• Marthe Jocelyn

There is no such thing as writer's block


I originally proposed this topic as a 'talk' to new writers, part of the application for a residency position that I was not hired for. Perhaps the rejection should have been a warning to steer clear of the topic. Writing about not writing is possibly not the best way to spend one's writing time. But here I am.

As with any research question in today's world, I began by googling There is no such thing as writer's block. I was handed "about 1,170,000 results" in .33 seconds. Reducing the phrase to writer's block elicited "about 2,040,000 results" in .22 seconds – twice as efficient and wide-reaching.

Even the smaller response to the first search term was enough to confirm that my contribution to the lexicon of writer's block blah-blah would be insignificant. Fear of insignificance is touted as being one of the major causes of writer's block. I am more commonly swept with - not the fear of, but actual - insignificance when standing in a library or a bookstore or, worse, Aisle 2200 of Book Expo America, surrounded by a million books written by other people. But at home, my place of work, such thoughts cannot be entertained. I am a professional writer. I read and write every day, usually for long hours. Certainly for longer hours than my income would suggest. Being a writer is my job, not my hobby or my calling, nor the activity that elicits the common response from new, non-writing acquaintances: "You write children's books? You must have so much fun!" I often do have fun, my brain never stops clicking, and curiosity takes me to unexpected and marvellous places. But there is no time to wait for a muse, and no time to indulge in not writing.

The great Philip Pullman sums it up nicely. "Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.”

Author Richard Scrimger says, "I have days (many many many) where it doesn't go as well as I want, but I have an in-basket that is so bleeping full, deadlines looming so precipitately, that I simply don't get writer's block - in the same way nursing moms tend to be free from infection, in the way that neuroses tend to dwindle during a crisis."

Now that you've been put firmly in place as an amateur if you consider moaning about being blocked, see if you can identify an alternate source for what the impediments might be on any given day.

You don't know where to start. You are unsure of how to tell the story you have in mind. Everything you've written so far is bland or sentimental. You wonder whether you should have cut that character after all, since everything out of his mouth is boring. You are discouraged that the last few days have sent you down an unrewarding path. You are afraid that you suck. You just heard that another writer got an advance twice as big as yours. You didn't get an advance at all because nobody wants your story. There are already too many books in the world so why bother? You will never have an original thought.

Welcome to being a writer.

The internet is loaded with Tips to Get You Typing, so it seems superfluous to add my own ideas to the pile. But I'm also aware of - and harbour it myself - the writer's rarely-spoken belief that there IS a secret to making it easier and that someone else knows what that secret is. Surely all you have to do is keep reading advice columns, borrowing cheerful how-to manuals from the library, taking workshops, attending conferences, and praying... right? Well, all those things count as part of your job, if you're a writer. But writing counts the most.

I recently read a slim book, recommended by a writing teacher, called Ron Carlson Writes a Story. It is the hour-by-hour description of how the author - yup - writes a short story from beginning to end. The choices he makes, the reasons he makes them, the bumps he navigates, the worry, boredom, lack of faith... and the mantra that I have often find myself following, metaphorically at least: Stay in the room. This can be read as a variation of Keep your butt in the chair, but it refers as well to the more essential concept of staying in the room that is inside the story. Pay attention to the details that you have already planted, often sub-consciously. What can you use from the set-up and setting - the room - that surrounds your characters? Look around, pick something up, or have someone knock on the door and come in.

The concept of stay(ing) in the room insists on a focus that can be applied to many of life's encounters or tasks that require more attention than is comfortable.

Writing is often not comfortable. You know that, but you might not believe that it is true for every writer. You read interviews where the author says, "I had a dream and the whole plot unfolded in my mind!" or "I heard a voice and channeled it!" If these are not outright lies, I suspect they are temporary conditions. If you are a writer, you know it is a difficult and demanding job, all the more so because its initiation, its process and its completion are entirely up to you. Can you really afford to wait for inspiration?

Okay, fine. You're still patiently hoping for my secret ingredients? Even after being assured there is no such thing? Here are a few tips that I've gathered from writing gurus and adapted for my own use:

1) Write shite. This is my way of repeating Annie Lamott's famous suggestion to write a "shitty first draft", in her lovely guidebook, Bird by Bird. American poet William Stafford backs this up: "There is no such thing as writer's block for writers whose standards are low enough."

The increasing popularity of National Novel Writing Month, aka November, and better known by its nickname NaNoWriMo, is an indicator that thousands of people now subscribe to the basic idea of just getting 'it' down on paper, that hammering out the first draft is the biggest challenge to writing anything. For many of those thousands, 'shite' is the best they'll ever manage. But for you, who will continue to write during the other eleven months of the year, you understand that writing badly - limping through sentences, using cliches and struggling forward without a distinct and appealing voice - is an essential part of the natural process. The trick is simply to keep going. To 'write drunk and edit sober', a useful aphorism (without a certain source). To finish, and then to start over with a clear eye and a sharp pencil, prepared to mine for the smallest nuggets.

2) Dessert first. This is cribbed from the editor Deborah Brodie from whom I took several classes at the New School in New York. She may have cribbed it from someone else, but it is one of the gems I have carried with me for years. Why start at the beginning? We all know that the first paragraph - maybe the whole first chapter - is the hardest and most important part of the book. We all know it will have to be rewritten by the time you get to the end. So why start with the hard stuff? Write the scenes you already know in your heart. Write the moments of dialogue that tell you who the characters are. Write the last page if you're so lucky as to know what that is.

I have never begun at the beginning and gone through to the end. What a horrifying thought!

3) Make a list. When I discovered Sei Shonogan and her Pillow Book (written approximately 1000 years ago in the Imperial Court of Japan) as part of my research for a book called Scribbling Women, I became a whole-hearted devotee of how lists can be tools and poetry and pathways to paragraphs and then chapters. A small sampling of Shonagon's list titles shows how simple and inspiring this technique can be for prompting further thought and many more words.

  • Things that make one's heart beat faster

  • Things that arouse a fond memory of the past

  • Things that should be short

  • Elegant things

  • Deeply irritating things

  • Things that have lost their power

Sometimes I make a list of list titles, to be prepared for future pauses. Sometimes I make a list of, for instance, what is in my character's closet, or words to use to describe a storm. This exercise can take you to many surprising places.

4) Stay in the room - and then leave it. Another common piece of advice given to writers is to put your manuscript in a drawer and not look at it for a couple of weeks. This is an excellent suggestion, as long as you've done everything you can possibly do to make a first or second draft something you might want to read again. If there is a deadline or a pressing reason that won't allow for many fallow days, you still have to find a way to look at it with fresh eyes. Read it aloud - ouch! - or from back to front. You will be working again in minutes.

How to fix writer’s block? There is no cure for an ailment that doesn't exist.

A writer writes. Are you a writer?

The original version of this essay was published in the CANSCAIP News

Volume 36 #3, Fall 2014