Welcome, all you wonderful people who write fiction. How is your progress up the treacherous crags of Story Fell and Novel Mountain?
Oh. Oh dear! Like that, is it?
Well, bear in mind that even though you write alone, these steep pathways and sheer cliff faces you’ve chosen to climb have been scrambled up – and over – by uncountable others throughout the past and, even now, as you find yourself shivering and solitary on an impossible ridge, others are in similar difficulties all over this vast, forbidding peak.
Therefore, today’s post is a kind of Mountain Rescue service, dropping an extra length of rope, a change of socks and a cup of hot, reviving soup!
I’ve reached an age at which I am tired of struggling, swimming upstream, self-flagellating and generally agonising over my art. I kind of wish I’d come to this realisation years ago but the reality is that, if I had, I probably wouldn’t have the understanding I have now. Remember that old saying? “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want…”
Recently, I’ve been thinking about that hoary old chestnut, writer’s block.
There’s a grand, hilarious fib I tell when strangers/fans/students etc ask me if I ever suffer from said chestnut.
“No.” I say.
(I say it firmly.)
“Writing is my job. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? Or Lawyers? Or warehouse pickers? Course not. They may not want to go to work but they have to, and so do I.”
People believe me too. They might have a moment of “Is this guy messing with me?” but when they see the look in my eye, they realise it’s the truth.
I’m a good liar like that.
To give you an idea of what I really think about writing on a bad day, here’s a line in one of my notebooks from some years ago. It offers a minor clue as to my state of mind when at work on a piece of fiction:
Strategies for coping with writer’s block: Cry, panic, self-mutilation. Helps to be drunk for all of these.
It has become clear over the years – through teaching writing to people of all ages, mentoring other authors and just hanging around with writerly types – that every writer is unique. We each have different desk routines, work ethics, drafting habits and everything else.
Why wouldn’t we, when we come from so many diverse backgrounds, each of us with entirely unrepeatable psychology and genetics driving us? No matter which area of the craft a writer develops a problem with, there isn’t a fix-it that works for everyone. This is also true for writer’s block.
That being the case, here’s the conclusion I’ve come to about getting stuck:
It may look broke, it may act broke, but it ain’t broke. And what ain’t broke, as everyone knows, don’t need no fixin’.
“But I’m sitting here clawing my own eyes out because NO WORDS WILL COME,” you say.
I know. I’ve been there so many times.
Sit back. Relax. Don’t panic.
Let’s go for an agricultural metaphor here, seeing as writing is all about inner fecundity and growth and natural magic…
If you were a farmer working a field, you would understand the importance of allowing that field a decent amount of time to lie fallow, so that it has ample opportunity to regenerate and become fertile again after the reaping is done.
Writing isn’t only about getting the words down. Sure, if you don’t do that then there’s no story, but there will be days, weeks – in my case, months and years – when words don’t come. There are many reasons why that can happen; sometimes obvious, other times not. None of that matters.
I’ve come the realisation that we have a choice about how to proceed when the words dry up. We can plunge into the customary negative spiral of auto-annihilation or we can do the right thing: sit back and chill.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Because when it isn’t about hammering away at the keyboard or getting hand cramps from working longhand, writing is about dreaming and wondering and staring out of the window. It’s about taking a stroll, watching a movie or rearranging your vinyl collection. It’s about eating ice cream and doing the ironing (not at the same time).
Just because you’re unable to set down a single word, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It doesn’t mean you’ll never write again. It may only mean that your ‘field’ is depleted and you need to take a break. This is not a disaster. It’s certainly not something that should be allowed to spoil an otherwise perfect day.
Here’s the insight that finally came to me from so many instances, over so many years, of not being able to write one solitary bastard word:
It’s a good thing.
I did absolutely say that.
I say it because writing will never just be about the words you can see on the page. If it was, it would have lost its power over me a long, long time ago. Writing (like scaling a mountain) is a process, incorporating stages and levels and progressions, many of which none of us are either aware of or understand.
We may think we know what we’re doing but we really don’t. That’s the magic in it. That’s why I love it. Because it’s never the same twice and it’s always full of surprises. I don’t know how it works and I don’t want to. I prefer a world with a little wonder still left in it.
What I do know is this:
A writer’s mind is like a wild stretch of land waiting to be explored – or like that farmer’s field. Glancing around on any given day, you’ll see sprouts of story visible, scattered everywhere you look. They seem unrelated to each other but, under the surface of the soil, all those sprouts are connected in your deep consciousness – beginnings, middles, endings, characters, phrases, twists and turns and all the rest of it, as well as cool stuff you don’t even realise you know yet. They’re all there, all joined up perfectly but hidden beneath the earth.
When you can’t write, you don’t need to worry about it. You need only allow the seasons to move across that land so that all the incredible promise it contains has a chance to rise up. Look after yourself, be kind to yourself and you’ll be feeding that inner landscape, fertilising it with trust and love – and, crucially, time.
Some while later, it might only be an hour but, equally, it might be several months or longer, you’ll return to look around that inner stretch of land and notice that some of the sprouts have grown and new ones are appearing.
That’s the time to return to your desk with your own comfortable, familiar methods and routines. Because it’s time to start harvesting again – uncovering those hidden networks, revealing the story that only needed time and light and water and care.
Yes, you could have whipped yourself bloody and forced the words out for all of that time but the pain it would engender is, I’ve come to feel, unnecessary. If you let go of the controls, you’ll find the new material waiting for you without you needing to lift a finger.
So, fiction-farming friends and bon mot mountaineers, no matter how bad things might seem, you really haven’t lost the plot. It will come back to you.
And if, as sometimes happens, you discover you’ve dug up a turd instead of a treasure, be open to the gentle realisation that you can’t be a genius every time. Even writing a dud tale is good experience; it makes better writers of us all. And maybe all that turds needs is more time underground to transform…
So, off you go up that ridge. The sun has come out and the wind has died. The air smells clean and your grip on the rock face is secure. You can see the entire world from here but things are going to look even better when you reach the top.
I’ll see you there up there.
(Although I may be some time…)