grace, and charm. All you can think of now is whether you can say the right words to elicit from her the word you want to hear in return.

Oh, if it were only that simple. Because as soon as you think of saying the words, you start to worry about what you’re wearing, what her friends will think of you, what your friends will think of you (especially if she refuses you), how you’ll make the walk back to the wall if (when) she refuses you, and whether you’ll actually be able to dance to the next piece of music. Then the next level of worry kicks in; you may mumble, you may forget what you wanted to say, she might not speak English (your imagination can really get to work at this stage), she may have a large and jealous boyfriend watching from the sidelines, or she may really not want to dance with a boy. Any boy. Especially you. Tonight. Ever.

In other words, you’re experiencing dance-invitation block. Why? Because you fancy the girl. It’s important.

Do you finally manage to make that walk across the dance floor to the small huddle of girls and say the necessary words? Do you get your dance? Maybe. Maybe not.

This is what it’s like sometimes when you try to write. Even if you try to write with music on. You feel blocked. It’s not because you’re a no-hoper. It’s not because by some cruel twist of fate your brain tells you to work at something for which you have absolutely no talent. No, it’s because – quite simply – it means a lot to you. If it meant nothing, it would be easy to start. Boredom would then most likely be your greatest enemy but starting would be no problem.
Agree? Can you accept that as a premise?

Well, accepting this comes with, wait for it, good news and bad news.

The good news is that the fact that it means something to you probably means that it’s something you should be doing. (The chances are, that with some hard work, you’ll write something worthwhile.) The bad news is that you can get stuck in that horrible cycle of thinking that it’s so important that you become more and more blocked. (Trust me on that one; I know.)

The answer, unfortunately, is not a matter of tricking yourself into thinking it’s not important. The answer is to work through it. That’s where strategies for overcoming blocks come in.

But start by refusing to beat yourself up about being blocked because it may very well indicate that writing is what you were meant to be doing.

Let me know in the comments if you believe in blocks, suffer blocks, or how you overcome blocks. Let’s face it, we can never have too many methods for facing down blocks – whether they truly exist or not.

Not Writing: How Does That Make You Feel?

I read John Scalzi’s blog on a daily basis. Well, as often as he publishes a new post and it appears in my reader (Feedly). I’ve cut down the number of writers’ blogs I follow to those whose (non-blog) writing I enjoy and who have something interesting to say about writing and/or politics on their blog. Scalzi slots into this category with ease.

But I don’t want to talk about anything Scalzi said about writing or politics. What I want to talk about is the title of a post he published on January 23rd. This is what he published:

I Was Busy All Day Having Meetings and Recording Things and Not Writing, So, Here, Have Another Tinkly Moody Pretty Piano Song

Now, I can take or leave the ‘tinkly moody pretty piano song’ and, while it’s good of him to tell me about his meetings and recording, my life went on much as before. The simple phrase – two words, in fact – that got me thinking was ‘not writing’.

Here was a successful author saying that he was ‘not writing’! A writer who is prepared to declare – openly, almost brazenly – that for one day (at least) he was not writing.

This is akin to a Salem puritan admitting that he was late for the witch trials because he had a hangover and his feet were sore from too much dancing.

Writers, surely, write every day. Isn’t this what the books tell us? Isn’t this the commandment that, when broken, plunges us into guilt, self-recrimination, and shame? Didn’t Dorothea Brand call me a failure because I, er, failed to do this when I was younger? (Answer: yes, she did. But not personally.)

And here is Scalzi fucking with our heads, showing us that some writers just, well, don’t.

The moral of this, of course, is that every writer has their own routine and it is dangerous to get hung up on absolutes. Writing every day is a great habit to get into but if you miss a day, then you miss a day. That’s it. It’s all to easy to get into that fuck-it mode and feel that missing one day invalidates all your sense of being a writer. Maybe you’re the type of writer that writes once a week. Every week-end. Write 1,000 words every Saturday morning and it will take you longer to write your novel but that may be the speed that best suits you. Find your own pace.

Some writers write 10,000 words a day; Graham Greene wrote 500 words every day. Simenon used to write nothing for months and then lock himself away and write a novel in a week.

Try a number of routines and see which works. Just don’t call yourself names if you can’t match some writer you admire or aspire to be like. You may be a sprinter when they want to run marathons.

What routine have you settled into?

Quietly Grateful For Christopher Hitchins, Reading, And Writing

The Waterstones in Piccadilly had a pile of “Hitch-22” on a table. It’s not as if I don’t have enough books to read at the moment but this memoir is one I’ve been meaning to pick up for a couple of years. So I picked it up. Score one for clever display tactics.

As is the way with those almost serendipitous purchases, I’ve now been reading it instead of doing a lot of the other things I should be doing. Like writing. Which may be ironic, given what I’m about to write below.

The paperback version has a foreword that was not in the original edition because things for Christopher Hitchens changed rather dramatically between the publication of the hardback and the publication of the paperback. He was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer (which killed his father) during the tour for the book and, by the time the paperback appeared, he had less than a year to live. He died in December 2011.

