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Help! I can't write!
So--you can't write today, and you're wondering if you're "blocked?" And what to do about it if you are?
Well, here's some diagnostic and therapeutic help. No guarantees--you may have come up with an entirely new form of writing trouble--but others have found the following ideas useful.
First, the taxonomy of "can't write". I like to divide the problem up by time of onset (in the writer's career and in the particular project), duration, and symptoms. This produces three main diagnoses, only one of which is true "writer's block." I call them Novice Nerves, Stuckness, and Block. Each has a characteristic pattern, and each responds best to different treatment.
Time of onset: if you are just beginning to write seriously (with intent to finish a novel, or to get published), your inability to write is not "block", but a condition I call Novice Nerves. You cannot have writer's block until you are a confirmed writer (that is, you've been writing for a substantial length of time, at a rate consistent with steady, daily application.) If you're a confirmed writer who has just changed the kind of writing you're doing (from short stories to novels, or vice versa; from one genre to another; from on-spec to on-assignment), your difficulty is very likely Novice Nerves in relation to your new performance demand.
Novice Nerves is characterized by an inability to start a project (can't get a thing on paper in spite of wonderful ideas in the head), and by intrusive concerns about your talent, your reputation, your future reviews, your future sales--in fact, by intrusive ideas about everything but the story at hand. (Intrusive concerns about the story itself are characteristic of another form of writing difficulty.) Experienced writers who have changed writing areas know that the only cure for novice nerves is the writing itself, with a firm yank of the mental leash whenever the thought of readers, publishers, reviewers, friends, or parents intrudes. Exercises normally proposed for breaking writer's block may help, but may also allow you to evade the project. Occasionally, working two projects at once can help with Novice Nerves, since you can displace the anxiety about Project A to the times you're working on Project B, and vice versa.
If the onset of a writing problem occurs while you are well into a project (say, eight chapters into your new novel) Novice Nerves is unlikely to be the problem. If your intrusive thoughts about the problem center on the project itself ("How am I going to deal with the family reunion from Pete's viewpoint? If I change viewpoints, it will suck the tension out...") then it is certainly not Novice Nerves. What's happened? You've run into the part of writing which is not fun--into the hard work of writing. I call this "being stuck" and other writers may call it "getting lost" or "being off-track."
"Stuckness" has several causes, but the most important thing about it is that the story you were telling is still alive--it's just stuck. You can feel that the story is alive, that the characters are eager to move on. You, the writer, are the one with the problem. If you work at it, stuckness resolves in less than a week (for one problem--a novel may have several patches of stuckness...I usually spend the middle months of a novel stumbling from one sticky patch to another.)
Early in your writing life, the commonest cause of stuckness is your own lack of technical skill in writing. You know what needs to be said, but you can't figure out how to do it. Like a beginner trying to build a house with only a hammer and saw and a pile of lumber, you have to work harder to accomplish the same structure. Writers can't go out and buy a new writing tool--there's no store that sells a "viewpoint transition chisel" or a "flashback installation kit."
So, when you get stuck this way, you have to make your own tools--by writing through the problem. Identify what it is that you can't do, then read books in which it is done well--and then go do it. The exercises often proposed for getting past writer's block may also work because many of them actually sharpen your writer's tools. It's fine to figure out a way to work around a skill you haven't developed yet (such as the ability to handle multiple major viewpoints) as long as you keep working. Sometimes you can jump past the stuck point, and leave it to be solved later--by the time you finish the rest of the book, you may have developed the skill you need to clean up that bit.
Another cause of stuckness hits writers with a trickle-feed imagination, those who can't outline because they don't know what happens until they write it. If you have this kind of imagination, and you are an energetic writer, then you can expect to overrun your inspiration repeatedly. When you do, you will feel "lost" or "empty". Two strategies may help. First, be sure to stop writing before you run out of steam every day--save a little for the next day, so that you know what's happening when you start the next session. Second, when you've overrun your primary vein, jump ahead in the story and see if you can find another vein to follow for awhile. You may end up having to circular-file a chapter or so, but you will enjoy writing something more than sitting there waiting for the bucket to fill.
Another, potentially more serious, cause of stuckness arises from external, non-writing causes in a writer's life. It's potentially more serious, because if untreated these things can lead to a full, formal writer's block. If you have been a solid, productive writer for some years, and you run into increasing problems with things which used to require less effort, then the cause of your writing difficulty lies outside your talent. Any serious life stressor--physical, emotional, social, economic--can suck away the energy, courage, and discipline which you need for your work. You may produce a year or so beyond the initial problem, but--if you don't take care of it--it will catch up with you eventually.
One symptom that the problem is external to your talent is the "feel" of the story...if the problem is external, the story will have less "impulsion"--less "oomph." You will find yourself trying to put "oomph" into the story, rather than being energized yourself by the story's energy. A story should not need daily resuscitation to stay alive...if it does, something is wrong.
Which leads us to the actual writer's block. To distinguish a block from stuckness or novice nerves, you have to have experienced the first two. Remember--if it's novice nerves, you have lots of ideas but can't get started, and if it's stuckness, the story is "alive"--it wants to be written and the pressure from the story being stuck is painful. In the true writer's block, there is no pressure from a live story that wants to be written. The story is dead, and you have the feeling that it never was alive. A very horrible feeling, rather like coming home to find an empty lot where your house was when you left.
