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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Writer's Block

Recently I visited a couple of blogs new to me on which the owners had posted thoughts about writer's block. The thing is I have never been able to make up my mind whether I believe in the existence of it or not. It goes without saying that there are times when, for one reason or another, writers find themselves unable to write, or unable to write to their usual standard. It must happen to most folk who are engaged in work that comes from the firing of neurons in the brain - or, indeed, the body - and that covers just about all of us. After my visits, it so happened that I then sat down with The Guardian, and there was my favourite (equal-favourite!) columnist, Hilary Mantel, pointing out that the advice from the old writing hand to the somewhat greener version has always been to just get writing, write anything, simply to get the flow going again. (You can always knock it into shape later!) The old hand, though, often finds it difficult, if not impossible , to take his own advice. The reason, she thinks, lies in the nature of the beast, in his characteristic desire to have his cake and to eat it, in his inability to commit to a line of development because once you do that you are throwing out so many other potentialities. Once you sketch in a line of thought and begin to develop it, you are already committing yourself to it, if only partially. It begins to assume the weight of something that is predestined.

I have typed the above from memory, but think (hope) I have stated her case fairly. It sounds a likely explanation to me. Select your plot, your standpoint, whatever it is, from those buzzing, jostling, or just ghosting around inside your head, and the rest become also-rans, in theory they could still be there at the finish, but it is unlikely. In practice they will not get a look-in. And - dreadful thought - among them maybe the one with most potential, even the top ten may have been binned in the process! And the artist is as fearful of confronting the virginally white canvas as is the writer his sheet of paper. I can see all that. I can see how it might happen that way, though not for me. I'm slipping away from novels and paintings now, to poetry, you see. Does that make the difference? I think it might. It was consistently drummed in to us at art school that if you can see an object, really SEE it, you can draw it. That is in part what the Picasso bulls were about in my recent post Picasso Stuff. Really see the line of stress and you will be able to convey the character of the bull. Similarly, for me there is no chance of throwing down some words and then sorting them out later. For me, if you can see your hoped-for subject in poetic terms you have the possibility of a poem developing. If not, you might as well write something other than a poem. Many better poets than I would disagree, though Seamus Heaney for one might not. I am currently reading Stepping Stones. Thus far (I am only on Chapter 2 it is bio/autobiographic, but told in an interview format. In answer to one question, Heaney speaks of there having been great rivalry between Mahon, Longley, himself and others to come up with a worthy poem for MacNiece's grave. He quotes MacNiece's saying that there are poems you are given to write and poems you would like to write. That was a poem Heaney would have liked to write.

I have several volumes of those. The question is: are they all victims of my writer's block? or are they that only if and when I try to write them down and fail? Or maybe (and Mantel mentions this herself), maybe there are no thought lines, no ideas, no potential plots or images buzzing or ghosting around in the would-be author's head. Maybe he has written himself out, temporarily or permanently, maybe the well is dry. If so, is that a form of writer's block? It doesn't sound like one to me. Block sounds like an obstruction, an impediment of some kind barring the egress of something that is struggling to get through. But if there is no something... Mantel mentions that it would be cruel to suggest that, and she may well be right, though that may depend on whether the problem is a passing one or a permanent condition.

38 comments:

Tom Atkins said...

I suspect that there is such a thing as writer's block, but I also know there (from experience) that there are definite ways to push past it, and they are not so hard, but they do take a certain discipline. Some writers are inclined towards that discipline, others are not. Blocks are like any other barrier in life. Take some time to examine it, and there is almost always way around, over, or through it.

John Hayes said...

I very much like the line, "there are poems you are given to write and poems you would like to write," & I believe it to be true. I know there have been certain subjects/incidents/language I've wished to treat poetically that to this day I've been unable to complete. & I do think there's a lot of merit in the "write your way out of it" concept, tho in my experience this works more effectively with prose than poetry. Interesting post, as usual.

Patrice said...

If there is a writer's block, then there is also a painter's block and a creative block.

