Sunday, June 22, 2008

Writer's block

Recently a writer whose work I very much respect mentioned in an email to me how she had no new work. I wrote back that this was splendid news, and that there is in fact nothing more heartening (apart from winning awards) than hearing about other writers' struggles, blocks and dry patches. It sounds like schadenfreude, but it isn't. It's about recognition of the common ground of being a writer. Even writers I admire get stuck, agonise, feel that horrible confidence drain that can kill your productivity (and your creativity) stone dead. As I said to Jess, hearing about her great pile of nothing makes me feel that my great pile of nothing might be a talented pile of nothing like hers!

I have suffered major bouts of writer's block since I started writing my first short stories about three years ago. The first one of these followed my winning the Boroondara Literary Award. Before that I was happily scribbling away without imposing any expectations on myself. Suddenly I felt that everything had to be award-winning, or it wasn't worth bothering with. I knew what was going on, but try as I might, I just could not wriggle out of my own trap. My brother had a good, logical suggestion for a cure. He said I should just sit down with the determination to write, say, 1000 words, regardless of quality. Just crash on through as it were. Great idea. Pity it didn't work. I couldn't keep to the discipline, because what I was writing was crap, and I knew it, and writing crap provides no satisfaction. Nor does it necessarily lead to writing anything better.

It's a bizarre sensation to look at stuff you've written a few months earlier and think, 'How the hell did I do that?' You look inside yourself and find nothing. During this time I started twenty, thirty stories that petered out after three sentences, a page, two pages. Rarely any more than that. The sentences were nice, the paragraphs held up, but the story? What story? After months of this going on, you naturally start to find many excuses for not sitting down to write. I have one day a week reserved for writing, but after completing all the suddenly necessary administrative tasks that needed doing, after playing my next online chess move and making my moves on scrabulous, and perhaps adding a few refinements to my pet programming project... I usually had about half an hour left for the grusesome chore of churning out a paragraph or so of another failed story. Naturally you start to question yourself at that point. You start to flirt with the edge of the abyss of not being a writer any more. It's a bad feeling.

I cannot claim to have any magic cure for writer's block. If I did, I'm sure I could sell it at great profit to half the world's writers. But a combination of things broke the deadlock for me. Firstly, I believe in the power of intention. A firmly held intention has a way of flowing around obstacles. I was incredibly determined to come through the other side, because the thought of not writing any more was just too awful. My dreams provided guidance. And then I had a very simple, very conscious realisation: in every case where I have finished a story, I knew when I started the story where I as going. If not the exact ending, then at least the general gist. On the other hand, in every single case where I failed to finish a story, I had no idea where I was going or (in one case anyway) I discovered that the ending I had planned was not going to work. This was a critical insight. I learned something about the way write. I cannot ad lib as I go. I write teleologically, with a destination in mind.

David Mitchell, one of my favourite contemporary writers, said that a writer should not wait for an earth-shattering novel idea before making a start: write a bad novel and then pull it up by the bootstraps until it's very good. Well, I'm still prevaricating on the novel front, and should take his advice no doubt. I certainly know it works well for short stories. My recipe now is this: start with an idea and write that story, but always be prepared for the possibility that you will end up telling a very different one. Always be open to discovery and change. My most recent story 'Salt' started out as a story about poker machine addiction and duty, and ended up being about morphine addiction and murder. It seems to matter less that I know where I'm going than that I think I know where I'm going.

1 comment:

Simonne said...

Ah yes, the block! Stephen King, who often writes whopping great 400,000 word epics has never written a plot outline, which I find astounding. I'm not a big King fan, but I do like his book 'On Writing'. In it he muses that a story is like a fossil and it's the writer's job to carefully dig it up, whole and complete. I like this analogy because it feels true for me. Like you, I always have an idea (if not a detailed outline) of where the story is going, but so often it ends up somewhere else entirely, and it's always a delight to be taken to this new place.