Writer’s block is a problem that writers discuss a lot. Wannabes discuss it even more, possibly because the problem is more dramatic than sitting down and writing. Personally, though, I tend not to use the term, because it suggests an obstacle, and I consider writer’s block a signal from my unconscious to which I should pay attention.
Not, you understand, that I have more than a passing familiarity these days with the condition. For one thing, I find that writer’s block always disappears when I have a deadline – when I am under pressure to produce, I don’t have time for doubts and blockages, so I just ignore them and push onwards. Contrary to what you might expect, the result is not much worse or better than when I feel inspired. By contrast, I was much more prone to writer’s block when I was an amateur, and didn’t write for food and shelter.
For another, I don’t consider uncertainty anything more than a temporary problem. If I have no topic, then scanning the Internet and brainstorming produces two or three within a couple of hours – often more. If I have trouble writing a particular passage, I have enough sense of structure – either from my scribbled notes or my experience in developing a topic – that I write another part of a piece and return to the problem area later, when I have a better sense of what I’m trying to express. There is almost always a factual, non-controversial part that is easy to write, and I don’t have to start with beginning, which half the time only emerges after the rest of a piece is written.
Occasionally, though, I find myself at a complete loss about how to proceed. I lose not only the words, but – more importantly – the idea or the argument, and find myself typing the same words over and over again. Sometimes, I re-type several previous paragraphs, hoping that the I will rediscover the continuity. I grab a snack or do a small household chore, or go exercise, and, when I return, I am still no closer to knowing what I should write.
Not long ago, this state would leave me frustrated. As often as not, I would quit work in despair, and feel the world unfair and rigged against me.
Then I was hit by one of my periodic flashes of the obvious: The writer’s block was not an obstacle that kept me from writing. That was a misinterpretation (and one I believe that most people make). Instead, it was the first sign of a recognition deep in my mind that what I had already written or what I planned to write didn’t work. Either I need to review my argument, or restructure it or reword it.
In other words, writer’s block was not a sign of my incompetence or lack of direction. It was my understanding of writing trying to get my attention. Instead of resisting it and trying to overcome it by brute determination, what I actually needed was to acknowledge it and actively work with it.
Exactly what the problem was might require a little trial and error. Perhaps I need to delete a passage, or reposition it. Perhaps what I thought was a minor point is a major one, and needs to be given more attention than I had initially planned. Or perhaps two points are really one, or something is missing from the argument or the plot, like an important point or detail, or I need to anticipate and argue against a viewpoint that otherwise would counter mine. But the problem is not lack of inspiration, an inability to concentrate, or any of the other explanations I had heard. It is a structural problem, and relatively easy to solve with some thought and effort.
Once I had found that perspective, writer’s block stopped being a problem, and transformed itself into an opportunity to improve my writing. Now, when I start to lose the sense of what I’m writing or of what I will write next, I treat that loss as a signal to rethink what I’m doing. I no longer worry about the state, because I’ve learned how to work with it.
Looking back, I am only puzzled that I failed to reach this conclusion sooner. A cabinet maker faced with a problem doesn’t stop and agonize over their plight; they try to design their way around it. So why should a writer be any different, except that they have greater tradition of self-dramatization? When you stop thinking of writer’s block as an external affliction that mysteriously descends upon you and start thinking of it as a sign that something is wrong, then it becomes a problem that you can solve by making concrete changes. Once you change your thinking, you may find writer’s block not only misnamed, but also more useful than you ever imagined.