March 13, 2013
I’ve suffered through many stages of writers’ block over the years. With each project it has manifested itself differently, like a virus that changes its biology just to thwart my immune system. Just when I figure out how to beat it, it pops up again in another form, each time stronger and more elusive. Each writer has their own type of writers’ block. The only thing I’m sure of is that my personal writers’ block is anchored by fear.
When I started writing All I Ever Wanted—my first attempt at a novel—it showed itself as fear of commitment. Writing a novel is an energy-sapping, time-consuming, relationship-testing exercise. It’s an enterprise that comes without a guarantee; a leap of self-faith that might seem arrogant or selfish to those who rely on you being available. The literature tells us to expect (and embrace) failure, not just once but many times over. Writing a novel is a ‘business’, a ‘discipline’, and if you don’t hold the metaphorical gun to your own temple and turn up at the keyboard, day after day, it won’t happen.
Well, bollocks to that. I overcame my fear of commitment by telling myself that I was running out of time to do something extraordinary. Writing doesn’t have to be all business—I think sometimes it should be a process as shifting and shapeless as a dream, something you reach for without knowing the outcome. You know what? Prepare to fail, but also, prepare to succeed.
Friday Brown was a different beast. I felt the fear of expectation and worried myself sick that my writing career now hinged on my all-important sophomoric novel. Instead of the euphoric high on which I wrote and published AIEW, Friday Brown was written haltingly—backwards, sideways, any which way but forwards, on a wave of self-doubt. I would stare at the cursor for hours, wondering how the hell I had learned so much and yet looked set to achieve so little.
In the end, two things came to my rescue: a deadline and resignation. Deadlines are the cattle-prod for the subconscious. I love a good deadline. Resignation set in and I accepted that I might disappoint a whole bunch of people who’d taken a chance on me; worse, I would have to confess that I’d lied to my editor about the book being on track, in good shape, and nearly ready for submission. I pounded the keyboard and, through sheer desperation, I made headway. The only reason I overcame my writer’s block/fear was that I was more afraid of humiliation than of not being able to live up to expectation (sorry if you were waiting for a more profound outcome to this battle with my Goliath). That said, there’s something about letting yourself free-fall, drenching yourself in story, that makes the words come easier. They’re not always good words, or in the right order, but momentum is powerful.
Just when I think I’ve got the skinny on what feeds my fear, along comes the devastating mutation, fear of mediocrity. This one sneaks up on me, taps me on the shoulder and when I turn around, it’s gone. It waits until I’ve written ten thousand words and shows up again. It tells me to delete them all because the book I’m writing now has to be more than the one I’ve written before. It has to be brilliant, complex, life-changing, powerful; if I’m not growing as a writer I might as well stop.
This fear has everything to do with my own expectations and nothing to do with anyone else’s. It’s a paralysis of my heart, not my mind, and it’s recurring. I’m still learning to overcome it and I do so by accepting that there will be a book nobody likes and it might as well be this one. Yes, sometimes defeatism and winning go hand in hand.
So, where am I now? I have a brand new writers’ block wearing the badge: fear of wankery. I know from speaking with other writers and creators that this is a common fear that leads to the dreaded block. It stems from self-consciousness and self-doubt—the common denominator to most fears—and is made raw and painful by publishing inadvertent tweets, soul-baring blog posts and self-congratulatory Facebook messages (which we’re encouraged to do in the name of promotion but they always feel wrong, wrong, wrong). We* are shy creatures, unsuited to social networking. On occasion we will reach out on the interwebs and get bitch-slapped for our trouble—this results in keyboard paralysis and self-admonition that lasts weeks. Basically, if you want books, be forgiving.
What do you think causes writers’ block?
*By ‘we’ I mean ‘I’.