Many writers, past and present, will tell you that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, and I confess I was sceptical about it. That is, until a couple of years ago when I found myself in the grip of a hideous, crippling paralysis. It was completely unexpected and it shook me to my core.
Articles about writer’s block tend to fall into two categories: those claiming it doesn’t exist, and those offering a ‘cure’. Suggestions range from ‘just do it’ to ‘go for a walk or listen to some music’ to ‘light a candle and try freewriting’. The idea being that if the writer is ‘stuck’, then simply pushing through or taking a short break might help them to unstick.
We’ve all been stuck. One minute, everything’s going well and your characters are almost writing the story for you, and the next, you’re staring at an incessantly blinking cursor, which seems to be saying, What next? What next?
But is this truly writer’s block? Or is it simply that the writer needs more thinking time before continuing? I’d been stuck on each of my first three novels, but had always found a way out. With my debut, I got in a terrible mess trying to weave together the stories of three viewpoint characters. It took me a few weeks to find the solution, which was to kill one of them off in childhood — harsh, but effective. With my second novel, I got stuck trying to explain events over a thirty-year period. Eventually it dawned on me that I could start the next section with a date thirty years later, dropping in memories or flashbacks as needed. With novel number three, one of my scenes spawned extra characters who I ended up developing but who weren’t really part of the story. I completed an entire draft before realising I’d veered significantly off track. The solution was to combine two or even three characters and reassign their ‘jobs’ in the novel as necessary, making the whole thing simpler and smoother. It was a pretty big rewrite, though.
My usual process was to plan a little, write a little, see where it goes. I’d resisted my agent’s advice to plan the whole novel first, but I began to think that maybe she was right, and proper planning would prevent these problems from occurring again. So before starting my fourth novel, I spent six weeks writing a detailed outline. It worked! I wrote the first draft in four months instead of the usual twelve, and what’s more, I enjoyed the process (I usually find first drafts more painful than a root canal with no anaesthetic.) The finished novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, said what I wanted it to say and I was immensely proud of it. Not only that, but my agent and publisher loved it. Everything went so well, I thought I’d finally cracked this novel-writing lark.
After delivering the draft, I gave myself a three-week break before starting work on an outline for my next book, which I’d been thinking about for a while. But my imagination seemed to be failing and I couldn’t make the outline work, so I decided to just dive in, as I had with previous books. Initially, this helped and I began to lose myself in the characters and their dilemmas as I wrote scene after scene.
But then the doubts started to creep in: Would this work? Would my editor and agent like it? Would my readers like it? Would it sell? Perhaps most significantly, could it possibly match up to my last book? Before long, those doubts got the better of me and I abandoned that idea. Then I began to work on another that I’d been toying with. This time I decided to go back to my previous way of working. I planned a little then made a start, but the same doubts soon arose and once again I ground to a halt.
Reluctantly acknowledging that this was worse than just being stuck, I Googled writer’s block. I tried the walks, the music, the freewriting and the writing exercises, but as I put the words on the page, they shrivelled and died. Everything I wrote was flat and dead; it was like trying to reanimate a corpse.
In the past, I’d been stuck for days, sometimes a couple of weeks. This time, the paralysis lasted months. Numerous articles and blog posts identified several possible causes, the most common being fear — fear that readers won’t like it or that they’ll be offended; fear that the book won’t sell anyway, that your publishers will dump you; fear of continuing financial hardship, and fear that once you’ve written this book, story, or article, you’ll never be able to write another. Other suggested causes were insufficient planning, losing interest in your subject, setting your sights too high, being impatient and not allowing ideas to develop, and simply being exhausted.
Writing is exhausting because, let’s be honest, it’s really difficult. In a 2015 article on writer’s block for Psychology Today, author Susan Reynolds makes the point: ‘Writing is a mentally challenging occupation, which requires more hard-core, cognitive expenditure than many other lines of work […] writers have to think and think hard — and we have to think beyond mastering craft into creating works full of meaning, purpose, and nobility […] So, to even assume that this should go smoothly […] is to be misguided.’
For most writers, the block arises from a combination of factors, although according to Auberon Waugh, writer’s block ‘can be the result of two conditions — ¬simple laziness or having nothing to say…One needs only to develop a certain power of concentration and have something to say.’
My first thought on reading this was that Waugh was being somewhat condescending. I still reject the idea of laziness, but I think my own block was the result of several fears, perhaps the most significant being the fear that, having just finished a book that said what I’d been attempting to say in all my previous novels, I now had nothing left to say. These fears, together with the pressure to produce a book that would be a commercial success, were crippling. For months I couldn’t write anything more challenging than a shopping list, but eventually, very, very slowly, I began to recover.
First, I followed my agent’s wise advice and gave myself a complete break from even trying to write. She suggested I take a month off, but it was more like three in the end. During that time, I read, I walked, I listened to music and I wandered around galleries. Then I stumbled on a Twitter thread by author Julie Cohen, describing almost exactly what I had been going through. This helped enormously. Simply knowing that someone else had suffered a similar thing and had come through it gave me hope.
Julie, who is the author of over twenty novels and has twice been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, explains, ‘I suffered from writer’s block after a dispute with my publisher. It took me a while to recognise it, because for me it manifested not in being unable to write – I wrote thousands of words – but in being unable to write anything that was publishable. I couldn’t finish anything. Like the more traditional block, I believe this was caused by fear. Even though my dispute with my publisher had been resolved, and my career was thriving, subconsciously I was afraid that if I finished something, everything would tumble down again. For me, a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped immensely to reduce my anxiety (I self-referred to NHS services) — as did the process of recognising what my fear was, and why I had it.’
Recognising your fears is crucial, and once I was able to do this myself, things started to improve. As well as worrying that I had nothing left to say, I was worried about money, but I was finally able to reason that if I didn’t write another book, I would definitely be broke, so I might as well write something and see what happened.
I still wrote stuff that didn’t work, and I had a couple of false starts over the next eighteen months, even shelving 40,000 words of a book that didn’t quite make it. But I was no longer paralysed. And when I looked back at some of the writing I did while in the grip of this horrible affliction, I saw that it wasn’t as flat and dead as I’d thought at the time. Some of it was even quite good!
I’m now in the final stages of my fifth novel. I’m not blocked, but I’m putting off writing the last couple of scenes because they’re difficult. I can justify working on this piece instead by quoting Charles Bukowski: ‘Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all.’