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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Five . . . sorry, six . . . things to do when you have writers block and one thing not to do


writers-block3 This does not pretend to be a comprehensive list. It's just I remember what having a block used to be like – I'd wander round like some kind of wee lost soul for weeks – and you don't get the time back. A minute wasted is a minute lost. I turned fifty a few weeks ago and I'm starting to do my sums because that's me about two-thirds done bearing in mind that neither of my parents made it to seventy-five and it depresses the hell out of me how much of that two-thirds I frittered away on daft stuff like bemoaning my lot in life.

Also by the age of fifty one would hope that I've gained a bit of wisdom or if not wisdom exactly then at least experience. So here goes.

Things to do

1. Read

Every writer will agree that reading is vitally important. And personally I never have enough time to read. I stopped having a to-read pile a long time ago. I have a to-read shelf. Which is nice. Especially when I discover a book I'd forgotten I'd bought or been given. Reading is a great stimulus. Especially if it's good writing. I started a new book last night and the use of language is simply lovely. It's nicely understated, almost childlike. My first thought was: "Now, how could I use a voice like that?"

See: What Did You Read Today? 7 Reasons Writers Should Read Every Day

2. Revise

There is more to writing than first drafts. Personally I could spend all day polishing away. It's not that I hate first drafts, it's just they can be so hard. I'm talking prose here. The bottom line is that I'm a poet first and foremost. I rarely have problems with my poetry. But my point is, there is always something you can work on that progresses your writing.

See: Revise, Revise, Revise

3. Submit

And, if you're done with all the revising then send the ruddy stuff out. It's doing no good sitting in your drawer or folder or on your hard drive. This is an area I'm particularly bad at. Sure I save links to interesting sites – I have a folder on my desktop full of them – but I find the submission process . . . well, tedious is probably the best word for it, a chore.

See: Where Do I Send This Stuff? Notes on the Submission Process

4. Exercise

How many hours have you been sat in that chair today? Or in a succession of chairs and seats? Yes, the writing life is a sedentary one but it's not an especially healthy one either. And I'm not talking about taking a break to give your eyes a rest, maybe making a coffee and fixing a snack. I'm talking about closing down your machine, sticking on a pair of shoes and going for a walk or something more strenuous if you're up for it. I'm terrible about not exercising. I don't really have an excuse. Okay I'm fatigued to start off with. But my arms and legs still work and twenty minutes of fresh air isn't going to kill me.

See: What’s Wrong with a Sedentary Lifestyle?

5. Catch up on other things

Ironing Writing can take over your life. You stop hoovering, washing dishes, changing clothes, bathing. You sleep and work and maybe grab a bite to eat in the cracks. Writing should carry a government health warning.

Even if you're not quite at that stage there will still be the odd jobs you keep meaning to get round to and never do. I need to rearrange the shelves in my office since I swapped chairs. I have a nice, big, green, leather armchair in there now. It's lovely but it obscures part of my bookcase so I need to put the books I rarely look at it the bottom shelves so I can access the current stuff with greater ease. And I've been meaning to do that for weeks now.

And once all your chores are up to date then find a new project to occupy your mind. Distraction is the name of the game here, pure and simple. And not just for an hour or two. I need to learn how to use the camera my wife bought me for my birthday which is still sitting on the unit in the living room where I put it so that I could admire it.

See: How to Simplify Your Life

Thing not to do

You might think that this is easier said than done. It can be. If you make it. The thing about worry is that it isn't the slightest bit helpful. The question is: what is worry?

Worry is a special form of fear. It is what humans do with simple fear once it reaches the part of the brain called the cerebral cortex. We make fear complex adding anticipation, memory, imagination and emotion. – Edward Hallowell M.D., 'Why Worry?' – Psychology Today, (Nov. 1997)

Worry stems from vulnerability and powerlessness. When we worry we wrestle with larger monsters than we have to face in real life. And so when the time comes in the real world to tackle those monsters we're already in a weakened state through fighting with what we imagine those monsters will be. We will likely have lost sleep. We might have been skipping meals. It is unlikely that we will have done anything constructive while worrying that we could make use of when the real battle comes. Worrying is never useful. It handicaps and diminishes us.