Like many artists I know, I've had times when there were no "ready" images waiting to emerge - and yet so often the urge to make something is strong. The solution? Do something. Just as your and your commenters have said, beginning leads to process which leads to further exploration.

I learned many years ago that for me, this "block" passes quickly as soon as I begin to draw or paint, or even to write! My process is to get it down, and then edit, edit, edit, no matter whether writing or making art.

Jenn said...

Its funny but I never liked to refer to it as a 'block' either, generally I call it a 'writer's rest'. For a temporary period of time (which for me has been anywhere from 1 day to two years) my brain retreats back from seeing with its third eye because it needs to rest and rejuvinate. It is just that sometimes that kind of work is exhausting and the old body needs a break. Once I allow my mind's eye to do the visualizing again I am right back on track (so I guess I agree with that theory).

During the resting period I try to locate whatever inspiration I can find that speaks to me and store it up for when I'm ready again. It also helps to keep a boredom journal where I scribble down random thoughts that come to mind. It is the only journal in which I write in pencil.

Thought provoking post and I guess that is good for the writing :)

As a side note, I am truly enjoying your poetry so whatever is causing that to happen I for one do not see it as a bad thing!

Rachel Fox said...

'Really see the line of stress'...ooh I like that. Now there's a poem waiting to be written...and read.

As for writer's block...there are so many people writing now that writer's block is probably the collective consciousness saying 'no more, no more...go away and just think for a bit...it's getting so noisy here!"

Bit rich coming from me, obviously.

x

Bill Stankus said...

I don't accept the concept of writer's block. But I do believe nothing is ever in a steady state. There are ups and downs, good ideas and bad ones. Also, the degree of other "stuff" that impinges on one as tasks are attempted can either accelerate or negative creative efforts.

I think the concept of writer's block is an excuse, not a cause.

Shadow said...

wirters block, lack of inspiration, physical illness, lack of energy or desire, distractions, lack of (self)discipline, all, none, it happens. free writing works for me. so does writing down ideas as and when they pop into my head. but as you wrote here, then there as so many ideas and that in itself can frighten me off... mmmmm, everyone needs a holiday too, even from writing. maybe that's what's needed? a break?

Derrick said...

Hi Dave,

I have trouble writing my name half the time, so it might be more appropriate to think of the block as a dam, which for me manages to overflow every now and then!

Artist Unplugged said...

Perhaps it should be called "dry write". I'm not a writer, an artist and I do know when my mind seems to be a blank canvas, to do anything creative and to push through it is helpful. Interesting thoughts!

willow said...

It's the ebb and flow of life and dealing with our physicalities and surroundings. I think some people suffer more than others with it and have to put more effort into overcoming it.

I have a Seamus Heaney poem loaded up and ready to post for later this week.

Cecile/DreamCreateRepeat said...

The choice of the word "block" implies that there is something stuck behind it. Maybe that choice hides the fear that there is really nothing there...

Totalfeckineejit said...

Well Dave I believethe term writers block to be a bit of a misnomer, it suggests something is in the bottle but cannot for whatever reason get out.Maybe other forms of writing are different but poetryfor me comes from nowhere,it certainly does not come from deep within me.I don't know where it comes from and there in lies the problem and the fearthe lack of control.As soon as a poem is finished the panic of 'will there ever be another one?' sets in.A poem for me stems from what i can only (inadequately)describe as a mood.I think there is a universal creative mood that can manifest itself as a painting a poem or any so called art. If Iam writing I am disinclined to take photographs and vice versa as it is the one creative urge and either will satisfy it but not both.But then trying to figure where 'art' comes from is like trying to figure the meaning of life- only harder.For me perhaps Lorrie Moore in her short story'Dance in America' comes closest to nailing a definition, (in this case relating to dance but it is I believe universal across the creative board)when she says'dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom' Thats close enough for me.
Trouble is ask me the same question tomorrow and you will probably get a totally different answer, because I don't really know anything at all-isn't that great?

