I don’t think that writer’s block exists really. I think that when you’re trying to do something prematurely, it just won’t come. Certain subjects just need time, as I’ve learned over and over again. You’ve got to wait before you write about them.
— Joyce Carol Oates
We’ve all been there. That moment of blankly staring at the word processor or notebook page for anywhere between two hours to two full centuries. You tap out a sentence, remember what a visiting writer to your college once told you about just writing anyway. You read it back. It’s terrible. You huff, delete it, slam the notebook shut and go away to watch The Chase and eat Doritos. Writing isn’t for you anyway. There’s always golf or something.
Perhaps you try to convince yourself that what you’ve needed to write has already been written, and perhaps you’re not meant to write anything ever again. Your first big project is done, edited ruthlessly, and has left a gaping void where endless hours of crafting, drafting and editing used to be. Or perhaps you never got to that stage; the words just wouldn’t come past the 10,000 word mark and so your current project is officially deemed a failure.
Writer’s block is something I believe does exist, but only so long as you look at it in that way. For the past year, after publishing my first poetry collection and reading and performing those same poems over and over and over…and over again, every ounce of creativity, along with my ability to conjure and craft vivid imagery, seems to have dissolved entirely like a fountain pen that’s finally sputtered out of ink.
What I like about the quote by Joyce Carol Oates is that it makes you look at writer’s block in a different way. It makes you realise that actually, writer’s block all too quickly becomes an excuse to stop writing, to run away from your art, and to stop believing in yourself. Very few people can immediately finish one big project and dive straight into the next without a breath. Time is just as important to writing as the actual act of putting pen to paper. You wouldn’t expect a newborn baby to stroll out of the womb seven months early, already in school uniform and ready to sit their GCSEs. Things need to develop, and to develop properly, they need time and love and care.
Take musicians for example. Often by the time a new, eagerly-anticipated album comes out from a much-loved artist, the sound is different, fresh and influenced by different things. That’s not to say they’ve stopped working; they could have been collaborating on other projects, trying different sounds, working with different people, or visiting new places (e.g. Ed Sheeran’s album ‘Divide’ skyrocketed up the charts after a break where the artist went to Africa and tried different things with his music, the resulting return album offering his fans a mix of old and new sounds which kept the old ones faithful and drew in new lovers of his music. I don’t care whether you agree with them on whether it’s a great album or not, but the point is, artists of all different art forms need time to breathe, experience new things, develop, find inspiration and to just live for a bit).
Another problem we face as writers is that so many of us are staunch perfectionists, constantly setting ourselves high standards and comparing themselves to other people. Comparing yourself to others and trying to get the words perfect the first time they drop onto the unmarked page is a sure-fire way to get you clammed-up and frustrated. In some cases, even reading becomes unpleasant, as instead of fully absorbing the words and letting the writer please you with their beautifully crafted sentences or smart dialogue, you end up distracted by the fact that you can’t possibly write like them and end up once again succumbing to the TV, renouncing your title as a writer and deciding you’re crap anyway.
The reason you can’t write, and don’t need to write, like Maya Angelou for example, is because there was already a Maya Angelou and she’s already written Maya Angelou’s distinctive work. The reason you can’t write, and don’t need to write, like Harper Lee, or Stephen King, or Seamus Heaney or JK Rowling is because we’ve already got work by those people, the original authors of their own distinctive style, and we aren’t going to choose weak imitations when we can just read the original authors. What we need is an original work by you in your style and in your words. You need to be bold enough to say: ‘This is my work, created by my ideas, written by me.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s not the same as your favourite author’s. You can’t be them, and nobody else can be you, so it’s down to you to offer the world your authentic, true self when no other person on this earth can do that. There is only one you to tell your story in the way you tell it. So stop comparing yourself and just tell it.
So if it’s been months and you’re still not writing, what can you do about it?
- Give it time – Go out. Meet people. Explore. Go to poetry readings. Go to shows. Go for walks. Run. Volunteer. Travel. Bungee jump. It doesn’t matter what you do, just go out there and don’t think about writing as something you simply have to do as a result; just give your brain the space to breathe, be open to new ideas, and when the right one comes, it’ll let you know about it. Trust me.
- Workshops – Join a writing workshop. It’ll get you writing to deadlines again, which is particularly helpful if you’ve felt a bit lost since leaving a creative writing course and getting out of routine. Constructive feedback, as well as hearing the work of others, can really help you to see your work in a different light as well as give you that added challenge of themes and deadlines to work to.
- Read – Treat yourself to a pile of books and just read. No judgement. No note-taking. Just read for the hell of it. Then read some more. And some more. Don’t touch the pen. Just accept the work for what it is and allow yourself to enjoy it; after all, that’s why the writer wrote it for you.
- Down with the self-doubt – Enough of the crappy self-deprecating talk. We all do it. I’m terrible for it; if someone says they’ve enjoyed my book I’ll bristle and laugh it off by telling them it’s the worst book ever written, totally undermining the fact it took me five years to write. Just graciously accept the compliment. Feel good about it and let it spur you on to write more, knowing that someone, somewhere, has connected with what you’ve written and you’ve had that special shared experience between writer and reader. As Sylvia Plath once said: ‘The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’ And it’s true.
If you’d just run a marathon, would you expect to run another the next day? Would you feel as passionate about running for months after running 26.2 miles? I certainly wasn’t, and yet I’m far more forgiving of the fact that I’ve found pleasure in spin classes and walking and weight training than running at the moment, only doing it when the mood takes me. I trust that it will come back. And it shouldn’t be any different with writing; if it’s your passion, just like the peaks and troughs of any relationship, the peaks will come back. But the more you stress, the more you’ll resent writing, and the harder it will be to return.
So be kind. Dabble with different forms of writing. Talk to people. Explore. Live. See new things. Jot a line here and there. Read. But don’t for a minute think that taking a break means you’re a fraud. You wouldn’t suffocate a lover by clinging to their necks every minute of every day, so why suffocate the love you have for writing? It’s still there, ready for when you are.