June 5, 2015

Writer's Blocks

        Last year I saw some smug science-trivia thing stating all condescendingly that the moon doesn’t really look bigger at the horizon, which you can prove by holding out a quarter at arm’s length and comparing it to the disc of the moon when it’s at the horizon, and again when it’s higher in the sky.  I was quite astonished by the stupidity of this statement.  After all, if you’re telling me the moon isn’t really physically larger when it’s at the horizon, well, yes, I knew that.  No one was ever suggesting that the real moon actually grows and shrinks through the evening.  And if you’re telling me the moon doesn’t look bigger, I can only reply with perfect confidence, yes it does.  And if it doesn’t to you, it certainly does to me.  I know my perception, and for you to try to tell me I don’t feel what I feel is just stupid (as well as arrogant.)  And so with the people who love to say “There’s no such thing as Writer’s Block.”  Of course there’s something.  Sometimes people feel stuck, and to tell them they don’t really feel stuck is stupid and arrogant.  Likewise, to say that you should “just get over it” is about as helpful as telling someone to “just stop worrying,” probably the most futile words ever spoken.  That said, having writer’s block doesn’t mean you get to blame your writing problems on outside forces beyond your control, so that you can sit passively back and do nothing about it.  The first job is to examine this phrase “writer’s block” and see what the phenomenon is all about, because the problem isn’t writer’s block as much as it’s writer’s blocks.
        This post is not about 7 Tips to Cure Writer’s Block.  I don’t have any new wisdom to add to the extensive self-help literature already out on the subject.  Nevertheless, breaking down writer’s block into writer’s blocks may also be quite helpful in getting unstuck.  So the first way to break it down is the difference between facing resistance and being empty.  If you can’t seem to get going on any ideas, is your feeling one of having to fight resistance, or do you feel like there are simply no ideas there to work toward?  If the former, you need to show up to work and do what you can: writers write.  But if the latter, you need to get away from the desk and refill, recharge, refresh: an engine can’t run without fuel.
        Some people categorize writer’s blocks by the psychological issues causing them.  Is it fear of rejection or criticism that’s holding you back?  Perfectionism?  Stress or depression in other parts of your life?  Are you distracted by email, ringing telephones, children, or other things going on?  There’s a psychological theory that under various sorts of stress, the brain shifts control away from the cerebral cortex, thus making creativity, which is dependent on the cerebral cortex, harder (if not impossible.)  The psychological issues of fear, stress, and lack of focus are those that call forth the armies of positive thinking and self-affirmation.  I certainly can’t help you with that!
        The phenomena of writer’s blocks can also be usefully broken down by the type of problem you’re facing in your particular piece of writing.  Are you staring at a blank page unable even to begin?  Have you stalled out in the middle of a story?  Is it the characters or the action that seem to be stuck, or is it that the two won’t work together?  Has your story veered off course, or have you changed your mind about where it should be headed, and you can’t seem to wrench it back onto the tracks?  Are you trying to write about something that simply doesn’t interest you?  Maybe you just can’t figure out what should happen next?
        I can’t tell anyone how to fix their writer’s block (heck, I can’t even fix my own), and I can only say that, surely as the moon looks huge at the horizon, writer’s block can loom over the landscape.  But unlike a big, luminous moon, writer’s block brings no delight to the soul.  In fact, it utterly stinks.  It feels frustrating, aching, infuriating, futile, desolate…  There are a number of things to try that may be helpful, ranging from getting out and away to take a walk, to chaining yourself to the desk and free-writing whatever drivel you can manage.  You can brainstorm, you can skip to another part of your piece, you can write a scene from a different character’s perspective, you can imagine what your characters would write in their own essays on the topic of “What I Really Want to Do.”  You can also try acupuncture, self-hypnosis, chocolate, exercise, or whatever else works for you.  Go ahead and acknowledge that you’ve got Writer’s Block.  But don’t stop there and passively wait for the muses to show up with their magical dynamite and blow the block away.  Try to figure out which sort of block you have, and then do something about it!

[Pictures: Woodcut from The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, 1494 (Image from The Endless Bookshelf);
Woodcut by Lynd Ward from God’s Man, 1929 (Image from The Mumpsimus);
Cicero writing his letters, woodcut from Cicero’s Epistulae ad familiares printed by Hieronymus Scotus, 1547 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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