Lady Glamis said...

Writer's block, to me, takes practice to get out of. A lot of times I just have to be creative and move on past it or around it or under or over.

I love your thoughts on art and poetry. Heaney is one of my favorite poets.

A Cuban In London said...

First things first. Nice to see that you are a fellow 'Guardianista'. I suppose we'll swapping tips on which brand of sandals to buy for the summer and our favourite muesli :-).

Joking apart, the best advice I have heard re writer's blog (along the same lines of Mantel's) was by the late Cuban film-maker Humberto Solas. He famously said: 'When other directors tell me that they have run out of ideas, I just tell them to get out of the house and live'.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Art Durkee said...

I agree with you, Dave, I'm not sure there is such a thing as writer's block. Oh, I'm sure some writers experience whatever they think that is. But I wonder about why they're really stuck.

I've written before on my own blog about crop rotation (switching between creative modes when one seems temporarily dried out) and fallow periods (resting periods between surges or peaks of creative output). I agree with your comment: "For me, if you can see your hoped-for subject in poetic terms you have the possibility of a poem developing." That makes sense to me. I think a lot of writers view it as heretical, though, and think that one must rewrite zillions of times to polish something. I was once in a writer's group where two or three folks found it impossible to believe that my first draft of a poem could need so little revision! :) I think there are a lot of ways to work, and while the process matters, my process isn't any superior to anyone else's, and vice versa.

I also agree that sometimes what blocks a writer or painter is TOO much possibility. The blank page is TOO open, filled with TOO many choices. Some writers can't get started because too many options are available, and too many decision-trees lead to choices they don't want to make permanently. I've seen people stuck in those I-can't-start dilemmas myself. But I think the cure for that does lie in the advice to just do something, anything, just to get back in the flow. It's reminder that all writers, as long as they start from or stay in beginner's mind, can find something to put down.

lakeviewer said...

When I first began writing, (as in fictional works) I thought I knew what it was that I wanted to say. It turns out, each time I start a piece, including this commentary, I do not know what it will look like at all. The shaping, like working with clay, I suppose, comes out of our intuitive forming something as we go along. Then, once there is a shape, we recognize and develop it further.

Writer's block is really about motivation, putting the hand and the thought at each other's service. It helps to get motivation by being around others who are prolific and upbeat. This blogging experience works for me.

Bee said...

I am the Guardianista #3!

I think that Writer's Block is a catch-all term that sometimes means the creative well is dry; sometimes means that the writer still can't see clear to what he/she wants to write; sometimes means plain ol' laziness. I will say this, though: sometimes the words flow, and sometimes they really, really don't.

Interesting musings, Dave.

Jeanne said...

So, and I'm distilling this down way too far, writers' block is caused by a surfeit of possibilities and the inability/unwillingness to commit to some and abandon others. Interesting, because it always feels like it's caused by a lack of possibilities!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Whether it is permanent or a passing condition Dave I think depends upon the circumstances. I remember Iris Murdoch in the very early stages of Alzheimers, long before it was diagnosed, saying that she felt that somehow the muse had deserted her.
I am not sure whether I believe in writer's block - I do know for sure that I can find all manner of excuses for not starting to write something - once I get started it is OK but getting to the stage of sitting down to start - that is another matter entirely.

Kilauea Poetry said...

Great thought provoking post-
"throwing out so many other potentialities"
you said ".. you can see your hoped-for subject in poetic terms you have the possibility of a poem developing"

I had -"an impediment of some kind barring the egress of something that is struggling to get through" you might say.
Sometimes life what often becomes a crisis- reminds me of giving birth?
I was at that stage.. but the last issue was the pang that brought forth the words that I had been only formulating. Both family situations I might add.. but very real out there just the same-

stu said...

Whenever we start on writer's block, we hit that weird space where we have to work out just how inspiration, craft and effort contribute to the overall result.

Joanne Licsko said...

