Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Writer's Block

The opposite of hypergraphia is writer's block, and Alice Flaherty of The Midnight Disease has a nice definition of that: the inability to make yourself write plus an active suffering from that inability. The suffering is important. If you can't make yourself write and feel vaguely guilty about that but, on the other hand, it frees up more time to play Worlds of Warcraft -- then you haven't got writer's block.

You haven't got it if you're too unmotivated, too busy, too lazy, or without any ideas. If you do have it, it feels terrible: You sit down at the computer and try to write, but instead undergo depression, anxiety, or even active panic. After enough of this, even the thought of writing produces a sort of mental seizure, which only makes the block worse.

What causes writer's block? Flaherty explores a lot of different theories, including the Freudian, which Freud explained thus: "Analysis shows that when activities like playing the piano, writing, or even walking are subject to neurotic inhibitions it is because the physical organs brought into play -- the fingers or legs -- have become too strongly eroticized...writing, which entails making liquid flow out of a tube onto a piece of white paper assumes the significance of copulation...The ego renounces [this] ...in order to avoid a conflict with the id." Oh, that Freud!

When a student tells me he has writer's block, I want to know how much he's trying to write and how much he's suffering from not doing it. Almost always, one of two things is happening: Either his critical faculty is pounding away overtime, making him so dislike anything he writes (It's not Tolstoy!) that it's painful to continue. Or, more benignly, this particular story has taken a wrong direction. In that case, he needs to go back to the last place in the story where he was enthusiastic about writing it, and rethink from there.

In my own case, I suffer from not writing when the work is either going wrong temporarily (fixable) or is just too ill conceived to succeed (not fixable). It's really important to figure out which. And, if the story or novel is really hopeless, to get started on something else as soon as possible. Get back up on the horse, and ignore the Freudian implications of that.


José Iriarte said...

"Get back up on the horse, and ignore the Freudian implications of that."


I don't know that I've ever had writer's block. I've used the phrase, but what I've had has been much milder. Spending too much time looking for the right word, that sort of stuff. Ideas don't come to me as easily as they come to some people, but they come readily enough if I just mull things log enough.

Now, I have been unable to continue because I've concluded that what I was writing was not working, but I've always been able to throw it away and start something else instead.

Orson Scott Card gives very similar advice to yours on writer's block. He also gives a great example, in the writing lessons on his website, wherein he includes a first draft of the beginning of Ender's Shadow, explains why it was not working for him, and shows how he fixed it. He claims that true writer's block comes from a knowledge at some level that what you're writing is not working, kind of like you said, and so you have to solve whatever story problem is causing it to get over that.

Oh, and that Freudian interpretation is just about the most ridiculous thing I've ever read. Actually, forget the equivocation; it may literally be the most ridiculous thing I've ever read.

Wealthedge said...

So, now that I read that Freud thing, do I have an Oedipal complex? Do they have pills for that?

What do you suggest for people that get blocked up with the Little Critic in their head that tells them that they suck?

Unknown said...

Maureen McHugh told me that writer's block was "the refusal to give yourself permission to write crap."

Ever since then, I try to give myself permission and work on editing it later. :)

José Iriarte said...

You know, I'm sure that works for a lot of people. For me, if I give myself permission to write crap, crap is what I write--and it tends to be unredeemable crap. Now, I'm not claiming that what I write isn't unredeemable crap at the best of times, but I just find that I need at least some of those filters up.

That whole permission to write crap thing is the premise behind nanowrimo, right? I'm a three time nanofailure. That whole paradigm doesn't work for me. In the last eight weeks, I've written 30,000 words, and that's about as productive as I can be. The idea of writing twice as much in half as much time . . . they'd have to send DCF to come get my starving kids!

Jonathan Sherwood said...

I've found that when I have writers block it's because I don't really like what I've just written. I may have almost convinced myself I liked it (so easy to do when you're closer to the end of your stamina than the end of your scene), but when I'm honest with myself, I know I'm disappointed.

If I'm having a block, I have to admit that I didn't make the grade and go back in the story to the last point where I truly enjoy what I wrote. Then it's time to write from there again.

I'm one of those people who can't "write crap and edit it later." I just wind up with edited crap.

tycho said...

I like these sorts of approaches to writer's block, because I agree that "real" block is probably pretty uncommon. But, I'd just add that, I have to imagine that a lot of "writer's block" complaints stem from a couple of external causes that have very little to do with the writing.

For starters, stress and anxiety in a non-writing related part of life (family, gainful employment, education) can--particularly in prolonged situations--have a real effect on creativity and productivity. If you're worried about where your next meal is going to come from, it's hard(er) to write, particularly as that anxiety grows. Also writing, can produce anxiety of it's own, and if you're stressed from the opening gate, the additional stress of writing, might be enough to inhibit performance.

Second off, is a sort of inertial issue. It's easier to write if you are writing, if it's a habit, and so forth. So--and this is true for me--if you're in a rhythm with your work, and something comes up: a holiday, a different shorter term project, a special event, or something similar, and your routine and energy is broken, it can be hard to get that energy back, and that can feel a lot like writer's block.