Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A Writing 101 Production - Part 7 Writer's Block (Feel the Fear)

People don't like to talk about it much (and here by 'people' I mean 'writers', obviously.)  It's as if, just by naming it one might be infected, jinxed, hexed, hoodooed, blighted, corrupted, defiled, tainted, tarnished (ok, I'm bored with the thesaurus thing now.  You get the idea).  Oh, I've had brief conversations-in-passing and discussions in hushed corners about poor so-and-so who has it ("Plague carrier--avoid at all costs" is the unspoken subtext to this). But, personally speaking (and remember, this is MY experience, so I can't speak for others) I've never sat down with a bunch of other authors and had a proper long and detailed chinwag about how it affects them.  Or doesn't. So I thought I'd break some taboos (I'm like that, me--Lucy Coats, helpful rebel and rule breaker extraordinaire) and name the forbidden name.  Here goes...
WRITER'S BLOCK
There. Did anyone die? Nope.  I checked. Absolutely no one. 

You see, I've had it.  And I've survived it. And I've gone on to write again (Hallelujah! Praise the Lord).  So what happened?  And how did I survive to scribble on?

Well, a long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.... Oh, all right. I know that's not my story--but it just sounds less prosaic than.... Six years ago my back gave out on me for the umptieth time and I had to have three major spinal operations in less than a year. I had a huge book contract at the time--lots of research, all very complicated, and a (cue scary music) d-e-a-d-l-i-n-e.  I'd never missed a deadline, not even by a day (HATE being late for anything). So it was a bit of a shock when I came out of the fog of all those mega-painkillers (some of them pretty Class A-C), and all those hours and hours of anaesthetic and slicing/dicing, (not to mention the 3 month trauma of having to wear a rigid white plastic neck to thigh corset which made me look like Boudicca's fat ugly sister) and found that I c-o-u-l-d n-o-t w-r-i-t-e.  No, really.  Not a word.  I just looked at the immensity of this particular book, and the deadline loomed closer and closer, and it became like a big hairy ugly elephant-with-fangs in the corner of the room.  The one no one mentions because it's so scary. The trouble was, I couldn't talk to anyone about it because it frightened me so much, and because I felt like such a failure.  I did finally pluck up courage to speak to my agent and my publisher, who were both really supportive, and gave me nearly an extra year to complete the contract. But I didn't admit it was writer's block (though they must have known, neither are stupid).  I just said I needed 'more time to convalesce' because I was utterly convinced they'd think less of me (and probably sack me forever/cancel the contract) if I told them the truth.  I am aware that this was irrational--but writer's block does not live in a rational place.

Now we all have days, as writers, when the page stays blank, but this was more than that.  Usually, if I can't write for a long time (because of other non-writing pressures like life, children, housework etc) I get really grumpy and snarly (I am, after all, a wolf with teeth!).  But the ideas are still there, piling up, scrambling and jostling to be first out. This was different. It was a sick emptiness in the head and the heart--an absence of idea, a lack, a missing part of what makes me myself. And of course the longer it went on, the worse it got. My muse had packed a bag and gone on indefinite holiday to parts unknown.  I was lucky, I think. Having the deadline pressure lifted meant that slowly, surely, I could dip an occasional toe in the writing water and test it for comfort.  I did a lot of research stuff at this time, got my mind back into the way of thinking-about-writing, fanned the excitement of 'what if'.  Eventually, after about 6 months, I slipped back into the ocean and was able to swim without a lifebelt, and the muse came back from her extended holiday.  But I've never forgotten how it felt--that utter desolation of the creative desert.  Trust me, 6 months can feel like an eternity. 

Now here I can see that you're going to ask why I was so hard on myself when I'd had all that pain and trauma.  I just was, ok?  And that was a very big part of the problem.  I've just had further spinal surgery (2 weeks ago), and the writing landscape is very changed because I've learned to do things differently now.

  1. I joined the Scattered Authors' Society (open to all published UK children's writers), and through them I now have a wonderful network other authors--quite a few of whom I know I could talk to privately and confidentially if I suffered with writer's block again. Or I could post it on their online forum and share it with everybody openly. A support network of people who will understand where you are coming from is essential.
  2. I have learned to be kinder to myself.  Not to beat myself up so much. Not to feel like a failure if I only write 150 words in a day instead of 1500. Or even nothing at all.
  3. I've learned that writing is infinitely malleable.  If I'm having difficulty with the novel, or series or whatever, I write something else--anything elseIt's all about keeping it going even if what you are writing is utter crapadoodly.  If I'm stuck, I don't force it, or panic (well, I don't panic MUCH).  I move onto something else for a while, until the ideas flow again. A poem. A writing exercise which will never be for public consumption. I plan this blog.  It's all about giving the muse variety to play with and keeping it interested and on my side.
  4. Because I suffer from depression too, I try and use the Flip It technique to see things in a new light. Old way: "Can't seem to write?  Oh God! You're such a failure.  Stare at the screen! Come on!  You HAVE to do this or how can you call yourself a writer.  You're such a failure."  (repeat ad infinitum until paralysis sets in). New way: "Can't seem to write today? That's fine--it'll give you an opportunity to declutter that cupboard you've been meaning to do for ages/make marmalade/go outside and see how the snowdrops are coming along! Don't stress--it'll look different tomorrow.
  5. Talking of going outside--I am the last person to advocate a brisk walk, being terminally opposed to organised exercise.  But it is true to say that pacing across the landscape (or pacing anywhere, really, even corridors) with an empty mind and open eyes can be an excellent creative trigger.  I'm coming round to this idea more and more--and it's mostly how I write my best poetry. It's also a good way to sort out a plot problem. The very act of moving the limbs somehow moves the brain along as well.
I'm now confident that I can conquer writer's block if it ever happens to me again.  I'll admit, I was scared before this latest operation because of what happened last time. This time round I don't have the deadline worry, but I've had to cancel a lot of school visits and publicity stuff for the first four books of my new and exciting Greek Beasts and Heroes series, and that's very sad for me because I don't like letting people down. But I'm not going to beat myself up about it--I'm going to concentrate on getting better and putting my own socks on without help.  Then in May, when the second part of the series comes out, I shall be firing on all cylinders.

