It’s happened before. I’m moving along at a fairly steady pace and suddenly . . . what’s that? A brick wall? And what’s my nose doing pressed up against it?
The popular term for the experience is “writer’s block.” Even grade-school children have heard of it and consider it a serious disability. “Do you ever get writer’s block?” they used to ask solemnly back in the days when I went out to schools. And I suppose I have, though it’s a term I’ve always refused to use. There is something about putting a name on what I prefer to think of as a temporary inconvenience that sanctifies it, gives it power. Like declaring every stubbed toe to be “stumbling disease.”
But whatever it’s called or not called, here it is again. I’m moving along in my young-adult novel, Blue-Eyed Wolf. I’ve just completed some active scenes, scenes I had looked forward to writing. I have my character exactly where I want her. I can see my way through pretty clearly to the end of the novel and . . . I can’t seem to move into the next scene.
I go back to the beginning to consider where the story has come from. I examine my characters and their places in the story, what they have to offer. I ask a couple of thoughtful readers to look at what I have down so far. I listen to what they have to say and find that, while I agree with their suggestions, I don’t seem to have an ounce of energy left to bring to the page.
So what do I do in the midst of this “temporary inconvenience”? I put the manuscript down, settle myself in a comfortable chair . . . on the deck in these glorious summer days, and begin to read the very best novel I can lay my hands on. Or several of them.
I’m not looking for some other writer to come up with an idea that will work in my story, of course. I’m not even reading to note how they apply their craft, though I am watching every element of craft with a sharp eye. (Note, for instance, how Ann Patchett enlivens The Magician’s Assistant halfway through by revealing astonishing new information about a central character’s past.) What I’m really reading for, though, is to feel at my very core how this business of making up characters and getting them to interact with one another on the page can move me. I want to discover again how stories can make me laugh or cry or hold my breath in apprehension or sigh with satisfaction. I read to be immersed in, excited by, completely taken over by story.
What I’m searching for is heart, the kind of energy that propels others writers into their stories and keeps them there, that makes a story feel like a magnet to which the iron filings of plot and character simply fly. And in this round of that search I’ve read several books. The last I picked up was Toni Morrison’s immortal Beloved.
Now, please understand. I’m not reading to compare my work with Toni Morrison’s. We all know where such a comparison would end. I’m reading to rediscover the worth of my own small endeavor. Reading a novel as perfect as hers tells me once more that this silent, solitary work I do every day is worth every silent, solitary minute I commit to it. I don’t often re-read—there is so much out there I haven’t yet had a chance to discover—and I chose Beloved remembering little beyond how deeply it had moved me when I read it long ago and how universally it is loved. And it worked. Halfway through my reading I found myself ready to fly back to my own work. The rhythm of Morrison’s language, the depth of her insights, the raw beauty of her characters reconnected me with myself. And it’s only when I can connect with myself that I can connect with my story. And once I can connect with my story I’m ready to face page 161.
Writer’s block? No . . . a writer’s brief pause to replenish. That’s all.