Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Stuck, Not Blocked

I was 486 words into what was intended to be this blog post when I had a rare moment of artistic lucidity and realized it was an even bigger stool sample than usual. So I ditched it, which left me here:

Which brings us to the most dangerous boogey man in all of literature:

Writer’s Block.

Why is it a boogey man?

Because it doesn’t exist. Never has. Never will.

Writer’s block is not a reason people don’t write; it’s an excuse. I’ll bet writers who complain of being blocked can still crank out e-mails (in the past, letters) about being blocked. They wrote those, didn’t they? So I guess they’re not blocked.

“E-mails don’t count. They’re not fiction.” First, anyone who truly believes that hasn’t read enough business emails that describe why a project is late, or over budget. Second, so what? You had to think of an idea and express it in words. In fiction you make up the ideas. What people call writer’s block is what happens when a writer hasn’t come up with an idea he or she feels like spending the time on, or they don’t think they can write well, or—even worse—they’ve tried to write it and the words just won’t come.

That’s not writer’s block; it’s a bad idea. Not all “good” ideas are good for you. An idea Scott Phillips could write the hell out of would leave me staring at a blank screen for hours; it’s quite possible the converse is also true, even though Scott Phillips can write rings around me without requiring full consciousness. As Stephen King wrote in On Writing, “Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

I used to attribute my favorite writer’s block quote to King, though I can find no evidence of that on the web today. It sounds like something he’d say, and I like it, so here goes: Writer’s block is what happens when you try to be a better writer than you are. That’s not a pejorative comment; anyone, from you to Jonathan Franzen to Elmore Leonard can fall prey to it. (Okay, maybe not Leonard anymore.) When the words you put on the page don’t match the idea in your head, when you find what comes through your fingers or pen inadequate to describe the essence of what you’re thinking, then you’re blocked.

Forge ahead. Write the passage with all the care and attention you’d devote to an e-mail; no one cares about first drafts, anyway. Remember, readers take the final result as though it leapt fully-formed from your brain to the page. They don’t see the sausage being made; only you do. Real writing is done during edits. Ever hear of someone afflicted with Editor’s Block? Didn’t think so.

Everyone gets stuck. (I was stuck on this blog post for about ten minutes.) If you’re never stuck, you’re not trying hard enough. If you’re blocked, you’re trying too hard.

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