On Writer’s Block

Writer's BlockI’ve never believed in writer’s block. That isn’t to say I’ve never had times when I couldn’t think of the next thing I wanted to write or those when I found myself becalmed in the midst of a project I had entered on a friendly breeze. What I haven’t believed in isn’t the reality but the too-neat phrase, writer’s block. As though we writers are subject to peculiar impediments that don’t visit more ordinary folk.

The concept is so universally known that when I used to visit schools I sometimes had nine-year-olds ask me whether I’d ever had writer’s block. They said the words with solemnity as though they were asking if I’d ever had cancer.

The problem with speaking of writer’s block is that by giving it a name—and who is more prone to naming than writers?—we give it an authority it doesn’t deserve. Sometimes ideas are slow to come. Sometimes a brain needs to lie fallow, to wait for warmth and light. Sometimes an idea that seemed thrilling, unique, filled with promise arrives stillborn … or worse, it dies after months and months of work. And when that happens, we need to grieve for a while—not too long, not too long—and then go looking for another idea or for a way to resuscitate the old one. Calling such a moment writer’s block only gives an excuse to stop, to turn off the source of ideas entirely.

The most difficult transition for me has always been the weeks that follow the completion of a major manuscript, the kind that has occupied my heart and head for months, maybe years. I used, each time I finished a novel, to say to anyone near enough to listen, “Well, I guess I’ll never write again.” Once I even made that statement as part of a lecture, startling my audience. But those who knew me better learned to disregard my doom. Once my partner said, “Yes, you said that after your last book,” and I was amazed. I was certain I had never before in my life been in so dark a place. And realizing that I had, had not only been there but recovered, helped me to move forward again.

One of the great advantages of MFA programs such as the Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I once taught is that they give you time and space to discover what work is yours to write. Which topics bring you to life? Which forms are best suited to your skills, your attention span, your understanding of the world? The way any writer breaks into the field, gets published, gets noticed is not by mimicking the success of other writers. It is by writing the book that lives in your soul, the book that no one else could have written. It is by taking time to discover what small part of the world is yours to own, to translate for others. And when you find those stories, writer’s block is unlikely.

The other thing to know, though, is that no unique story will remain yours for all time. You will need—we all need—to find a new uniqueness in yourself as you live and change. I have known writers who had lively careers writing middle-grade novels when their own children were passing through those years. When their children moved on, their inspiration did too.

I started out writing primarily fiction for upper elementary, early teens. I wrote for and out of that time of life because those years had been uniquely difficult for me, uniquely painful. I had a lot to say, a lot of healing to do on the page. But as I grew older, it wasn’t just that the middle schoolers around me changed—which they did in some ways—but that my own passion for those hard years dimmed. And I began to explore other forms, other ages. I could easily have fallen into writer’s block, and if I’d been willing to name my discomfort so officially, my career might, indeed, have been over as I used to predict between projects.

But I am, always, a writer. That’s how I know myself. That’s why I get up in the morning. To write. And so I searched out other niches, not just other kinds of work I might publish but other places in myself that invited exploration. Because that’s the secret of the next project … and the next … and the next. Knowing the changing stories that lie in my own heart.

It’s the secret of defeating writer’s block, too!