So many interesting comments! I am reminded of Tai Chi practice where one becomes aware of expansion and contraction. Both are equally important.
Breathing - inhalation and exhalation both equally important.
With all creative endeavors both input and output should be in balance.
Sometimes we must put down the pen or the brush and step out into the stimulus, absorb, fill up and then return when we feel the need to express.

Butler and Bagman said...

I think writer's block is the fear that comes when you take what you want to write (as opposed to what you are given to write) too seriously, and you frighten yourself with your own expectations. Sometimes the key is to start writing something else, anything else, and see if you can ease yourself around the block and back into what you wanted to say. And having said that, I'm not sure it makes as much sense as I thought when I started it.

hope said...

I think "writer's block" is simply your brain's way of saying, "Excuse me but I need a nap. Do you mind?"

:)

Jim Murdoch said...

With me it's not an inability to write. I can write anywhere and any time. My problem is writing about what I want when I want. A book is like a mathematical problem. There exist many where people slog away for years in an attempt to solve them. It doesn't stop them being great at what they do but certain problems just refuse to be solved. For the last two years I've picked away at my current novel with no real success and yet during that time I've written some of my best poetry ever. Go figure.

Until a writer knows how they writer it's going to be hard to figure out when they can't.

Lyn said...

What's worse than writer's block?..when I'm starting to write like someone else, when the body snatchers are at work, stealing my style, implanting fake artistry, till I become fed up with being a phony, stop, and...who knows?

The lady in Red said...

Block is just a limit or a frightening of making mistakes. It is simple, just write or paint. Just put out everthing into you. Like a catarses.. Maybe it is a "crises" from the artist. Who knows?

Best wishes,
Rosana

Conda V. Douglas said...

Hilary Mantel has a point about "limitations" leading to writer's block. I think I have that difficulty sometimes beginning a new novel...not so much in the shorter pieces, for somehow I believe I can toss 20 pages and begin fresh again. Probably not all that true for why would I sometimes have trouble editing short pieces if it were?

Cloudia said...

Your musings are richer than many another writers' completed work!
Aloha-

Dave King said...

Tom
Welcome. You put it much as I am inclined to put it most of the time, but still I get these moments when I wonder if we deceive ourselves. Perhaps it is a little more simple than we make it out to be. Much thanks for your contribution.

John
I, too ,was struck b y the MacNeice phrase which seemed to ring assenting bells in me. Thanks for the feedback.

Patrice
I very much agree with your first sentence. I think both suffer from the same condition - whatever that condition might be. There does seem to be general agreement about "writing your way out of it", though for me, I would be inclined to say "composing my way out of it" eg walking around or doing something else whilst com posing it in my head - though that doesn't work for drawing and painting.

Jenn
"Writer's rest"... I like that! And an extremely interesting comment. Thanks very much for it.

Rachel
A lovely comment. Thanks. Don't quite see the significance of your final sentence, though.

Bill
I certainly think "writer's block" can be an excuse. I do also recall that at art school there were a few students who were inclined to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. it tended not to. Dead lines could be an effective cure.

Shadow
Back to writer's rest. The idea is growing on me. Maybe Health and Safety at Work ought to lay down a few guide lines?

Derrick
You wait... I REALLY have trouble writing my name these days!

Artist Unplugged
Dry write might be a more positive approach. I think I agree.

Willow
Yes, I was listening to The Book Program the other evening and writers were discussing where they write. Some appear to need very precise and controlled conditions, others can write anywhere. It may be part of the same phenomenon.

Cecil Dream Create Repeat
I tend to agree . That must be a possibility.

Totalfeckineejit
I agree with you where poetry is concerned, except I would be inclined to say that it comes from nowhere deep inside you. But yes, I know the panic: will there ever be another one? I also agree about mood, though trying to figure it out, to explain it or advise another how to control it is like trying to explain or describe what you must do within your brain to lift your right arm.

I do like the hurt/boredom explanation, though.