Worry I speak from experience because the anxiety I suffer from constantly is really just worry that has got out of control. I wasn't always this bad and my anxiety is only one of my symptoms but I have always worried. The thing about worry is that it is never constructive. Things will play out whatever way they play out whether you worry about them or not.

Worry comes close to superstition: If I don't worry then such-and-such will/won't happen. Remember when you were a kid and you were worried about something and you'd set yourself some arbitrary task to complete: If I do such-and-such then the bad thing won't happen.

A lot of time worry comes out of ignorance. If you've never had writer's block before then the first time can be a bitch: What if I never write again? Then you never write again. You can be unhappy about that. That would be acceptable and expected behaviour. It still wouldn't solve the problem but unhappiness is a reaction to knowing there is no solution. Worry is not.

I had a bad bout of writer's block in the nineties. It lasted three years and I honestly thought I was done. I'd moved on. But it came back and with a vengeance too. All I had to do was relax. It's like trying to force your way out of a Chinese finger puzzle. It's not going to happen. And worrying about being stuck is counterproductive too.

I'm blocked right now. As far as my novel goes. I'm not worried about it. I'm writing poetry without any problem and even a few stories but I cannot connect the two parts of my novel together, not in my head and not on the page. Having four novels behind me and knowing I had much the same problem with the third one I really am not overly concerned about what's going to happen next. If I never wrote another thing I can sit back and be happy with the body of work that I've produced but there's still life in the old dog yet.

See How to Stop Worrying: Self Help Strategies for Anxiety Relief

The other thing is to tough it out. Joyce Carol Oates has been writing for as long as I've been alive (her first story was published in the August 1959 issue of Mademoiselle) and is probably the world's most prolific writer. And yet she still gets writer's block.

I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so. – 'Joyce Carol Oates' in The Paris Review, Issue 74, Fall-Winter 1978

If you have nothing to write about then write about nothing.

Let me give you an example of her get-on-with it attitude. Last year her husband of forty-seven years died. What did she do? Seven months later she was remarried and getting on with things. And coming out with a collection of fresh work entitled Dear Husband. She's a writer. How else was she going to deal with his death?

I suppose that could have been a sixth point:

6. Write something else.

If you can't write what you're trying to write then write what needs to be written. Let the writing point you in the right direction and stop forcing yourself to work on what you think you should be working on. If your husband of forty-seven years dies then capitalise on the fact. Write a book about it. (I, of course, don't mean 'capitalise' in the financial sense.)

One last point:

The philosopher Ian Hacking has written about the problem of “dynamic nominalism,” meaning that once you invent a category—as, for example, the category of “homosexual” seems to have been invented in the late nineteenth century—people will sort themselves into it, behave according to the description, and thus contrive new ways of being. Possibly, some writers become blocked simply because the concept exists, and invoking it is easier for them than writing. Some may also find it a more interesting complaint to bring to a psychoanalyst than garden-variety inertia.Joan Acocella, 'Blocked', The New Yorker, June 14th, 2004

Now, let's not get into a debate over homosexuality here, but he does have a point. Everyone knows that self-diagnosis is a dangerous thing. We invariably jump to the worst case scenario: I can't write. Christ! I must have the dreaded writer's block. I'll never write again. My life is over. Shoot me. Shoot me now. Now, I'm not saying you ignore the symptom but don't assume the obvious answer is the only one. You might only be run down. You might need to recharge your batteries. Take a break. Read a book. Watch TV. Go for a run. Put up that shelf you've been meaning to for months. Just don't waste the time, eh?


Dick said...

