Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Search for Writer's Block and Other Legendary Creations

by Matt Sinclair

I recently responded to a series of questions for a writer-friend's blog. If you've never done this before, I recommend it. You're often asked questions that you don't ask of yourself, and it's a good way to shake unused braincells around so ideas scatter as if they're in a snowglobe.

Surprisingly, the question that gave me pause was not the one about cupcakes, but rather the one about how I deal with writer's block.

Hmmm, writer's block. Um. Yeah. Uh, what's writer's block?

I know the term. I understand the concept. I believe it's real because others talk about it (kinda like Bigfoot, I suppose). But I don't get it. You've heard of that "fear of the blank page"? I treat it the same way one of my three-year-olds would: Get a crayon and scribble like hell!

I've read Stephen King's Bag of Bones, in which his lead character, a successful author (write what you know), finds himself unable to write after the death of his wife. Maybe that's writer's block—that feeling of "I won't do this any more." If I need to lose my wife in order to feel writer's block, I'll pass.

Now, I'm making a huge distinction here that needs to be addressed. I write and edit for a living. If I get writer's block, my kids don't eat. That's all the motivation I need, thank you. As a result, my fiction sometimes gets shunted. At the moment, it's not a budget line in my family revenue stream. Indeed, there's a big difference between whether a person is writing and whether the product is worth publishing. Some might argue that the question of whether unpublished writers get writer's block is the same as whether there's a sound when a tree falls without anyone to hear it. J.D. Salinger didn't suffer from writer's block. He just stopped seeking publication of what he wrote.

But many writers ask these questions of themselves because they feel that without writing, a part of their soul has crashed to the ground. And I totally get that.

Lately, I've been unable to jog. My legs still work, of course, but I've had other things that needed to be done and not enough time in which to do them. It gnaws at me, this stagnation. I often sit on the train thinking of how my physical inactivity is as unhealthy as my inadequate amounts of sleep (which I partially resolve by napping on the train). But I know I'll jog again. In a twisted way, it's kinda like what Mark Twain said about quitting smoking: It's the easiest thing in the world to do. I've done it several times.

You know how you change things? By doing. Cram a ten-minute writing session onto a piece of paper. It's not a novel, it's a scene, a vignette, a character sketch, nary more than an uncooked idea. It's the moment you just lived, turned into fiction and fantasy. It doesn't need to fit a genre. It just is. Every Wednesday for a few months now, I've been leading a little "writing cue" thread on AgentQuery Connect in which I toss out a few words, a vague and open setting, and say "Now write." There's no right or wrong. It's just about writing.

We're writers. Writing entails doing. Sure, as with any exercise regimen, you can get into bad habits, which is why it's always good to have a spotter (a future metaphor to develop...) But if you're serious about being a writer, write. You're the only one stopping you.

How do you deal with writer's block? Is it real to you? What does it mean to you; is it the same as living in an idea desert? How do you deal with the blank page?


JeffO said...

'Writer's block' for me so far has been less about inability to write, and more about an inability to get it right. I don't sit there staring at a blinking cursor for hours on end. What happens for me is that I can't get this sentence right, I can't find the right word, I can't quite express the idea just the way I want. The most effective thing for me at getting rid of this is changing my venue - writing longhand, taking a walk, doing something else for a few minutes.

Richard said...

Good post. I'm not sure what writer's block is other than "I can't think of anything to write about," as hard as it is to believe such a thing is possible. So maybe it's "I can't think of anything that interests me to write about." Anyway, fear creeps in, the fear that you'll never think of anything to write about. Now that's writer's block. How do you beat it? JeffO's ideas are good.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Jeff; thanks Richard. Those are good ideas. Personally, I think a lot of writers think too linearly. We (and I include myself in this) tend to write straight through. Sometimes we bump up against an obstacle that needs to be overcome. I find it easier sometimes to write a later section and then go back to the problem, which I've marked off as "THIS NEEDS TO BE RESOLVED" or some such thing. Momentum is important. Order in an unedited, unrevised manuscript isn't. There's more than enough time to fix that later. Keep writing!

Christopher Hudson said...

I don't get writers block, per se ... I get more of a 'I don't feel like writing' thing ... which is usually cured by a good nap.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks. A good nap can cure all sorts of challenges!

Jemi Fraser said...

I haven't faced writer's block yet - not really anyway. I've been stumped by a few scenes, or stories have ground to a halt (almost always because I took a wrong turn the chapter before) - but I just work on something else when that happens. Frees up the brain and my subconscious deals with the troubles. I think it works that way for me because I don't have tons of time to write so I'm always eager to get to it! :)

E.B. Black said...

I never had write's block either until recently. I've been querying and it's made my self-esteem take a dip and made it harder for me to put words down without second guessing them or without me putting too much pressue on myself.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Jemi. I can relate.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, E.B. That's an interesting point. I often reflect on a scene from the movie Finding Forrester, in which Sean Connery is typing in a flurry and explains to his incredulous mentee something along the lines of "Don't think. Write."