Six impossible things

Not-Writing

One of the most common questions I get, right up there with “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How can I get published?”, is “How do you deal with writer’s block?” Sometimes it gets asked plaintively; sometimes with a note of desperation. Once in a great while, it gets asked merely with a note of curiosity. In all cases, though, there is an underlying assumption that writer’s block is something that all writers will face sooner or later, inevitably and inexorably, probably multiple times per story, and that it is a demon to be fought and defeated.

I have always had trouble answering this question, because it’s based on conflating at least two different definitions of “writer’s block.” There is what I think of as “true writer’s block,” which is an actual inability to get bits of fiction on paper despite wanting to do so, and which in my experience is quite rare; and there is not-writing, which is a choice and which is common as mud.

The people I know who’ve had real, true writer’s block have almost all had some clear reason for it: side-effect from a medication, an episode of depression, sleep deprivation, massive stress. The only way to clear it up is to deal with the outside reason, and that often takes years. Not-writing, on the other hand, can go on and off like flipping a light switch, because it is fundamentally a choice.

I spend quite a lot of time not-writing. I have, on occasion, been told that I have writer’s block when I haven’t produced anything in a long time. I always find this a bit puzzling, because I don’t feel particularly blocked. I could sit down and write a new first chapter or a bunch of backstory for something or any number of bits and pieces that might eventually find their way into a story; I just don’t see much point in doing so right then, for one reason or another.

Sometimes, the reason is that I have more important things to do, like getting the plumber to stop the waterfall in the bathroom while I move all my paper books out from under the leak in the ceiling, or like being executor of my mother’s estate. Sometimes, the reason is that I am sick and tired of the thing I’m working on, but I know better than to start a shiny new project while I am in the miserable middle of an older one, so I choose not to write anything. Sometimes, the reason is that it is a nice day and I am going to take a book outside and sit under a tree and read. Sometimes, the reason is that I need to mull over the things I already know need to happen in the current story so that I can figure out the exact right thing to be the next piece of it. Sometimes, the reason is that I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere and I need to completely rethink my plot, starting two or six or fourteen chapters ago. And sometimes, I simply have a profound disinclination to write.

I don’t call any of those things “writer’s block.” I don’t think they are deserving of the term, and I don’t think I ought to be allowed the copout.

Writing is work. Work of any kind does, occasionally, get boring. Nobody I know likes being bored. It is human nature to try to avoid doing boring stuff. This is not “writer’s block;” it’s self-indulgence.

Yet somehow, writers have pulled off one of the greatest marketing coups ever: they have convinced everyone that if they are not-writing, they must have “writer’s block,” and are therefore to be offered tea and cookies and sympathy and support. If a bank teller or accountant tried to claim they couldn’t work today because they had a paperwork block, everyone would laugh.

In a lot of ways, this is a great boon to writers. Much of the work we do doesn’t look like work to non-writers, and there aren’t a lot of non-writer folks around who understand the creative process. Telling these people “I have writer’s block; I’m going for a walk to see if that helps” gets them off your back instantly, when “I need to think; stop distracting me” doesn’t and “I’m going for a walk to ponder the next chapter” gets you a long list of errands to run “as long as you’re out.”

The trouble comes when writers start believing their own press. Having convinced everyone else that it is normal for a writer to “get writer’s block” ten or fifteen times per novel (at least one of which lasts for three weeks or more), people start worrying if everything is going along smoothly without interruption, or else they start labeling the slightest sticky bit as “writer’s block” and panic because they’re sure it’ll be weeks or months before they write anything else ever again.

The truth is that a lot of the sticky spots have nothing to do with being able to write something; they are, more often than not, about not knowing how to make what one writes into the shining, perfect thing it is in one’s head. They are, in other words, about being a perfectionist. This is particularly common among beginners, because no matter how much raw talent or imagination they have, they almost certainly haven’t nailed down all the skills they need just yet. It is inevitable that they will periodically come to a scene or a line that they don’t know how to handle, simply because this is the very first time they’ve tried to write a flashback or a love scene or whatever. It generally takes them longer to figure out what to do and how to do it, because they haven’t done anything remotely similar…and it is very, very easy to go from “I am not writing because I don’t have the skills I need to do this scene/fix this plot point/see what the structure needs here” to “Ohmigosh, I have writer’s block and it will be months before I can write again.”

That kind of “I have to stop for a while and figure out how to do this” stickiness comes around less frequently as one gains experience, but as long as a given writer keeps trying to stretch, they’ll keep hitting spots like that. Again, it’s easy to call that “writer’s block,” because writers and non-writers alike will accept that as a reason, and they probably won’t try to give you advice about how to do whatever-it-is (which is generally about as useful as me trying to give advice to a brain surgeon in mid-operation would be). The trick is not to call it “writer’s block” to oneself; instead, one goes off and studies how other authors get in and out of flashbacks, or the way they structure love scenes, or one does some practice scenes or exercises if one finds that sort of thing helpful.

Working at gaining the skills one needs in order to write the next bit is still working at writing, even if one is not making visible forward progress on the book. The same goes for stopping to iron out a troublesome plot twist, or make up a consistent backstory or bit of worldbuilding that one suddenly needs (and that has to fit seamlessly in with all the other backstories and worldbuilding that one has already done).