Lady Glamis
Thanks for those thoughts. Heaney is the poet I keep going back to.

A Cuban in London
Excellent advice from Solas. Thanks for that.

Art Durkee
I really like your crop rotation analogy. That makes a lot of sense to me. I also agree that writers (as artists) can be put off by too many possib ilities. I used to find when painting that I could get round that b y imposing some restrictions, give myself an awkward shape to fill, etc.
The comment that all can find something to put down is well said. Maybe it ought to become a mantra.

LakeViewer
I absolutely agree with your second paragraph. Well said.

Bee
I definitely think that is so, as well. Thanks for the feedback.

Jeanne
Often by a great emptiness.

Weaver of Grass
I certainly know that experience from my painting.

Kilauea Poetry
Yes the way in which life situations impinge and are seen to impinge can be critical.

Stu
Welcome, and thanks for commenting. I guess that is what it mostly boils down to, yes.

Joanne Licsko
Welcome to my blog. Your final sentence is well worth remembering. Thanks for the feed back.

Butler and Bagman
It certainly does work that way, very often.

Hope
And why not, indeed?

Jim
I do recall in my childhood whenever I was really stuck on, say, a maths homework problem, my dad would always recommend looking at it again in the morning, or having cup of tea, or didn't I ought to be checking my bike for the morn ing? It used to infuriate me - but it nearly always worked. I sometimes now get anidea for a poem and jot down a few lines and then toddle off to bed - even though I could have written more. I reacha point hat which I think: any more and they won't be my lines, I will be grinding them out. Enogh's enough for now.
I very m uch agree with your last sentence.

Lyn
I think we've all felt like that at times, too. Is it so different, though. Maybe it's just a way out.

Lady in Red
Yes, thanks for that.

Conda
Sometimes it seems that what we think is true is more influential than the actual truth, don't you think?

Cloudia
My musings often ARE my complete works - but thanks for the comment.

Sarah Laurence said...

I’m lucky not to get writer’s block, but there are some days that go better than others and some projects that are easier and seem to write themselves. I think regular blogging keeps me limber for my creative writing. I also have the time when I can’t write, due to raising kids, that I use to think, and then I’m ready to write. Maybe having less time, makes me more efficient. Everyone writes differently though. Interesting post!

Art Durkee said...

Perhaps off topic, perhaps not, I wrote a poem last year about confronting the blank page, and all its complex and difficult possibilities:

Dukkha

Maybe that's totally inappropriate to post here, I hope not, and at the moment it seems like maybe an example of a response to the situations you've talked about here.

Gwen Buchanan said...

I believe... Sometimes we just need to rest our minds and let them empty a bit so there is room for new thoughts to enter. it's ok to do that!!!

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

I want to write a comment, but nothing is coming to me - I don't know what to write!!

jk- sorry, I couldn't resist.

McGuire said...

I have never suffered from writers block, but if I may be so vulgar, the opposite is writers diorrhea.

Works both ways I suppose.

Dave King said...

Sarah
I'm not sure what has misfired here, but I distinctly recall responding to this comment.
I feel very much as you do. In my quieter moments I am sure I do not get writers block, but if I have a lean period idea-wise there's maybe a touch of panic and I begin to wonder... Blogging, I find gives me deadlines, flexible ones, but deadlines just the same. I find they help, and although the blogging leaves me with less available time, I do get more other work done. Thanks for your input.

Art
As noted above, I KNOW I have answered this before! I do not think the poem off topic, and certainly not inappropriate. I do believe I see where you're coming from, if I might use the cliche. Thanks for the response.

Gwen
Very well said. I am sure that is so.

K. Lawson Gilbert
Let me give you a stimulus word: ASSUREDLY. (I just looked down at the desktop and saw it!)

McGuire
Think I prefer the block!

Louise said...

I agree with your very first assertion that writer's block doesn't exist. Write, write anything, has always been advice that has served me well.

Dave King said...

Louise
Thanks for that, it seems to be something a great many can agree with.