- I have nothing to write!
- I have so much stuff to write!
- Should I write that?
Friday, November 2, 2018
Writer’s Block Revisited
Some people deny the existence of writer’s block. My guess is that those people have never experienced that feeling of looking at an endless expanse of nothing and being intimidated at the thought of filling it. Those people have missed out on that experience of having something to express but not knowing what the first word should be. Maybe they are the lucky souls who have clean creative plumbing, words flowing without obstruction from brain to fingers.
They are lucky, but they miss the opportunity to grow by breaking out of the paralysis.
My experience with writer’s block is nothing special. I have my moments, and they are tough to get through. However, the Block is kind of like a cold – some people never catch them, a cold is very annoying for those who do, and they are different for everyone. Over the years, I have broken them down into some simple categories, and I figure out which cold I have before I ever try to cure it. The listing is simple:
Just as I would never treat a head cold the same as one in my chest, these each have their own approaches and symptoms. Only the writer can know for sure which one is the current affliction, but that is half the cure. The other half is doing something about it. I’ll go through my personal cures, and you can see if any of them ring a bell.
“I have nothing to write!”
This is the most common of all the writing colds for me, so I have done a lot of thinking about this. Often, the thinking was a way of avoiding writing, but it delivered some results in the end. Usually, the conclusion is that I am not in a very aware, sensory place. I am not reactive to the world around me, so nothing really stands out. I might have plenty to write, but my feelings are not in touch with the words.
My cure is therefore to get really involved in the simplest of items. If I am at my desk, I focus on my pen. A coffee mug. A scar on my hand. I stare at it. I drown out the world around it. I tune my mind into the item and approach it from a sensory point of view. What does the coffee mug feel like? Smooth? Cold? Does the bottom have that ring of scratched ceramic? Is there a logo painted on it? Does the logo rise from the surface of the mug? I try to describe each sensation with a word. Two words. Five words. A complete sentence. A simile. Switch to another sense and do the same thing – what does the mug sound like when I tap the edge? The handle? As I do this, I tune myself into that reactive place until something stands out. I might write a poem about the mug, or a quick sketch about the mug and its thoughts. Something. Anything. But suddenly, I am writing again.
“I have so much stuff to write!”
Yes, this happens too. An embarrassment of creative riches, yet nothing makes it to the page. For me, this cold is the opposite of the previous ailment – at this point I am so aware that everything gets the creative juices flowing, but this forms a logjam of ideas. Everyone rushes to the front of the line, so nobody gets to be first.
Some people insist that they need to just choose an idea and start writing. Maybe that will work, but for me it only addresses the symptoms and not the sickness. When I am that creatively charged, I personally believe that there is some part of my creative self looking to come out. I explore my mind for the most challenging activity running through my brain, something that contains as much creative risk as possible or perhaps something I have feared doing. Poetry. A confessional essay. A narrative about one of the many dark secrets or untamed demons from my past. I force the biggest task to the front of the line and put that energy to work. Sometimes the results amaze me, sometimes not. But at that point, I’m writing.
“Should I write that?”
The answer to this question is obvious – yes, I should. But when I find myself asking this question, it usually has nothing to do with the subject. At this point, it’s about my writing. For whatever reason, I don’t feel my writing can match up with the subject at hand. More importantly, it doesn’t matter whether this is true or not. Now it is about trying to address those doubts.
At this point, I usually switch from a producer to a consumer of creativity. I read something simple or take Netflix for a spin. The catch is, for whatever I do, I think about how I would approach it. For that simple bit of reading, how would I have written it? What elements of style did I like? What did I disagree with? Could I have improved it, and if not, how could it improve my writing? As far as Netflix goes, I think about how I would write out a particular scene, how I would explain the visual media and create a page that conveys all the important elements on the monitor. These exercises are not intended to build my confidence as much as erase my doubts. I can see myself as a writer again, with a set of skills and with room to grow. At that point, I can write without being self-conscious, and give myself the liberty of exploring the written word again.
I know plenty of other versions of writer’s block – perfection obsession, burn-out, distracted writing, and so on – each with their own little set of symptoms. These will be explored in due time, but for now, the important part is to understand that people get these from time to time, and in plenty of cases they are like a cold – they just need to run their course. But sometimes we can go right after them, and even cure ourselves.
And this is for those people who never catch the Block: I know you, I hate you, and I will write about you.