What Is Writer’s Block Anyway?

What Is Writer’s Block After All?

I came across this comment by Philip Pullman, a novelist of children’s books that are also much read by adults. I think he puts things into perspective: “All writing is difficult,” he begins. “The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?”

I like Pullman’s hardheaded approach, even if I do confess some empathy for the condition. But, actually, what is the condition? What do we mean when we throw around the term “writer’s block?”

If we answered that there are as many writer’s blocks as there are writers, we would be right, but that’s a completely unhelpful thing to say. Let’s go into some details instead.

I know a guy who could absolutely not write a certain thing he wanted to write (or thought he wanted to) because the characters in his story were not dead yet. More specifically, some family members. He had a bone to pick with them, a pretty big one, it would seem, but not big enough that he was prepared to let fly with what he wanted (or thought he wanted) to say. So he beat around the bush, he did nothing, he was blocked. I have a sneaking premonition that the death of the principles did not solve his block.

Other times writers wish to spare a certain friend or family member, and this délicatesse leaves holes in the writing, and writer’s block is the source of those holes. So it seems that some moral difficulty with the material is at the source of writer’s block. The same goes for the fear of our own material: we open a door, but can’t bring ourselves to walk through it. Usually that stems from a moral difficulty as well. But that’s not the case all the time.

Sometimes, we are not writing the thing we should be writing, and the lack of energy that ensues stops us up. We think the story is in one place, whereas it’s actually somewhere else. And we don’t know how to listen to what the writing is telling us because we are so sure we know what we should be doing. Here, flexibility and the skill to listen to our own sources of energy are the key to exiting the dilemma. We shouldn’t think we know too much about the project we are working on; it may yet have some surprises to spring on us. And that’s a good sign. A didactic kind of stance – I know what I need to say – often results in the block because, in fact, the real story is elsewhere.

I am a great believer in the famous last proposition of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus – not exactly bedside reading, I admit. “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence,” he said, or something close to that, since he wrote it in German, though go on the Net and you can see people are still bickering over how to say that in English. As a fiction writer, the guidance I receive from this idea runs like this: if you’re having trouble writing something, big trouble, perhaps that’s not the thing you should be writing. I use that wisdom on the level of individual sentences and paragraphs too: if they stink, and I can’t make them any better, it’s often a sign that I should abandon the particular path I have taken. If I can write it well, it means it’s the right way to go. And I can feel that, physically. Just as I can feel the near-paralysis when I’m trying to force myself into a certain wrong direction.

Admittedly, this is an art developed over time and, especially, over much self-criticism. On a more useful note, if you’re writing badly, keep writing – you can always revise. Writing badly is not writer’s block. You are simply preparing for the next draconian revision that you will undertake in a spirit of energy and hope.

I hope so, anyways…




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