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.)
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.