Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘writer’s block

Fooling yourself out of writer’s block

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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.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2011 at 9:01 am

The special terror of writer’s block

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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

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