Knowledge is power--and I know how to deal with the problem now. So I'll say this--if anyone wants help and advice,on this subject, I'm very happy to oblige.  Talking about the Writer's Block Monster--dragging it into the harsh light of day--is the best way to slay it. At least, that's what I think. Feel free to disagree. I always appreciate a good comments fight!

Bye for now--I'm off to do serious battle with the socks again and probably have a little restorative nap. Tiring, this convalescence stuff.

See all my other Writing 101 Productions

Part 1 An Overview of Author Platforms
Part 2 Author Platforms (Facebook)
Part 3 Writing Resolutions
Part 4 Spambush or Tweettack?
Part 5 To Plunge or to Plan?
Part 6 Blogging Lessons

19 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

"Writing is infinitely malleable" - exactly. And never feel guilty about it taking as long as it takes.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Well I found this utterly inspiring and its a blog I know I'll return to when I feel the dreaded block descending on my shoulder. You have overcome your demons and showed us all the way. Fantastic!

kathryn evans said...

The walking thing is absolutely true - have list count of the number of times I've walked the dog and unlocked a plot problem. Great post...very comforting!

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Brilliant post!!! I may have to print it out and stick it up on my pinboard!

Lucy Coats said...

Thank you Kath, Miriam and Kathryn. Glad to have been of inspirational/comforting value. Interestingly, as soon as I posted the link on Twitter a Very Eminent Writer said that WB 'does not exist' and is 'a self-regarding posh name for either being lazy or having no ideas'. And then another Eminent Critic and Writer weighed in disagreeing with the first Eminence. Waiting to see what happens now in slight fear and trembling. You can call WB what you like--and diss it as much as you want--but in my humble opinion it MOST CERTAINLY DOES EXIST. And I will defend that with my dying breath, having been through it. I am neither lazy nor idea-free, and I quite resent the implication!

Ann Elle Altman said...

I need to work on number two because I'm really hard on myself if I don't write everyday. But, I should learn to love myself even after 150 words.

ann

Stroppy Author said...

It's very strange, this tyranny of the fortunate.... just because someone has not personally suffered from WB is no reason to assume it doesn't exist. Would said Eminence say plague doesn't exist because she hasn't had it? Or MS? Or heart disease? Some maladies seem particularly prone to inviting such dismissive disregard for sufferers: ME was one, PTSD, Gulf War Syndrome (jury still out on that one)...

sloughofdespond said...

I agree, Lucy. When I found myself hurled into the Slough of Despond, I was completely incapable of stringing words together even in speech, never mind writing. I started my facetious misery blog to force myself to write a few words of half-way polished prose each day. Even if I could only manage 20 words I posted it (that's why the blog is called Postcards from the SoD) - needing to write a few words each day kept me from being totally blocked. And slowly the writing has come back. And now I have story ideas again, and even if I'm not actually writing them I can see that I'm starting to chip away at the block. Just hope I find an angel in the block ...

Lucy Coats said...

Yes, Ann Elle. If they are 150 words you are satisfied with, better than 1500 you want to throw in the bin. It's not an exact science this writing business. You can set yourself goals, as with any job, but the brain is not a machine to churn out words like metal pins. As I said, if it's not going well, don't beat yourself up--leave it for a while and either write something else or take a break. Sometimes ideas need to sit in the creative cauldron and simmer for a while before they are ready to come out. Like a good stew!

Lucy Coats said...

Stroppy--I have invited Eminence to a debate here, because it is hard to be measured and polite in 140 characters on Twitter. But yes--just because you haven't had empirical experience of something doesn't mean that it is irrelevant and non-existent as far as others are concerned. I have, in fact, suffered from ME. Another nail in my coffin? I certainly remember how fighting the perceptions of that felt when I could barely crawl upstairs.

SOD--my point exactly. Little and often and different is what helps. I wish I had known that earlier instead of trying (and failing for a long time) to tackle that huge project head on. This is what I am trying to do here with opening the discussion on Writer's Block (or whatever label you might like to give it)--help people to get through it by telling them what helped me. Clearly, from the mail I have been getting, there is a need.

