Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The special terror of writer’s block

with 2 comments

In less than a week, if all goes well, I’ll begin writing the first draft of Midrash, the sequel to Kamera, which I’m contracted to deliver to my publisher by the end of September. Finishing the manuscript on time will require a fairly ambitious schedule—basically a chapter a day when I’m writing, alternating with equally intense periods of research, outlining, and revision. I’ve tried to build some leeway into my schedule, in case I hit any unforeseen obstacles, but at this point, there isn’t a lot of wriggle room. If I reach a point where I can’t write for a month or more, this book isn’t going to get done on time. Which is why I’m going to tempt fate and spend the next few days talking about one of the most terrifying subjects in the world: writer’s block.

There are really two kinds of writer’s block. The more dramatic kind, and one I hope never to feel qualified to talk about, is the kind that lasts for years. As Joan Acocella points out in her very good New Yorker article on the subject, this sort of writer’s block—the kind that plagued Samuel Coleridge, Paul Valéry, and others—is less a professional problem than a metaphysical or linguistic predicament: the sense that inspiration or language itself is inadequate to express what the writer wants to say. I can’t dismiss this condition entirely, if only because the advancement of art depends on such struggles by a handful of exceptional authors. That said, for the vast majority of us, conventional language probably works just fine, and while daily drudgery is no substitute for inspiration, it’s often the next best thing.

The other kind of writer’s block, the kind that every author needs to confront at some point or another, comes from the collision of the two intractable facts of a writer’s life: one, that the heart of a novel, like or not, is built on moments of inspiration that can’t be predicted or willed into being; and two, that these moments require hours of tedious work to bring them to fruition. When inspiration and discipline go hand in hand, a writer can easily work for six or more hours a day; if they don’t fall into line, the writer produces nothing. While such dry spells can last for anything from a few hours to months on end, it’s probably impossible to avoid them altogether. And they hurt like hell.

So what’s a writer to do? Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking about some of the methods I’ve used in the past to get past writer’s block, whether on account of fear, lack of ideas, or simple exhaustion. And by discussing it so openly, I’ll also ensure, by a kind of anticipatory magic, that it won’t actually happen to me. Right?

Written by nevalalee

March 2, 2011 at 9:03 am

2 Responses

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  1. It happens. But it passes, fortunately. Writing something short, completely different, maybe in another language, usually helps me.


    March 2, 2011 at 9:51 am

  2. That’s a good tip. As I’ll be discussing a bit more tomorrow, sometimes just the physical act of typing helps, as if writing were an act of muscle memory.


    March 2, 2011 at 10:01 am

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