The other day I was at a barbeque with a few friends and plenty of strangers, and when I mentioned that I was a writer I got the usual barrage of strange and slightly insulting questions. Questions like “Where do you get your ideas, and how do you know if they’re any good?” and “If you’re not published yet, are you really a writer?” I’m mostly used to this kind of thing by now, and have a collection of stock answers up my sleeve that satisfy even the most inquisitive soul. But this time one guy asked me a question that gave me pause. “What do you do,” he queried, “when you get writer’s block?”
Now, I think this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But there were a few things about the way it was phrased that struck me as unusual. First, he said when you get writer’s block, as opposed to if—he clearly assumed that all writers, at some point or another, are struck by the affliction of writer’s block. Second, he asked what do you do when this happens. Not when does this happen, or why does this happen, but what do you do. I’m not sure exactly what answer he was looking for (“I chant arcane incantations to the Nightmare Gods for inspiration”) but the question got me thinking a lot about writer’s block, and peoples’ perceptions of what exactly that means.
I have suffered from writer’s block. In fact, I struggle with it more than I care to admit. But I’ve never really thought of it as writer’s block, nor do I think it falls under the definition of what most people would consider to be writer’s block. When I imagine writer’s block, I think of some bags-under-the-eyes beatnik scribbling frantically on paper before crumpling the paper up and throwing the wad over his shoulder into a bin overflowing with similarly crinkled pages. (I don’t know why he has to be a beatnik, but in my mind he’s wearing all black and smoking a cigarette.) This is not how it happens for me. For me, writer’s block isn’t a lack of or poor execution of ideas, but an inability to force words out of my brain and down through my fingertips.
My blocks manifest as paralysis, a terrible inaction that prevents me from writing anything whatsoever. I might have ideas clawing at the inside of my brain, screaming to be heard. There may be words pushing up against the back of my eyeballs and poking out of my ears, but still I can’t seem to coax them out onto the paper. I might be desperate to feel productive, dying to get started on a project, but it’s no good. And the longer I go without writing, the more abhorrent the idea seems. Ugh, my fingers say, ten tiny voices squeaking in unison, ain’t nobody got time for that.
So, what do I do when this happens? Glad you asked. The only thing I can do is to to somehow get myself to start writing again, be it through trickery, coercion or bribery. Often, once I actually sit down and squeeze out those first 500 or 1,000 words on the paper, writing seems to make sense again. The ideas and the words are there, just waiting for me to pick up the pen or open the word processor. And sometimes that 500 words is all I’m going to get, but I know that I’ll have to try again tomorrow. So for me, writer’s block isn’t about not having any good ideas or lacking the right words to describe something; writer’s block is all the times I can’t seem to force my butt into the chair and just do it.
Or maybe I should just stop wearing all black and smoking cigarettes. That might help.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block, or any other kind of block? What do you do to overcome it? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!