Thoughtful, stimulating and provocative as ever, Jim. But the small section on worry resonated particularly strongly. I'm currently working on a post about anxiety and that little bit of cogent and coherent reflection has moved it on an important notch or two, so thanks for that.

Jim Murdoch said...

The real focus of the piece was the section on worry so I'm glad it was of some help, Dick. I was quite taken when I read a description of Generalised Anxiety Disorder as being a form of worry because I don't feel I worry about very much. I don't have much to worry about let's put it that way. But it takes very little to turn all of that on its head. Last night my wife was looking for some software that I was convinced I didn't have but she was sure she didn't have and I was the last one to have it. After a few minutes of searching fruitlessly I was in a terrible old state. And there was no stopping it. Give me back my depression any day. I could cope with that.

Dave King said...

Some useful suggestions there, Jim. I have not had a dose of block that has gone on for too long, but have found the revision suggestion to be the one that works best for me - though I may be trying them out again any day. I'm finding it more and more difficult just now. One other suggestion, which I suppose comes into the "write something else category", would be to try a bit of light verse, something that doesn't matter too much and doesn't involve testing criteria. Good post.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Dave. Yes, that's always a good idea. I'm very bad when it comes to that. I always feel as soon as I put pen to paper I'm working on my next masterpiece. Which is stupid. I just hate to waste my time. And that's where a change of mindset is in order. It's like warming up before starting the exercise proper.

The main focus of the article was the "don't worry" bit though. I wonder how many years I've knocked off my life expectancy by sitting around and fretting about stuff I had absolutely no control over? I know when you're a writer you think that writing is the be all and end all but it isn't. It really isn't. (Who am I trying to convince?)

Anonymous said...

Good advice.
On the worry/ anxiety/ sadness front, I try to literally walk it away. It works, eventually and sometimes words come too, lines for stories, ideas, that sort of thing.

Conda Douglas said...

Thanks for this, Jim. I've never completely blocked, but I HAVE, um, experienced major slow downs, from a flood to a trickle. Right now, the stream is running a little low. Submitting, writing other things, exercising all help me and I needed the reminders!

jan geronimo said...

Writing should come with a warning. Nice point. A lot of other useful things have fallen on the wayside for me - and I have only been blogging.

Joyce Carol Oates's sometimes suffers from writer's block? Very interesting trivia about of prolific author. She's one of my favorite authors by the way.

The section of this post about worrying is very useful. Indeed, a thing is bound to happen or not happen at all whether we worry about it or not.

Jim Murdoch said...

Isabelle, I used to walk a lot more when I was young. I think I've forgotten how that can clear the mind.

Conda, yes, I suppose I'm slow too at the moment. I tend to dismiss the blogs as writing but they're really keeping me flexible. The fingers are still on the go. But I'll tell you, those three years when I wrote nothing were about the worst of my life. I had stopped being me, the bit of me that mattered. I hadn't realised just how much it does.

And, Jan, I've said it already but the 'worry' section is the main thrust of this article. I've worried about things so much in my life that now it just starts all on its own – it's totally non-specific and quite debilitating. I really admire the steel of someone like Oates who just gets on with things. If she can't write about one thing then she literally just gets on with another project. I think what jumps out there is that most of us tend to focus on one project at a time and feel that we have to get through that or we won't be allowed to move onto the next idea. Which is tripe. We make up our own rules for writing. And we can change them any time we like.

Ken Armstrong said...

How did I miss this one? Excellent post about a worrysome thing.

Interestingly it was Stumbleupon which took me to it - so that's good - I stumbled it, of course, so expect a herd of traffic as a result (or not) :)

I don't worry about writing overly but I worry about everything else so I will apply this post to that.

Jim Murdoch said...

There are loads of articles about what to do about writer's block, Ken, but very few of them say to ignore it. Maybe it's a symptom of our society; we want to treat everything when half the time if we left well alone the problems would not so much fix themselves as just disappear.

I'm also glad to hear that Stumbleupon is having a result after the initial spike.

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