Writer's block comes in two forms, a specific block (which affects only one project, or one type of writing) and a general block (which affects all writing.) The only way to tell the difference is to try writing something other than the story that died on you. Luckily, the general block (where you can't write anything, even a note to a friend) is much rarer than the specific block.
The story-specific block is easy to handle if the story isn't on contract to someone--you drop it as soon as you realize it's dead, and go write something else. But if it's a story you promised an editor, you feel anxious and ashamed and guilty. You'll be tempted to try to do CPR on the dead story--the longer you've been a professional, and the more reputation you have, the more you'll be tempted to pretend that the corpse is still breathing on its own. After all, you're a professional; you should be able to write no matter what, right?
Wrong. The longer you drag that dead story around, trying to breathe life into it, the more it will stink and the worse you will feel. Pretty soon the thought of writing anything will nauseate you--or at the very least you will lose confidence in your ability to tell live stories from dead ones. When a story dies totally, give it a death certificate. Tell the editor as soon as you know it's gone, and bury it deep. Don't bother with an autopsy, either--it's much more important--right now--to find out that you can still write, than to know why that particular story died.
Try something different. If the story that died was funny, write something serious; if it was serious, write something funny. Go for short (because long works always involve some snags, and when you're testing the size of your block, you don't want to borrow trouble.) Branch out; try different genres. If you're lucky, you'll find that the story that died was a story-specific block, and the next thing you try will pop out full of energy. (This happened to me, when a novel died, and I spent six months trying to revive it--almost as soon as I quit on that, and started a funny short story, the energy returned.)
If you can write at all, and the new stories are coming with no more difficulty than those before the block, you may have experienced a one-story block. In that case, wait several months and then do a cold-hearted analysis of the story elements so that you have some idea what kind of story died on you. (Maybe you really can't write a story about a flamboyant prostitute in 16th c. Paris...maybe you will never succeed with a police procedural...so the next time you think of starting one, you might want to think twice.) However, be aware of things affecting your life which may be affecting your creativity. A dead story is a signal (I have had two novels die completely--each time, I was able afterwards to identify significant major additional stressors.) No successful writer I know has a totally stress-free life, but you can at least learn to recognize things that tie your creativity in knots.
But what if you can't write at all? You buried the dead story...and nothing happened. No ideas. No images. Oh, maybe you hacked out a funny letter to a friend...but you couldn't write the next letter...you couldn't even post to your favorite newsgroup. An occasional idea drifts through your mind, but dies when you start to write, like a butterfly crushed by a clutching fist.
This is the big one. This is the true writer's block in its most extreme form. And the problem is not in your writing, or your sales figures, or your reviews, or the state of publishing. Writer's block of this magnitude means that something is draining away all the energy you used to apply to writing. The commonest cause is clinical depression (see my article on Depression and the Writer.) Depression is treatable, and despite the pervasive myths about creativity, you will write better, with more emotional intensity, when you are not depressed. Another cause is a change in priorities, which you have not yet recognized consciously. Even a writer who has been convinced for years that writing is his life may--as the result of some life experience--change his mind. You may want to put your creative energy into something else for awhile--you may have fallen in love with a person, with an idea, with a cause. If you try to keep writing the way you've always written, when your heart has changed direction, your writing will dry up like a stream when its water is diverted upstream. Serious physical illness, in the writer or a family member, death of a loved one, head trauma, relentless persecution or danger or poverty--all can sap creative energy.
So, if you really can't write anything, look at your life. If you are depressed, work on that. If you are nursing a dying friend or family member, work on that. If you're recovering from a head injury, work on that. And if your priorities have changed, admit that. It is no shame to quit writing in order to do something you'd rather do (most people do something else, because they would rather dig holes or drive trucks or bag groceries than struggle to get words on paper.) Try not to torment yourself with guilt: in the catalog of great sins, not writing a novel is pretty far down the list.
If you still want to write more than anything (really? OK.) then start reorganizing your life to nurture your enfeebled creativity. Take care of your physical and psychological health. If the word "block" is scary to you (it is to most of us) express your non-writing to yourself in terms of the real cause: "I'm not writing a book this year because I can't generate the energy while learning to cope with the aftermath of that car wreck" or "I'm not writing because I'm still using everything I have to survive day by day as a recovering alcoholic." Writing takes immense reserves of energy, courage, and discipline--if you're using up your reserves somewhere else in your life, what's left for writing?
If you recover from whatever blocked your talent, your talent will come back. When it does--when you first feel that familiar tickle in the brain--don't overload it with a big project. Tempt it with something easy (easy for you, whatever your level of competence is.) Be alert to any signs that the current project is going under...and abandon anything that turns flabby. Give yourself a chance to play, to recover the fun, the joy, of making things up, before you put a harness on your talent. Let it grow naturally, as it grew when you were a child. Don't be surprised if it looks different, or feels different, or wants to do different things. It's had a near-death experience and its priorities may have changed.
Now...get off the Internet, open up a file in your word processor, and GO WRITE SOMETHING. (Or not, as the case may be.)
Contents of these pages ©1996-2015 Elizabeth Moon
This essay ©1998 Elizabeth Moon