Screenwriter and novelist

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Writers' Block

I'm assuming here that there's no question but that you're a writer. We've all heard that classic line from those who'd love to write, but don't have the time… as if writing were a luxury that fills an otherwise aimless life, and the ability to do it had nothing to do with obsession and long hours and late nights and hard-won emotional stamina. The unspoken implication is that they'd be just as good as you at this lark, if only their lives weren't already so rich and overcrowded.

Sometimes these unrecognised maestros actually spend the odd evening setting down a few autobiographical anecdotes, and perhaps manage a directionless page or two. And then the next time they see you, they tell you why they couldn't proceed. Writers' block. You know.

No. Writers' block is a difficulty of the proven practitioner, not the wannabee who can't. The kind of block I'm talking about is the kind that real writers get. I reckon that it comes in two forms.

One the sense of having nothing to say; the technique is there, but there's an inability to put it to use. A kind of paralysis of the creative urge. Young Turks and novices are rarely struck by this. Eagerness carries them forth. But Hemingway killed himself because of it and Dashiell Hammett spent the last years of his life tortured by it. Harlan Ellison reckons that he got it for about twenty minutes one afternoon.

The psychologists have an easy answer to this, and it lies outside the writing -- switch off, look outward, find something in life that engages you and which you can then internalise and reprocess. The problem is that a real writer writes, as Alfred Bester once said, twenty-four hours out of the day. There is no 'off' switch. It's the mainspring of your life and, without its tension, you feel like nothing.

Paint or play the kazoo. I don't know. That kind of block goes beyond craft and into the realms of clinical depression.

The other form is, fortunately, the more common and the more amenable to influence. It's like a form of performance anxiety; you freeze up because you've already convinced yourself that whatever you do is going to fall way short of what it ought to be. Everybody has tricks to break that. Write in the present tense, and change it later; do it in note form, and then ditto; plan it on scrap paper… anything to break the sense that 'this is it', that the words are being fixed for posterity at the moment you set them down.

I suppose there's one other form of block as well, which is the one where you just can't be bothered, at least this particular morning. A trick I sometimes use for that one is to promise myself that if I can just write one sentence, then I can knock off for the rest of the day. This can take anything up to a couple of hours and a lot of displacement activity -- sharpening pencils, rearranging books… The point is that once I've got the sentence down, I'm rolling and there's no looking back.

But then, there are some days when nothing helps and you just have to jack it in. I tend to chart the progress of anything on which I'm working on a Year Planner, where the page counts can vary wildly as long as they average out over a period. Lost days and fecund days, the stuff ebbs and flows.

Perhaps that's the key. Not to worry about being overwhelmed by the prospect of the thousand-mile journey, but to find a way of separating out today's single step.

First published as part of the Craft Notes column in the newsletter of The Writers' Guild of Great Britain.