Tuesday, 5 May 2009


I have been planning a piece on writer’s block for a while now; the words just won’t come. As Nicola Morgan mentions here, this affliction can manifest variously. There’s the despairing, slumped-on-the-keyboard variety, where motivation has evaporated to nothing and a solitary mouse click makes you feel like Sisyphus. Such Level One Blockage is generally regarded the more serious, eliciting a constant stream of self-doubt that usually concludes with Why would anybody, ever, try to write a novel.

Less severe, though equally unproductive, Level Two Blockage is the utter inability to see where the story can go next: a creative rather than motivational drought. Perhaps you know where you want your characters to go, but can’t seem to get them there. Or when you try, they refuse to go.

The first thing to remember is that writing a novel is not easy. I’d put it in the top seven* most difficult things a person can do. So when Blockage takes hold, remind yourself you were somewhat crazy in the first place to even start this, but now that you have you may as well see it through.

Then recall Hemingway’s much quoted wisdom: The first draft of anything is shit. It really is. For everyone. It can’t possibly, ever, be anything but. Tens of drafts down the line might see it creep into mediocrity, but until then it can only be detritus of the highest order. This, hopefully, will free you up to just write, fearless of the drivel every first draft inevitably becomes.

Next, change something. Anything. Posture, room, time you write, what you write on or with. You might be able to trick the brain into thinking something else is occurring.

Then have it out with your characters in dialogue, see what they have to say about your inertia. (Remember to remove yourself from any scenes that stay in the ms.)

If your cursor is still blinking mockingly, get out of the house. Take a pen and paper, just in case, but just walk. Let go of the story completely. For some curious and beautiful reason the unconscious carries on working on it. I bet half way around the park, or in the depths of the following night, some small epiphany makes itself known.

If all this fails, if weeks and months pass and the only change to your word count is the cobwebs forming around it, if Blockage is the natural default, perhaps, maybe, difficult as it sounds, this messy business of writing ain’t for you.

* Random number chosen entirely for effect


Douglas Bruton said...

I think Roald Dahl had a habit of not completing what he was writing before stopping for the day.... not writing the last paragraph or so of any chapter... so that when he came back the next day he had something to do and this would take him into the work and into 'flow' and so the next chapter would begin naturally and not be such a struggle.

One of the 7 hardest things? Not sure about that... if we accept that the first draft will be 'shit', then writing that first shitty draft is easy... reworking it into something worthwhile is harder... into something you are pleased with harder still... into something that a publisher will be pleased to take off your hands, hardest of all.

Not really a problem for me that being blocked thing. I am the opposite... so many other voices in my head that distract me from the bi project.

Interesting to hear what others will say to any of this.



TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks, Douglas. Yep, leaving a thread to pick up the next day works for some.

Katy said...

So true. I think there's a special kind of "writers' inertia" - or at least I'm suffering from it - whereby one gets ambushed with so many *good ideas* at the same time that all of them just end up sitting there blinking, half finished and useless like a fisherman who's abandoned his maggots and rod and gone off down the pub for the day.