Recently I’ve been considering what it means to have writers’ block. Neil Gaiman reposted this piece on being blocked on his tumblr the other day and it seemed to me a good piece of advice. So I’m writing this short little blog post in a Starbucks cafe, feeling very hipster and pleased with myself.
Everyone who has ever tried to write, or paint, or sculpt or really do anything creative has, at some point, come up against a wall. A roadblock, if you will. But it occurred to me: hasn’t EVERYONE experienced that disturbing sensation of not being able to get something done? Doctors, lawyers, baristas, what have you, everyone — in college, in grad school, in your cubicle, in your office, on a park bench — has had a block against work of some sort. I don’t see that writers, or creative types, have a monopoly on it. We just whinge about it a lot more.
Lovely word, that. Whinge. That’s what we do when we complain about not being able to write. What we really mean is that we can’t write well, or at least well enough to suit ourselves. The words won’t come, or the plot isn’t working, the main character just stands there staring blankly at the wall. The story seems to have petered out. So we sit back, we cross our arms, and we say, “I’m blocked. That must be what it is. I’m a suffering artist, suffering for my art!”
I have a tendency to be very unfair when I hear that. Not that we don’t all need a moment or two to feel sorry for ourselves. Because creation is tough — very tough. And, if you’re like me and the vast majority of my friends attempting to be writers or artists, it gives very little in return. You’re not going to get paid right away, if you get paid at all; it’s a lot of work and effort and emotional dedication for something that might never see the light of day. But here’s the thing, and it’s something that one of my professors at Edinburgh used to impress upon us: you can be the greatest writer in the world, but no one will know if you don’t write the book.
Sitting around feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t cut it. Nothing is working like I want it to! I want it to be done! I was going along just fine yesterday, what happened? I suck, I’m a bad writer, it’s all over! Pity me!
Am I blameless in this? No, not at all. I have personally whinged more than I care to think about … and I probably will again. Right now I’m quite pleased with my progress on a piece that I think shows promise. But I will come up against myself eventually. I’ll hit a point, today, tomorrow or a month from now, when I get fed up and can’t do it anymore. And I will produce nothing and just stare at my computer. I’ll pity myself.
Self-pity is all well and good, for about ten minutes or so. But then you have to pull yourself out of the mire of self-pity (which can be an effort, I know) and realize that there’s no one out there going to tell you that you’re better than that. No one is going to pat you on the head and convince you that this is worth doing. Positive reinforcement can only go so far. We all have very delicate egos. Of course we want people to tell us that what we’re doing is worthwhile. But at the end of the day, it isn’t. There’s nothing out there going to tell you that you HAVE to write or finish this piece. Just you and the undying compulsion to write. That’s what art is: compulsion.
I don’t mean to say that writer’s block doesn’t exist; I mean that it is still an excuse. It can be an excuse for fear and insecurities, for deep-seated psychological issues that have nothing to do with writing. Or just plain laziness. We’re a lazy breed, us creative types. Lazier than most. For instance, I am writing this blog post instead of working on my other stuff, all of which is lot more difficult than mouthing off about what bullshit writer’s block is. I’m procrastinating, not because I’m not interested in my other work or because I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but rather because … writing is hard. I’m lazy.
So, stop it. All of us need to stop saying that writer’s block is forced upon us, that we can’t control it. We can. We have to keep writing, even if it’s not what we want, even if we know we’re going to change it later. We’re never going to write that book if we don’t actually write.