13 Comments
  1. “I need to mull over the things I already know need to happen in the current story so that I can figure out the exact right thing to be the next piece of it.”

    and

    “That kind of “I have to stop for a while and figure out how to do this” stickiness comes around less frequently as one gains experience, but as long as a given writer keeps trying to stretch, they’ll keep hitting spots like that.”

    nail it down perfectly.

    Once I have conjured up enough pieces by really letting the brain dig into the possibilities of a scene beyond the obvious plot things that have to go in it, and which got the scene included in the first place, then the brain seems to feel it has enough material to start piecing the scene together.

    My mistake is in not using that ‘thinking’ time to keep coming up with ideas. It is helpful to do the exercises in writing books, to let items from my many lists give me ideas, and to keep poking at it mentally.

    If I take my writing time, and, because I can’t immediately ‘write’ a scene, go off and do something that uses my creative brain bits, it delays getting to the stage where I have enough stuff to work with.

    MY brainstorming has to be done with SOME way of recording the results – audio or text – so I don’t lose things. Once it is all on paper/screen, then I can work with it, and the ‘block’ seems to vanish.

    I’m almost at that point right now with the current scene. I feel it in the pit of my stomach: not quite ready – why? And dig some more.

  2. Thank you for acknowledging the existence of genuine writer’s block! I know so may writers who, because most so-called writer’s block is really just one form or another of procrastination, like to declaim in ex cathedra fashion that there is no such thing as writer’s block at all. This is simple ignorance, and it is insulting and demeaning those who suffer from the genuine article.

    And it is indeed suffering. As you say, the outside reason needs to be dealt with, and there is rarely, if ever, a quick and easy solution.

  3. It’s so easy to be self-indulgent or to procrastinate writing because there are other things you could be doing. I run into this problem a lot and have to remind myself that I need to *make* time for writing, which is hard to convince others of the need if you aren’t published yet, so they think the dishes have a higher priority. Sigh.

  4. The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice Weaver Flaherty is a fascinating book on writer’s block — and not writing, and other related subjects.

  5. Oh, so I really do have the real “writers block” now. Timely post then – now I need to stop “trying to write” and actually deal with RL stuff.

    (But writing is more fun….)

  6. “Timely post then – now I need to stop “trying to write” and actually deal with RL stuff.”

    One of the hardest and most needed writing lessons I had to learn, was that attempting to guilt myself out of procrastination wouldn’t work, if I wasn’t procrastinating. When the state of my health deteriorates past a certain point, I can’t write. Period. But I wanted to be writing, so I wanted to be able to “make myself write” so I tried all the things that other people did to make themselves write, and none of them worked. Mostly I just made myself feel worse.

    The daily quota thingy ended up being a good idea though, because I ended up using it to tell me when to STOP writing, and that helped me pace myself, and led to more days when I could write, because I hadn’t written myself into exhaustion the day before.

    (Except that, sure enough, along came a book that absolutely wouldn’t let me do the thing I had found that was working for me, and although I do love the result, I’m very eager to get back to projects that are a little better behaved.)

  7. Page 168 of “How to Write a Damn Good Novel” by James N. Frey is the start of the chapter titled “What to do When Your Muse Takes a Holiday.” I thought it fit nicely with this post so I’m going to quote just one section I think applies here.

    “Don’t confuse writer’s block with other emotional states that interfere with your writing such as anger, grief, illness, laziness, horniness, and so on. True writer’s block has four primary causes: not knowing your characters well enough, trying to edit and write at the same time, fear of failure, and fear of success.”

    Most days I bounce around between all of those reasons, and I would also add “not having your world clearly defined” to the list.

    I’ve been working on my world building for my WIP and every time my husband asks me a question about it I have an answer that I can spit out right away and then I groan and say “but that doesn’t work!” I finally figured out that I was trying to build a utopia into a story that was full of selfish, greedy humans. So now I’m trying to figure out how to separate everything that’s been in my head as one story into the two stories it truly needs to be.

  8. I realized while reading this that I tend to say “I’m stuck” rather than “I’m blocked” these days. Don’t know if that’s due to your influence or not, but… yeah. Figuring out what goes next or a way to be not-bored with the sloggy bits (or buckling down to do them anyway) usually results in words happening. Maybe not tons of words, but enough to be getting on with.

    I do get a thing where, basically, the word reservoir in my brain runs dry. I suppose I could call that writer’s block, but I know it’s a temporary thing and taking a day or two off to recharge — possibly with the addition of a double mocha — will generally do the trick.

  9. I do get a thing where, basically, the word reservoir in my brain runs dry.

    This!

    My dry reservoir rarely outlasts a good night’s sleep. Basically, if I’ve written a lot in a given day, my writer brain gets tired and my emotional self also gets tired. (I find writing to be emotionally fatiguing, because I’m essentially living the emotions of my characters as I write.) Then I need to recharge.

  10. Yes. Assuming good health, mine isn’t writer’s block, it’s sentence block or paragraph block or scene block or plot block or genre block, etc. It’s not knowing how to do some particular thing, and letting that stall the whole project. I’m glad for place-holders and writing out of order.

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