Thanks to everyone for their comments--I really appreciate the time you have taken. Hopefully there will be more to come.

Nicola Morgan said...

I'm not sure why anyone would deny that it exists when so many people (including me) experience it sometimes. It's an internal experience, and not one you would be deceived about. Like feeling sad - only the person experiencing it knows what the feeling is. I wonder what I should call the feeling of not being able to write, of not knowing whether any idea will ever come again, of not being able to get the right bit of the brain working. Obviously, no one dies of it, and there's no medicine, but I don't think we're claiming it's a medical condition anyway! It's the opposite of creative flow - or are we to say that doesn't exist either? OK, so maybe we can moan about it too much, and obviously it's not a world-shattering problem, but we're not saying it's world-shattering anyway.

I just am not sure that I understand what someone means by saying there's "no such thing" as writer's block. Lucky writers who don't experience it, is all I can say, but I don't need to experience something myself to believe that others might. I don't believe that everyone's internal world is the same as mine.

I'm not going to wring my hands about it in some kind of romantic poety way, because in world terms it's trivial - but I will stand up and say that I know it exists because I've had it. You can call it something else, if you like, but whatever you call it, I have had it. Not often, and I've always got there in the end (we all do), but I don't like it when it comes.

Jo Treggiari said...

I haven't had any longterm writer's block and I've decided that even on those days that I don't actually work on my WIP, I'm still thinking about it (so that counts), but I do know that if I go more than two days without working on it I turn into a raving Bitc..a stroppy cow. I structure my time as much as I can (I subscribe to the 1000 words a day thing); I'm flexible when I have to be; I count writing my blog and to some extent commenting on other people's blogs, twittering, etc...as all part of the writing package. I don't beat myself up with guilt anymore.
I'm not sure how I would handle an enforced (something like 2 broken hands or a back operation) break from writing. I'd probably lapse into depression and then hopefully read a lot and get the urge again.
Perhaps part of fighting writer's block is admitting that it's there?
I hope you are feeling better, Lucy!

kathryn evans said...

No Jo, am sure you'd just buy a dragon and dictate...Stroppy - the Tyranny of the Fortunate! So apt....

kathryn evans said...

AH - just caught up on Twitter. So, I have never suffered with WB, not really, though have had congestion, plenty of times, which is usually clearable with a kick up the arse or a good brisk walk.

Seems to me your Eminence is making the same fundamental error as assuming depression is just an exaggerated form of being a bit down.

I should think, and am willing to stand corrected here, a good brisk walk is about as useful to someone with true WB as it is to someone with depression. Might be part of the strategy but ain't never gonna be the whole cure.

When someone is crushed, kicking them up the backside isn't going to help.

Time, patience, kindness, understanding.....

Lucy Coats said...

Nicola--as you so rightly say, everyone's experience of this is different, which is why, in a way, it is so very hard to pin down--in the same way that it is impossible to describe once-and-for-all-time how the emotion of sadness feels for everyone. For one it may be a stone in the heart, for another a grey fog of misery. Also, as you say, nobody will die from WB. In the schema of world miseries it is a very minor thing. War, famine, poverty, disease--all these and more are far far more important. BUT--and I think you will agree--if there is one writer in history who has NOT, even for a minute or an hour or a day, had that moment of fear when they wonder if or when the ideas will wither and die, I will eat my best very posh wedding hat with feathers. Whatever you call it--and I am coming to discover that Writer's Block is an unhelpful and emotive label--those times of fear and inability to write are, for some of us, as real as the fingers we type with. I too do not see how it can be denied. Like you, I'm not going to wring my hands about it--I'd prefer to put the lessons I've learned into action and 'get there in the end', which is, after all the point of this post!

Jo--'Perhaps part of fighting writer's block is admitting that it's there?' Absolutely! That is half the battle won already! Rather than moping in a chair for days or weeks moaning that the words have gone AWOL, be clear-sighted about what is going on, admit what is happening, and take action as detailed above in my 5 points. Or whatever works for you--as I have said (perhaps ad infinitum) everyone is different. And yes, I agree with Kathryn. You WOULD buy a dictation dragon (and a brilliant idea that is too!).

Dorothy said...

Isn't this the truth we all have those times and sometimes it feels like it's forever. Great thoughts to guide us through the dark times.

Dorothy from grammology
grammology.com

Jo Treggiari said...

For goodness sakes, tell me quick where to buy this dragon! With two free hands I could knit and dictate, peel foil from chocolate truffles and dictate, drink from a 2 handed flagon of wine and dictate...

Lucy Coats said...

Jo--these dragons are tricky creatures, as I know from my current adventures with Arthur Paindragon (currently gnawing my leg in a rather too enthusiastic manner). They are more trouble than they are worth, believe me. And of course dictation dragons are horribly expensive to keep, demanding string and sealing wax and other fancy things on tap at all times.

Sarah Callejo said...

What a moving and insightful post. I found this very inspiring and I will certainly come back here when I need it.

 
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