Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blocks, Anyone?

Writer's block is something I've never thought much about. I don't really consider myself as having had it. Writers as celebrated as Katherine Paterson have said they don't believe in it. When I was a teen, my rough drafts just spilled out. When I was writing MG novel series on deadline, there was no time to indulge myself with a "block." I guess my attitude toward writer's block has mostly been that it's mythical, a tad self-important, and something many newly serious writers fear they must encounter as a rite of passage. And if one hasn't had it, why bother dissecting it?

Yet others believe it's real, and I've had students ask about it, especially recently. The first thing to do, it seems, is define what we're talking about. What is writer's block?
  • The fear that anything you write will be horrible?
  • Inability to come up with a story idea?
  • Inability to figure out what happens next in your story?
  • Inability to concentrate because life pulls you in a million directions?
  • Inability to get your protagonist out of the predicament you got her into?
  • Self-protection: If your dream remains a dream, it can't crash and burn?
  • The fear of showing your work to people?
It seems writer's block(s) may come in many shapes and colors, and be called different things by different people. Of the above definitions, the first one and the last two seem to be a struggle in getting your writing from inside yourself to outside yourself, a struggle driven mainly by fear. In other words, the block is us!?!? For one thing, in the beginning we can keep our work private. Let your writing come out onto the screen or page and be what it is. If it's horrible, you are normal. Really. Any professional writer has written a first draft worthy to be taken with the Sears catalog out to what my father used to call "the little house out back." A book I recommend often, Writing it Right, by Sandy Asher, shows the progress of a number of short stories, picture books,  and novel beginnings from first draft to published version. Some of the first drafts are cringe-worthy, but the authors didn't let that stop them. They persevered through many rewrites until the results were excellent and publishable. In fact, I'd go so far as to say whether or not a first draft is icky is beside the point. It's meant merely to get the story idea down and serve as a foundation for rewrites. If it does that, it's not horrible at all.

Of course, if you hope to write as something other than just a private outlet, you must show your work to someone eventually. Now this may come across as a shameless plug, but it's one I believe in: One of the best ways for a beginning writer to find compassionate, knowledgeable, individualized, private help is to take an ICL course. (If writing for adults, you want Long Ridge.) This way, you only have to show your work to your instructor, you don't have to do it face to face, and your instructor balances kindness with knowing what he or she is doing. Hey, I have an acronym of sorts here: P(rivate), I(ndividualized), C(ompassionate), K(knowledeable) -- PICK! Uh -- well, okay, it is a word, though. :)

This is getting lengthy, so come back on Monday the 17th for discussion of writer's block definitions 2 through 5.

What do you think? Is writer's block real?  What would you add to or subtract from my list?


Bish Denham said...

Excellent. I don't know if what I go through would be considered writer's block. But I do go through long stretches where I just don't feel like writing, can't get into it. I'm struggling to pull myself out of one of these phases at the moment.

Amy Jo Lavin said...

I think I use writer's block as an excuse. Last summer, when I hit a point in my novel that I didn't know where to go next, I called it "writer's block." Yet, when that happens during NaNoWriMo, I don't have the luxury of stopping; I just keep going with whatever pops into my head. That's a strategy that I should use even when I'm not doing NaNo. I can always fix it during revision if it doesn't turn out right. Thanks for your post!

Lisa Gail Green said...

I think you're absolutely right, it can stem from so many different places and manifest in just as many different ways. But if you force yourself through it just by writing - whatever it is that comes out no matter what the quality, well, that might be one way to get through it.

Mary Witzl said...

I wish I didn't believe in writer's block, but I've had it. My worst problems are not seeing a clear way for the story to proceed, or seeing too many ways and feeling helpless about picking the right one (as if there is such a thing!). Intellectually, I know this is stupid, but it still cripples me. I think I used to fear success too, or finishing, but I'm over that. (You hear that, fate? I'm over it!)

One thing I'm resisting the urge to do is throw out drafts. I can't get over how bad they are when I get the nerve to look at them -- no tension, protagonists behaving out of character, tacked-on endings. But some day I hope to look back on them fondly, to remind myself how far I've come.

Vijaya said...

I think if you want to write and are unable, it is a block. The reasons can be varied as you say -- emotional or physical. And I agree with you, ICL is such a wonderful way to start, actually at any point. I have students who are beginners and those who've been writing for years. You can tailor it to the student.

For instance, I want to work on my novel, but for 2 months I have not touched it. The first reason was health-related. I was too sick ... Taking care of myself, my family, and my students took up every ounce of energy. Then came a WFH gig.

But I need to get restarted ... I find that I cannot create unless there is some order in my life and the fallout from being sick has been household that is too messy and chaotic, even though my family was wonderful taking care of many of the responsibilities when I was not able.

My plan: recharge this weekend, and begin next week on my WIP in the disorder but also work on the household. Small steps. I know that if I put the household in order first, something else will come up! And I'll never get to my WIP. This probably sounds like a giant excuse ... but there you go, a block that is both emotional and physical but I have an attack plan. Kids will definitely be involved :)

Jeff King said...

For me, writers block stems from a lack of confidence… I let the self doubt deter me from seeing the positives in my work.

Its real to some writers—it’s just another thing to overcome to be successful.

Pushing past the block makes us stronger, and hopefully, our work will show that.

I am sure it is deferent for everyone, but one thing’s for sure; the only way to overcome it is to keep on writing.

Laura Pauling said...

I think writers get stuck, which I have. But I can't say I've ever experienced a true block. Hard to say whether it's real or not.

Marcia said...

Bish -- I've had those. I guess I never considered them blocks because it wasn't like I was TRYING and failing to write. Rooting for you to pull through!

Amy -- That's kinda what I always suspected -- that it can be an excuse. There's also something twistedly romantic about it. I've heard enough people say that blocks don't happen (or aren't likely) when they're on deadline, and that's my experience too, that fast-drafting may be a significant help.

Lisa -- I do think bulling ahead can work, and that's what a lot of freewriting exercises are trying to accomplish. Let 'er spew, and sooner or later the good stuff will out.

Mary -- My Monday post will talk more about those kinds of blocks. Those drafts might yield good stuff for later. I adapted an unpublished magazine story for a scene in a published novel.

Vijaya -- I so agree that I need some order in my life to create. The "messy desk is a sign of a creative mind" never rang true for me. Have a great weekend recharging!

Jeff -- I do think lack of confidence can play a huge role. And if we keep on writing we're not defeated, even if it means turning to a different project for now.

Laura -- I do think stuck and blocks differ somewhat too, stuck being more minor. I've most definitely been stuck. Semantics are probably involved here.

Diane J. said...

Hmmm, I don't know. I've had moments where my mind was blank, but I chalk it up to thinking too hard about the WIP. I then set the WIP aside do something else and when I come back to it, I usually can pick right up.

Marcia said...

Diane -- I agree that a cool-off period can work wonders. Our subconscious might continue to work on the problem, or for whatever reason the answer bobs to the surface after we've stopped digging for it so hard. :)

Angela Ackerman said...

It only really happened to me once, and it was when I was revising and taking a year off from creating anything new to read a bunch of NF "how to write better' type books. I found that going so long without creating something new really stymied my creativity and it took awhiel to overcome it.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse