Woolf

Writers, Writing 2: The Block

by N QUENTIN WOOLF

“We cannot make coffee today,” said the waiter.

I must admit to having felt mildly miffed. The café was called Coffee Empire, and there were close-up posters of coffee beans on every wall.

“You can’t make coffee?”

“No, sir.”

I looked around the place. It was true: none of the other patrons had coffee before them, nor indeed any other potation. Some sat glumly; others had left. “I presume the coffee machine is broken,” I said, “I’ll take a tea.”

“No tea, either,” the man mooned. “Everything is working fine. It’s just – you know. We can’t make coffee or tea today. I’m so sorry.”

There seemed no point pressing the issue further. The entire staff was in the grip of a paralysing melancholy, and hot beverages were not to be had. Making up my mind to put this oddness behind me, I departed for the bus to my office, in town.

I found the bus at the bus stop, ticking over. At first I congratulated myself on my timing, but it soon became clear that the bus driver, whilst happy to let passengers board, had no intention of conveying them anywhere. She merely sat forlorn in the driver’s seat, while her wheels did not go round and round.

“It’s just not happening for me today,” she said, when I put the problem of forward motion to her. “I can’t put my finger on it, but there it is. I can’t drive, today. Sorry.”

It was at about this point that the penny dropped. I said to her, “Is this queer behaviour by any chance related to the piece I have to write about writer’s block?”

“Could be,” she shrugged. “It’d probably provide an unexpected route into the subject if it were.”

“Tell me: do you have writer’s block?” I asked her, but alas, she had vanished altogether in a haze of ennui.

Writer’s block is such a well-recognised phenomenon that its meaning is clear well outside of the occupation to which it relates. Few other professions, in fact, have succeeded in reaching out like this to the sympathies of the world at large. Tennis elbow never really caught on, and housemaid’s knee lacked va-va-voom, but everyone is familiar with the montage of the writer ripping near-naked pages out of his typewriter and hurling them disconsolately into the wastepaper basket. It is a romantic image, a way of finding drama in an activity that is otherwise tertiary, solitary and silent. Even non-writers allow themselves to get writer’s block once in a while: the business executive struggling with a presentation; the post-grad swamped by their thesis. It seems that the sickness has spread, like mad cow disease or swine flu, out of the group within which originated, to blight us all.

Of course, the act of writing is central to the profession of writing, whereas it is merely a constituent of some other jobs – and by no means all. Every now and again, I like to play a one-person parlour game called In What Job Could One Claim A Total Inability To Perform The Role’s Key Function And Not Get Sacked? Barring some rather unnecessary digressions centred on my postman, I have not yet scored a single point. Why is it acceptable – even expected – for the writer to be unable to function, when such a failure would look like incompetence or laziness elsewhere?

Polarised, the responses to the problem go something like this:

At one extreme, touchy-feely sympathy. By way of remediation, we could talk about stimulation and inspiration and getting in touch with one’s inner writer, swallowing whole the idea that one cannot write until some illusory psychic equilibrium has been restored. This outlook is dangerous, predicated as it is on the idea that everything must be perfect before writing can begin. Life ain’t perfect. By waiting for the ideal moment, one excuses oneself from ever having to write anything.

At the other end of the spectrum, the thrusting, pragmatic approach. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Those who claim to be under its spell are wimps, or cowards, or dilettantes. Pull yourself together. Keep calm and carry on. All fine, except that I have experienced the inability to write, and I know it exists in others. ‘After my wife died, I couldn’t write a thing’. ‘Some people only have one book in them.’ ‘I stared at the blank page and just couldn’t think creatively.’ It is churlish, even offensive, to dismiss the feelings of all blocked writers as some sort of camouflage for weakness; or, worse, as self-deception.

Appropriately enough for the business of deploying words with great care, the power of its enemy, writer’s block, comes from its inexactness. Like Evil, like Love, writer’s block is a catch-all term for many different experiences. Its name takes on a mythic potency precisely because of this cumulation.

Only when you know what problem you’re trying to solve can you tackle it. Imagine a doctor trying to cure Illness, without having any clear idea whether it’s mumps or a broken leg. So long as he accepts the term Writer’s Block, and fails to look beyond it, the hapless writer is condemned never to be able to distinguish his particular affliction from the mass of other possible maladies, and he will never be healed.

Let us pathologise.

First of all: not having time to write. No-one’s got time to write, not early on, anyway. Writing (particularly fiction or poetry) is a largely unpaid activity; even moderate success isn’t worth much in hard currency. So one needs to be doing a job, and, as we know, the job monster has ensured that most jobs suck the last grain of energy out through one’s feet during the course of the day, so that by the evening you require recuperation – leaving very little time to write. This is not writer’s block. A savings expert by the name of Martin Lewis explains that many people make a simple mistake when trying to save money: when their monthly pay-cheque lands, they buy all the things they need and bank the rest. This is the wrong approach, says Lewis. First bank a pre-set amount, each month, then use the remainder on essentials. It’s about ring-fencing, and it’s something many writers are hard-pressed to do. It requires a certain ruthlessness. However, if you’ve got the sadistic qualities necessary to put a protagonist through the mill, or to edit out beautifully-written prose that doesn’t serve the story, you’ve got what it takes to carve yourself the time you need. You don’t have writer’s block – you’re allowing your life to take over.

