Friday, May 1, 2015

The Myth of Writer’s Block

I often hear the phrase, “writing in my head,” by which a person means that he is having ideas for something to be written later.  I think we all do this.  What separates writers from others with ideas is that we write them down.  Not only do we write them down, but we have the skill – the craft we call writing – to breathe life into those ideas and make them live on the page.  This is where many get stuck and gives rise to the myth of so-called “writer’s block.”

No one who has written in any capacity would deny that there are times when we are stuck.  We wonder what our character should do next, what the precise word should be, if we should insert a flash-back, etc.  However, that is simply part of the work of writing. Fear of the blank page, or of failing, or of offending someone is something else entirely.  That would fall under some psychological heading that would make for a totally separate post.   If one gets stuck when writing, it is a crisis of craft, not of psychology.

No doubt there are times when we need caffeine or food or we need to stretch our legs or clear our minds, but if one is what is commonly referred to as “blocked,” one must consider what the cause is. There is no such thing that exists outside ourselves as writer’s block.  That is, being stuck or blocked is not like catching a cold or getting cancer.  Something is going on, or more likely, not going on in our minds.

Let’s consider what writing actually is: at its heart it is communication, but at its soul it is transport into another time, another life, another place.  Both take skill.  It takes more than just writing down an idea.  Many avid readers get ideas from reading their favorite novels.  They might think, “What if the vampire is really a mermaid gone rogue after coming ashore?”  So they write that idea down.  That is not writing.  That is merely an idea on paper.  If it is never expanded, if the vampire/mermaid never becomes real to the reader by virtue of a personality, a backstory, quirks, even endearing qualities, then it remains an idea.  One idea does not a story make.  Serial ideas do not a story make.  Characterization, plot, and motives all make a story.

So, then, what is – or is not – going on in the mind of a writer who is blocked?  A lot of writers trip on their own story lines.  They write themselves into corners.  They lose the thread of the story in the subplot or they forget the character they left in a well somewhere.  And so they claim a block.  The solution for this is nothing short of writing, or rewriting to be precise.  Toss out the plot twist you loved so much that created an untenable situation or create a logical way out.  Work at it!  Sit in your chair and write your way out!  It really is that simple and that difficult.  When the writing gets hard, writers write.

Granted, sometimes when this happens a break is in order but a break is not a block.  One still must attack the problem itself whether it is too many red herrings, an odd tense change, or voice shift. Sometimes all that is needed is to re-read the work.  As a reader we spot things that as writers, we miss.  Then get to work: write.

If the problem is not what one has already written, but what one has not yet written, one must consider why.  If a writer has no ideas it could be burn out on the project itself.  Many authors have stated they got tired of always writing the same character doing the same things.  In Misery we see a fictional author suffer for killing off a favored character for this reason.  If this is the case we have to bravely scrap the project and just move on and write.

However, the problem may be as simple as not wanting to write.  The internet beckons; it’s basketball season; the kids need something.  There are always distractions and good reasons not to write. Those of us who are writers, write.  We write when we’re ill, when the kids are ill, when our mothers die, when we’re bored to tears.  We write when the sun shines and the pool is inviting.  We write.  Not wanting to write is fine.  It is more than fine.  It is normal.  But if you don’t write you don’t have writer’s block; you might want to consider another line of work or creative outlet. 

Writers write.  Some of us do it because it is our work.  It is how we get paid.  We have deadlines.  Others do it because they are driven to write.  Some hate to write but do it anyway.  But writers write.  It is that simple.  If you feel stuck; don’t cling to writer’s block.  Write.    Unlike a dancer with a broken leg, writers with writer’s block have total control over whatever has them stymied.  All they have to do is write. 

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