In the foreword, he talks about how his illness has, inevitably, introduced constraints into his life: he could no longer travel, for instance. But, he says,

I have found that I still possess the will to write, as well as the indispensable thing for any writer, the avid need to read. Even when attenuated by the sorter amount of time that I am conscious during each day, and circumscribed by the thought of an eventual loss of consciousness altogether, this is only a little less than I used to be quietly grateful for: the ability to earn a living by doing the two things that mean most to me.

I like that ‘quietly grateful’. To make a living from reading and writing still seems to me to be a goal to aspire to and reading these words of Hitchins – written as he faced the time when there would be no more reading, no more writing – is a reminder to me to make the most of them time I have left and to use it to read well and to write as well and as often as I can.

I’ve decided that finishing “Hitch-22” fall under the category of reading well.

Have you read it?

Resolutions? What Resolutions?

If there is a statute of limitations on making resolutions, I’m sure the last week of January must be safe for announcing plans that don’t qualify as resolutions. Then again, I suppose I can make my own rules, so here’s the new WKW rule about resolutions:

Plans made after January 10th don’t qualify as resolutions.


Good. With that out of the way – and no danger of talking about failed resolutions – welcome back to the WKW blog.

Yes, yes, it’s been a while. I know.

I have been busy, though. Honestly.

I’ll talk more about what I’m up to with ‘creative’ stuff in upcoming posts but this is a little range-finder of a post – to get my eye in again. I’ve not been able to write about writing for a while and I find I miss it. Perhaps because I always use writing about writing as an excuse for writing about me. Self-centred? Moi?

I’m back to doing business writing – and landed a big agency client, which is reassuring. (That’s media agency rather than literary agency, by the way.)

I’ve worked with a film maker to put together a pilot script and trailers for a new TV series.

I’m launching a new political magazine.

So that’s why I’ve been a little quiet on the blog front.

But that’s all going to change now: I promise. I miss fiction. Prose. You know; stories.

So, not “I’ll be back” but “I am back”.

Quotation Thursday – August 15th 2013

Inspirational quotations can be just the little giver of buzz you need when your spirits are low. Or when your mojo is most definitely out of sync.

But sometimes you need something that illustrates what makes a writer great rather than possessing an ability for the pithy apothegm. Something that makes you work that little bit harder.

So, it’s a long quotation today; from Lawrence’s The Rainbow.

His voice was harsh and cat-like, he was blind to the child. She shrank away in childish anguish and dread. What was it, what awful thing was it?
The mother turned with her calm, almost superb manner.
‘What has she done, then?’
‘Done? She shall go in the church no more, pulling and littering and destroying.’
The wife slowly rolled her eyes and lowered her eyelids.
‘What has she destroyed, then?’
He did not know.
‘I’ve just had Mrs Wilkinson at me,’ he cried, ‘with a list of things she’s done’.
Ursula withered under the contempt and anger of the ‘she’, as he spoke of her.
‘Send Mrs Wilkinson here to me with a list of things she’s done,’ said Anna. ‘I am the one to hear that.’
‘It’s not the things the child has done,’ continued the mother, ‘that have put you out so much, it’s because you can’t bear being spoken to by that old woman. But you haven’t the courage to turn on her when she attacks you, you bring your rage here.’

This is a quite wonderful passage in a quite wonderful long section about the relationship between the father and his eldest daughter, Ursula. In these few lines of dialogue and actions, Lawrence perfectly outlines the family dynamics of the Brangwens – and, I think, of many families.

Look at the way Anna – the mother and wife – holds the still centre and moves little more than her eyes. Her husband’s rage is to one side of her and her daughter’s fear and hurt to the other. And there is perfection in that almost identical phrase she repeats when asking what Ursula is supposed to have done. The grandiloquence of ‘destroyed’ after ‘done’ punctures the whole bloated seriousness of the situation. And ‘He did not know’ shows us a man puffing out his cheeks and waving a hand dismissively.

Anna has turned his anger away towards Mrs Wilkinson and rightly seen her husband’s sense of frustration and resentment towards this woman as the cause of his rage. His only response when Anna delivers her verdict in the final line above is to go silent and drift away from them.

As I said, quite wonderful.

This is the writing of a master. It moves the story forward while showing the depths of the characters and their relationship to one another. I also like the fact that the sentences of dialogue are not polished or particularly grammatically correct. It’s not so much about showing how the characters speak as letting the words run free. Proper punctuation might sit uncomfortably where clauses separated by commas only can carry us forward with no hindrance.

This moment in the book is important in Ursula’s relationship with her father because it starts the process of accepting that he is part of a malignant world that can cause her pain. She loves him dearly and she remains his favourite but there is a loss of innocence – early because she is only about 4 years old at this point – that gives her a strength she will need later.

And that gesture by Anna with her eyes. You can just see it, can’t you? I know I’ve seen it often enough aimed my way by wife and daughters. Chastening, it is. Always.