Writer's Block—Myths & Realities
Much has been written about the dreaded condition known as Writer’s Block. We sweat over it. We fear it as if it were a wild animal that might somehow, someday, wander past our office door, curl up under our desk and decide they like it there very much thank you, and they aren’t leaving until our life is utterly ruined.
But does writer’s block actually exist?
Not according to fantasy author Terry Pratchett:
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
I’m inclined to agree.
There is such thing as setting yourself up for failure. There is most certainly something called procrastination. There is ineffective self-talk and the reality of putting too much pressure on yourself to write something brilliant and perfect and never-to-be-forgotten. But writer’s block? No. That’s a made-up thing.
William Faulkner wrote:
“The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.”
And Scott Berkun said:
“It’s not the fear of writing that blocks people, it’s fear of not writing well; something quite different.”
What we call writer’s block is more like the fear of making a great big mess on the page that you’ll then have to spend months, if not years, cleaning up. It’s the fear of not getting it right the first time. It’s the fear of having wasted your time.
Welcome to novel-writing
The reality is, writing a novel does not come with any guarantees. How do you know if you have a good idea? You don’t. Not every idea a writer gets is a good one. Some of them are crap and deserve to be thrown in the garbage. I know. I’ve wrestled my share of crappy ideas into the trash can.
But say you do have a good idea. How do you know if it will work? You don’t. What if you have to write fifteen drafts before you figure it out? If all it takes is fifteen drafts, you’re doing well.
I’m working on a book like that right now; so is a friend of mine. They’re based on strong premises; we know they are. Both of us have twisted our ideas into various forms, trying and failing to get it right. This has been going on for years.
So, I felt extremely validated when I found this quote by Mark Twain:
“There are some books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written—it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and, if you fail to find that form, the story will not tell itself.”
This is art. Art is messy. It’s experimental. It takes both courage and determination. You might spend fifteen years working on something that nobody wants. You might not make any money at it for a long time. You might never make any money at it. Vincent Van Gogh didn’t. Edouard Manet didn’t. Emily Dickinson didn’t.
But hopefully you haven’t chosen this profession for the money.
Overcome writer's block... by writing
When your novel doesn’t live up to what you’d imagined it would look like, it hurts. It might make you not want to write anymore. But that’s what a first draft is.
If this creates an I can’t do it block, consider what Cheryl Strayed has said:
“Writing is hard… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”
That’s a bit of tough love, but she isn’t wrong. We writers can be a whiny bunch, but maybe we should stop trying to cheat the process. Imagine what that would look like if we were carpenters. Imagine what it would sound like if we were violinists.
I was listening to an interview recently with George Saunders. He mentioned that one of his short stories came to him in a dream, and he got out of bed, sat down, and wrote the whole thing out in one sitting.
If any writer reading this thinks that’s the end of that story, they would be very wrong. Saunders added that he then spent years turning the work into something publishable. Not one or two more drafts. YEARS. And this is a short story, not a novel. Does he complain about this in the interview? Absolutely not. In fact, that wasn’t even the point of what he was talking about. The "years" part was taken as a given. That’s the process if you want to produce anything of lasting value.
Good things take time. And writing, like any craft, involves an apprenticeship period. It’s not a block. It’s a learning curve. Embrace the mess. Accept that it will take longer than you think to clean it up and you’ll never be blocked again.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.