Fooling yourself out of writer’s block
As I noted yesterday, writer’s block arises from a collision between the two inescapable facts of an author’s life: writing a novel requires inhuman dedication and daily hard work, but it also depends on inspiration, which can’t be forced into a regular schedule. The key to overcoming writer’s block, then, is for the author to fool himself, at least temporarily, into thinking that hard work alone is enough—or that writing is less mysterious an act than it actually is. Because good writing is mysterious and magical. But sometimes it’s useful to pretend that it isn’t—at least until it is again.
If this sounds confusing, that’s because novelists have trouble agreeing on how much writing ought to be like a regular job. If writing is only a job like any other, then lack of inspiration is no excuse for inactivity. Anthony Trollope, whom Joan Acocella quotes in her New Yorker article on writer’s block, takes this point of view to its logical extreme:
Let [writing] be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.
That is, if an author approaches writing as just another job, without relying on the vagaries of inspiration, then the problem of writer’s block simply disappears. Which is probably true. But it doesn’t mean that good writing really is just “common labor”—merely that this is a convenient fiction that writers need to tell themselves. Like most convenient fictions, it’s only partly correct. There are, in fact, times when all the hard work in the world can’t compensate for a lack of inspiration. But sometimes the only way to get inspired in the first place is to pretend that it doesn’t matter.
This is why most writer’s block “cures” treat writing as a form of muscle memory. For example, the writer is advised to retype the final paragraph from the previous day’s work, or to free associate, or even to type a favorite page from another author. The idea, it seems, is that once a writer’s hands start typing, they’ll eventually produce something good. Which sounds ridiculous—and yet it usually works, at least in my experience. It’s as if typing alone is enough to bring the creative faculty to life, or at least to fool it into thinking that something useful is going on. (The same thing is even more true of writing by hand, as I’ve discovered when making mind maps.)
This is why it’s also important to begin each writing day with a plan, even if that plan turns out to be a fiction in itself. As I’ve mentioned before, I write massive outlines for my stories, but these outlines are less about determining the actual plot, which can change radically from one draft to another, as to make writing seem like less of a leap in the dark. When I start each day’s work, I generally have an outline, some notes, and a target word count—as if writing were about nothing more than meeting a quota. It’s the security that this routine provides, even if it’s an illusion, that allows me to discover things that have nothing to do with planning or preparation.
Of course, sometimes writer’s block shades into its more benign counterpart—those periods of inactivity that are essential for any real original thinking. Tomorrow, then, I’ll be talking about the joyous flip side of writer’s block: creative procrastination.