On coping with writer’s block (or the lies we tell ourselves along the way)
I haven’t written in a very long time.
I joined a creative writing class a while ago to help me through my ‘writer’s block’ — can you call yourself a writer if you don’t write? — and I managed to produce a total of 500 words over the entire four-week course. One of the suggestions from my fellow writers was to write about why I don’t write, which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.
In my professional life, I have been a public relations consultant, a journalist and now, an editor. Words play a big part in all of these professions, but using words professionally can also sound their death knell (which is why journalists and copywriters in England are often referred to as hacks, and why I struggled during the creative writing course to indulge in the sheer poetry and playfulness of language).
Ultimately, I call myself a writer because it’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. My love of writing and books has imprinted itself on every aspect of my life, from a natural affinity for bookshops and libraries to the deep and immediate connection I feel with other writers, my tendency to navigate the world verbally rather than visually, and the nagging sense that I am failing in something vital when I don’t write.
If you believe, as I do, that everyone has something to offer the world, then this is mine. But my body of work as a writer at this point in time is pitiful — there’s no other word for it. I’ve journaled, of course — though not regularly enough — and my computer is littered with pieces I’ve started and never finished: scraps of reviews, features, ideas for stories/blogs that never materialized.
I’ve joined and started my own writing groups, online and real world, and I’ve probably read every article on how to get writing or why we procrastinate you can imagine. I even dumped my trusty Samsung PC and invested in a gorgeous MacBook Air a couple of years ago so I could lug my computer to cafes more easily and write more. And I still haven’t mastered the art of writing consistently. Or writing at all.
This is what I’ve learned along the way.
1. Writing is hard
Ok — it’s not hard in the way that trying to pay your bills is when you’re broke, or working for a pittance, or dealing with a terminal disease, or any of the other terrible things that happen in life. But it’s hard because, if it’s going to be any good, at some point or another, you’ll be digging deep inside yourself for inspiration.
You’ll be foraging for scraps and ideas, and sometimes you’ll be venturing into the darkness — into shadowy places in the recesses of your mind or heart that you’ve kept locked away for a reason. It takes courage to do that — which is why, I think, so much great art springs from misery. When you’re already at the bottom, there’s nowhere else to go but up.
2. Writing is extra hard when you’re a perfectionist
Perfectionism is crippling, and something that’s particularly crippling, I think, for the female of the species. I don’t want to stray into the reasons for that but I do remember being struck at my first newspaper by how much quicker my male colleagues produced copy. For me, it often feels more like giving birth. Every word has to be just right and the structure and cadence have to be perfect too, which can make writing both tedious and exhausting — and very, very slow.
3. You’re baring your soul
Especially if you’re writing a personal blog but this applies all round. I still remember the anxiety I felt when my first byline appeared as a journalist. Suddenly, thousands of people were going to be reading something that I wrote (and if I was lucky and reasonably good at what I did, hadn’t been butchered by a sub having a bad day).
The best analogy I can use is that I felt strangely naked. This was actually for a local newspaper and the best riposte — then and now — to anyone getting precious about their copy is the old British adage: “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish ‘n chips paper.”
Though in our digital age, what you write is out there pretty much forever. That’s a helluva load to bear at times.
4. Writing is lonely
This might be the toughest one of all and the reason why so many freelance writers, in particular, put it off for as long as possible. The only thing that gets the majority of us moving is a deadline. Writing for any other reason is a tortuous (see point 1) and deeply lonely process that requires a commitment to sitting at your chosen writing spot by yourself for as long as it takes to produce something. And a blank page staring back at you is, quite frankly, a terrifying thing.
This is when watching terrible reality TV/cleaning the house/doing the washing up/catching up on your emails or Facebook/ tidying your wardrobe or performing just about any other mundane chore you’ve been putting off for ages suddenly becomes very appealing. Combine this with the points that I’ve listed above and it’s a miracle that anything’s produced at all.
5. Writers have the most creative excuses (or, no one rationalises like a writer)
During my times of block, I’ve come up with increasingly desperate strategies to a) either increase my output or b) explain why I’m blocked in the first place. These have ranged from getting rid of my Samsung in favour of a lighter computer (all writers fantasise about increased portability and how it will stimulate their writing) to wanting to move to a desert island or, failing that, to move my desk/adjust my writing area (since the feng shui is clearly wrong or the sun’s shining in the wrong spot), to the necessity for writing companions (hence the numerous writing groups), to subscribing to various writing sites, to reading countless articles on the sources of other writers’ inspiration, in the hope that somehow the magic will rub off.
None of this works. It’s all obfuscation or, to paraphrase both Nike and Bukowski, real writers just do it.
6. Writers’ egos are fragile
Writers, by nature, are sensitive folk and particularly vulnerable to criticism and critique, especially if we’re putting ourselves out there on a regular basis. Of course, few people will actually critique you to your face — unless you’ve hit the big time and written a bestseller or gone viral — though again, the Internet’s changed up the game and brought your readership virtually to your desk now.
I’d hazard a guess that many of us writers fear the judgment of our peers, in particular. We are also our own worst critics, especially if you’re also an editor like me. I cast a critical eye on most things I read, including my own work — when I can bear to re-read it at all.
7. Creativity and discipline are mutually exclusive
Now this isn’t strictly true or no great art would ever have been produced. But for all of the reasons listed above, and possibly a few others, our tendency is to look at the production of anything ‘artistic’ as a spontaneous process — a cathartic outpouring, if you like. As a culture, we’ve always romanticised the mad genius/tortured artist archetype, something that other artistic souls are particularly susceptible to (I can definitely attest to this).
It takes growing up to realise that writing is a craft that requires dedication and practice, and a little discipline in the process will take you an awful long way.
Ultimately, you battle your fragile ego and swallow the loneliness and misery of the process because you want to reach out and connect, as E.M. Forster famously said. Because writing is your way of making sense of the world and you’d like to — need to! — share it, in the hope that someone else out there feels the same way too. And because, in some small way, you’re repaying the countless writers, journalists and bloggers who enlivened your world for a moment, or made you think, or moved you to tears or joy or laughter, simply by choosing the right words.
The only advice for battling the block that I’ve consistently heard and that really makes sense is this: Stop making excuses and just do it. If you can inject some discipline into your writing practice, even better. Most of all, just write.
We’re writers — that’s what we do.