Tag Archives: writer’s block

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!

Writer’s Block?

lawn chair readingOn page 161 I discovered that I had forgotten how to write a novel.

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.