I’ve been a bit distracted from my “proper” writing recently – but have I really got writer’s block?
Look up writer’s block and you’ll find it confidently defined along the lines of “writer’s block is a condition, mostly associated with writing as a profession, in which the author somehow loses the ability to write, to produce new work”.
I was listening to Lee Child, however, at the recent (and very great fun) Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. He equally confidently denied the existence of writer’s block. Lorry drivers, he pointed out, might not feel like working some days, but they do nevertheless. Similarly, Philip Pullman has asked “Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?”
Robert McKee (that’s the Robert McKee of the world-famous Story seminar – check out http://mckeestory.com/ ) has suggested that Writer’s block “is not a paralysis of creativity but a malnutrition of material.” The implication then is that if you think you’ve got writer’s block, either you simply haven’t done enough research – or you should just pull yourself together and get on with it.
OK I thought. I’ll just get on with it. But… but…
On the other hand, some very famous authors claimed they genuinely struggled with writer’s block. F. Scott Fitzgerald (Great Gatsby etc) is one example. Bestseller Dan Brown has been reported recently as going to the extreme of using gravity boots to hang upside down in order to fend off writer’s block. (ebay’s got some for £17.99 ($27.20) by the way).
So is the real answer is somewhere between these extremes? Yes, a lot of it is about research and even more is probably about getting going – just pour it out, write and write. You can improve it, edit out the bad stuff and so on later. That does suppose your starting point is at the least an idea or two and some characters. If you haven’t got those, then maybe try research – even if it’s only walking round the location of your story or dredging your own memory for that spark of an idea, a “what if” line.
I think there’s a less obvious, more insidious cause of writer’s block too – the internet and all its associated social media, whether coming at you by phone or by laptop. Yes we can always do some research on the internet – but let’s be honest with ourselves. If we’re not focusing in on some essential detail, say, what type of gun our antagonist might have used and whether that model had a safety catch, chances are what we’re really doing is wasting valuable writing time.
If you’re lucky enough and there’s some money in what you’re writing, there’s always this suggestion of Lee Child’s:
“Make a tall stack of tax demands, tuition bills, and mortgage statements. Stare at it until the block disappears. Usually takes three or four seconds.“ (You can substitute your own bills of course – vet bills for injured dog and petrol would be on my list).
Finally, some others to read on writer’s block:
There’s io9 – a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future lists ten types of writer’s block – with ideas on overcoming them (with some fabulous Pulp magazine images)