Next: Not feeling creative / not having any ideas. You either need to find ways to excite some creative thinking – or else abandon the idea of being a writer, because you are incapable of being one. Is some other aspect of your life already consuming your creativity? Alternatively, have you trained yourself to think in a non-creative way, for some reason? The answers in each scenario are obvious – the only question is whether you feel able to take the required action. Some schools of thought have it that creativity is a habit, others that it thrives in adversity. It depends on the person. I think you can train yourself to generate ideas, if they don’t come naturally – spider charts, word association, various randomising procedures. Ultimately, being a writer is not an exercise in spirituality. It requires you to have ideas, same as sales requires persuasion and politics requires character defects. Failure to tackle this challenge isn’t writer’s block.

Here’s a biggy: you’re out of shape.

I once ran one hundred meters in eleven-point-something seconds. I was a schoolkid and eleven-point-anything is a pretty outstanding time; and I know I couldn’t do it now if I was late to accept the Man Booker and had a tiger after me. Were I to try to recreate my adolescent feat, and fail, it wouldn’t be because I was having a bad day, it would be because I’ve spent decades making no effort whatsoever to run fast, and every effort to eat pies and drink real ale. Nor would it be honest for me to flag up the bad day in advance and use that as the basis for not even trying. I’m not even out of shape – I’m not a hundred-metre runner.

Being out of shape isn’t writer’s block. You need to read more and write more (yes, even writing badly, the way a runner starts by running slower times). The consumption of real ale is optional.

While we’re on the subject of writing badly, let’s remember that the defining factor in writing is putting words on the page. Any words. Many a hack carves a living out of unambitious, shoddy prose. Many a performance poet prospers through turning up to open mics with sub-par poems – but turning up, all the same. Jeffrey Archer – well, you catch my drift.

High artistic ideals are the best line of defence against actually writing anything, and often get mistaken for writer’s block. Oh, get over yourself. As though Proust, Hemingway or Shakespeare never wrote a duff line. In fact, I really mean published – who knows what doggerel never made it to print. Take heart, writer, from Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Stephen King’s Blaze, The Great American Novel by Roth. Two Gentlemen of Verona, for goodness’ sake! One never intentionally writes tosh, but neither you, I nor anyone else has the right – let alone the ability – to transcend the oftentimes tedious process of learning one’s craft. A lot of people talk themselves out of starting a piece of prose because they can’t imagine how it will be a work of staggering genius. Relax. It probably won’t be. Aspiration is laudable, but failure becomes assured if your ambition stamps out the first flames. It’s not called trying if you know you’ll succeed – but it is cowardly not to try because you might fail. Setting the bar far too high is not writer’s block.

Not knowing how to start is not writer’s block. (Solutions include automatic writing, or starting midway, or writing backwards from the end.)

Not knowing what you’re doing is not writer’s block. (Try making a structure plan, or reading extensively within the genre you hope to write, or narrowing your options, which often obliges one to be more creative.)

Everything you write seeming shit is not writer’s block.

In fact, it is the concept itself of the big, bad Block that is debilitating. Most of us writers would be far better off without it. Specificity is the key. Identify exactly what the problem is, and embrace, with honesty, the strategies for overcoming it.

Of course, it may be preferable not to face one’s demons head-on. Among the many writers I’ve met, particularly those very new to putting words down, I have no doubt that a significant number are attracted to the supposed romance of the writing life, and yet do not possess the ability, determination or perverse inclination to live in abject poverty to be successful as writers. A certain amount of denial obtains among this constituency. Without it, the fantasy would perish. So writer’s block becomes a necessary buffer; an acceptable way of obfuscating so as not to have to face facts. To this group I say: you are welcome to writer’s block. Please help yourself. You are, I think, the one group who might get some use out of it.

Because, finally, if you can find any reason not to write, then you are not a writer. Immediately, the impulse is to conjure up qualifications – I can hear readers amending the statement, all the way from here. But in writing we deal in black and white. If you are writing, you are a writer (I don’t say a good one). If you are not writing, you are neither a good writer nor a bad one – you are not a writer. We return to the image of the hundred-metre runner who comes in a clear last. I’ve got excuses by the sackload; meanwhile, he’s an athlete.

On the way back from my office, having written the above piece, I boarded the bus and was delighted to see the same bus driver as before. She was reanimated, and pulled out into the flow of traffic with something approaching relish.

“So, everything’s back to normal, I see,” I said.

She confirmed it was – assuredly so. “I realised that it was no good appending some hazy label to my lacklustre frame of mind,” she said, as she drove. “I identified the exact problem, and was thus able to address it successfully.”

“What a relief,” I said.

“And did you finish your piece on writer’s block?”

“Absolutely.” I leaned in to the plexiglass screen, to confide, “You know, that was my fourth attempt at writing it. Two versions that seemed far too bolshie, plus an incoherent one I wrote one night in an emergency ward.”

“In an emergency ward? Really?”

“Yup.”

“I suppose that perfectly illustrates the point then: that as a writer you can’t let anything stand in your way, and that only by consistently identifying and overcoming self-laid psychological snares can one stand a chance of producing writing that may, and this may almost be parenthetical to the issue of actual production, have identifiable literary value,” she said.

Reader, I married her.  SLQ

www.nquentinwoolf.com

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