“I don’t belive in writer’s block”, Neil Gaiman said. “I belive that what writers get, is ‘stuck’.”
“Writers, you see, are very good at convincing people of things. What that means is that when they get stuck, they prefer something grand and dramatic; ‘I have writers block‘ sounds very much better that ‘I’m stuck’.”
The quote above – mis-quote actually, because I’m quoting from memory and can’t possibly have gotten it right – was something Neil said at a reading last year in Palo Alto. And it got a huge laugh, I think more from the writers in the crowd than anyone else. Because writers know how true the statement is, that we’re very good at convincing people of things.
However, I don’t agree with him about the block.
It’s very glib, for example, for musicians to assert that it’s easy to play an instrument. It’s easy for those annoying people with perfect pitch to tune a guitar. That’s because they happen to have been born with a gift, which they then developed So, sure, it’s effortless for them.
The thing, though, is that not everyone has that pitch. Some have to work very long and very hard to develop it. I can, barely, and with a great deal of work, get a guitar vaguely close to ‘in tune’. That’s taken years, and a lot of practice at detecting differences in pitch. I had to teach my brain to sort of what my ear couldn’t.
Some people are born storytellers. They drop out of the womb screaming, and from that moment, the language needs to get out. Gaiman is one such; he bleeds stories. He has more ideas that any three normal writers, and can’t stop having ideas. He had to become a writer, because what else, in these days, can someone like that do? It was either than or be the guy at the end of the bar who, for the cost of a pint, will tell you his and anyone else’s life stories.
Some of us learned this craft the hard way. And it never, ever comes easy. Tobias Wolf, in a talk he gave in Menlo Park, remarked how he envied those writers for who ‘the story just writes itself’. Because, he said, not a single word he ever wrote came easy. He sweated and worked over every syllable.
For me, this is something that comes only when my brain goes into a sort of linguistic overdrive, and when I can then direct that into typed characters on a screen. Usually, I can’t. When the inspiration comes, as often as not, I have no way to stop and put it down, or lack the focus to retain an idea for more than moments. Sitting down to write is almost never productive; ideas rarely flow.
Part of this, certainly, is simple discipline; I can’t seem to find a way to sit down every day and type. If I did, the routine would help, lubricating the creative mind by making the simple act of typing coherent paragraphs routine. By decoupling the physical act of writing from the creation itself, I’d find less inertia in beginning.
So is this writer’s block? Or is this just a bad habit; is this just a time management issue?
I’d argue with Neil; if he sits down and stares at a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter and feels defeated, feels his mind drain as empty as that white sheet, that’s The Block. Neil’s talking about that moment in a story – and any writer has been there – when you say, crap, what happens now? how do I get from point A to point C? What’s my B? And I’ve been there; when I was writing the last section of Wanton, I hit a hard wall in the last scene. I couldn’t get the characters from ‘hello’ to ‘goodbye’. That story was a runaway freight train for me before that point; I knew at every step what was happening next. But I found myself up a tree with no way down. I (metaphorically) tore my hair, called myself a hack, wanted to throw my computer through a window (which isn’t easy with a sparcstation). I walked away. And then I came back, threw away my re-writes, got out my first draft, and found the hinge point where the wall came in. I backed up a paragraph or two, and started over. And it came together as well as anything I’ve ever written.
Stuck isn’t the same, though, as block. Because stuck can be solved by simply back-tracking or re-thinking (and I say ‘simple’ as if it were easy; it’s not easy). Block is different. Stuck means you don’t have quite the right tool, or can’t choose between several. Blocked, though, means you have no tools. None at all.
That’s how it feels to be profoundly blocked; you open your writer’s toolkit and find nothing but dust, spider nests and the detritus of scorched and broken adjectives. You find no theme, no allegory, not even well-worn plot device. And no matter how many times you open that box, you continue to find nothing.
It’s a profoundly frustrating feeling. As if you’d misplaced something, and can’t for all your brain wracking and pacing and retracing of steps, recall where it is.
That is the feeling I’ve had for many, many months; paths well worn back to that empty toolbox, and almost always, finding nothing.
There’s no single solution to the problem. Today, I solved it by sitting in my car by an empty suburban park, someplace where I found no internet connection. I solved it by playing music down low, turning off my phone, and beginning by using someone else’s words to build momentum.
And yet I’ve said nothing; still, it’s better than saying nothing silently.