Thursday, March 08, 2007

Writers Block

I’m not sure if I’ve ever had writers’ block or not. Does that sound silly to you? Bear with me.

I’ve always thought of writers’ block as some monumental, mysterious, perhaps angst driven emotional or psychological boulder that stops a writer from effectively stringing one word behind the other to make a coherent and effective story. Now, there have certainly been times when I have found it impossible to string one word behind the other, when the angrily crumpled pages have piled up around the wastebasket. But these moments have never been mysterious. I’ve always been able to find their cause, and therefore deal with it.

Sometimes I find it difficult to write because the personal events of my life are taking over a huge chunk of my mind. I still don’t know how I wrote WHISPERS OF HEAVEN in Australia during the nine months I was packing to leave that beautiful country (and my former husband). I bought my airplane ticket for the fourth of September; the book was due September first. I made the deadline. I was convinced the book was unadulterated sh*t and reassured my editor I’d completely rewrite it when I got to the States. She didn’t want me to change one word. Somehow, the emotional turmoil I was going through translated into a very powerful book. Two other houses tried to buy me away from my publisher, and to keep me my publisher promised to bring WHISPERS out in hardcover (they didn’t, of course) and more than doubled my advances for my next books. Since I was then a single mother with two school age daughters and no child support, it was gift from the gods.

Then again, with the exception of somehow doing the revisions for WHEN GODS DIE, I did not write for seven months after Katrina. True, I was putting in twelve hour days, seven days a week, restoring my house and its furniture, but I’m not sure I’d have been able to concentrate enough to produce anything even if I hadn’t been personally involved in the reconstruction. In fact, I seem to recall saying I might as well do it because given my mental state I wasn’t in any shape to do anything else. Some people might say, You had Writers’ Block. I don’t think I did. When the house reached a point I could ease up on it, and when the calendar reached a point it was telling me that if I didn’t sit down and write like crazy then I was going to miss my deadline, I set up my computer table on the concrete floor of my half-renovated office and started typing WHY MERMAIDS SING.

There are always days, even weeks, when I find it impossible to concentrate. Worry about a child’s health or about her happiness, anxiety about the negotiations for a new book contract, even new-found love—it all gets in the way of the subconscious flow needed to write. I’ve found I need to give myself time to focus on those emotional issues before I can put them aside long enough to write.

But there are other times when I can’t seem to write and I know there’s nothing going on in my private life that’s getting in my way. That’s when I recognize those crumpled pages (or that blank screen) as a warning sign that something is going wrong in my book. I’ve either gone astray somehow in what I’ve already written, or I don’t know something I need to go forward. Perhaps I don’t know enough about a given character or setting to really make a scene come alive, or I don’t understand the conflict, or a given character is wrong. Or maybe I don’t have any conflict in a scene, or a character’s motivation is shaky, or—you get the idea. My subconscious seems to recognize that SOMETHING is wrong and until I figure out what that something is and fix it, I can’t go forward. In the past I’ve pushed forward anyway, then had to go back and change it all. So I’ve learned to listen and recognize that “I can’t write” is actually “You don’t WANT to write until you figure out what’s wrong.”

I admit there are also other times when I find it hard to write, when the doubts crowd in and I think that everything I write is awful, when I realize that I’m never going to be the writer I’d like to be. I will always be a pale, polyester version of the likes of Dorothy Dunnett and Pat Conroy and James Lee Burke. When I realize that’s what’s going on in my head, I just tell myself that nine out of ten writers on the New York Times are godawful polyester hacks, and if they can do it, so can I. I mean, really! Look at some of the tripe that makes the Times these days. I wouldn’t read those writers’ blogs, let alone their books! So when my self-confidence ebbs, I tell myself I don’t need to be great. I just need to be good enough.

A hyper-prolific, very financially successful writer is often quoted as saying she never lets herself not write; “I can fix a bad page," she says, "but I can’t fix a blank page.” Well, I disagree. I’ve found that writers often don’t fix their “bad” pages—and if this particular writer is anything to go by, the more financially successful they get, the less likely certain writers are even to look at a page again once they’ve written it. I don’t read those writers.

Sometimes, not writing is the right thing to do. Sometimes, giving myself the hours or days needed to deal with personal problems, or going for a walk to figure out what’s wrong with a book, is the right thing to do. Reworking something done badly is often more difficult than starting afresh. Personally, I know I can always “fix a blank page.” All I need to do is sit down and start writing. I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to start with a fresh, clean white sheet.


Chap O'Keefe said...

Most of us have probably read other people's treatises on the dreaded writer's block, but this is a simply superb post. People will and ought to pay for such genuine, down-to-earth reporting on the life of a working writer. You must collect your best blog entries and put them together for a book. It could well become a bestseller.

Kate S said...

Interesting, CS. I was just thinking along those lines as I drove home from work today. When I complain about "writer's block" I wonder if what I consider a block is the same as what other people are referring to when they say they've had it.

I don't think of it as a disappearance of a mysterious muse, but rather the inability to find the words for all of the reasons you listed. There are times when the ideas/creative spark just won't happen. But that happens to me in my day job too. The creative well just runs dry sometimes, though it's usually because of stress.

That's when I say I'm blocked.

cs harris said...

Thanks, Chap; maybe some day I will!

And I think you're right, Kate; the creative well does need refilling. Sometimes when I'm "stuck" I'll quit and go read a book for an hour or two. It's often all I need to jump start me again.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think you're right that most of the time the block is simply that the writer hasn't thought far enough ahead. They need time for the subconscious to work things out.

liz fenwick said...

I have't dwelt on writer's block in a long time. The emotional hurdles are as you say not writers block but life.

I hit little blocks all the time and I take time to do others things as Charles said to give the subconcious time to work things through. I seem to recall having writers block much more frequently during my university days. Now I don't often have the luxury to take too much time away although there is a huge value in taking a proper break.