Friday, April 10, 2009

writer's block

From: Donna

I have a quick question. I'm stuck on a scene in my novella and I was wondering what you did to overcome "writer’s block?"

It might be a quick question but it's not a quick answer.

I see that you put writer's block in quotes. Does this mean it's a new concept to you--that perhaps you're a new writer? Or does it indicate that you don't believe in writer's block?

I'm not sure I believe in Writer's Block, per se, that semi-mythical crusher of careers, destroyer of confidence and eater of small children. I do, however, think writers get stuck. Especially beginners.

The most obvious obstacles are the physical ones: you're in a coma, you broke your wrist, you have a new job/baby/girlfriend and your life is suddenly not your own, you have the Viral Swarm and the OTC meds make your head feel stuffed with mud, your computer explodes. Happily, most of these problems fix themselves, given time and patience. The wrist heals, the job/child/girlfriend is no longer new, your cold fades, you save up for a new computer. (And, you know, you could always use a pencil. Just saying.)

Of the less obvious reasons for getting stuck, the most probable is that you've taken a wrong turn in the narrative and written yourself into a corner. Something doesn't feel right; every time you try to move forward it all falls apart. Generally, this means you've entered the scene wrong: started in the wrong place or from the wrong direction or with the wrong people.

This isn't difficult to fix, it just means doing some work. Go back 20 pages or so from your stuck place, start reading. At some point you'll feel a little uncomfortable, think something like, Well, it's not *so* bad, or Hey, it *could* work, mark that place. That's where you've already gone wrong. Then go back another 3 pages and reread until you see the initial misstep. Is a character behaving uncharacteristically? (The capable heroine suddenly allows herself to be rescued by a nerd, the MVP fumbles the ball for no apparent reason.) Have you made a moronic plot mistake? (No no no! You can't start a fire using sunlight and the glasses of a short-sighted person! Yes, I'm talking to you William Golding.) Should you have started the scene later? (Always start a scene as late as possible and leave as early as possible.)

Trust me, if you listen to your body, you'll know when it's wrong. I get all kinds of physical signals of stress, ranging from a vague restlessness to finding it hard to breathe. The instant you begin to feel that, draw a line through the ms. Delete everything after that line. (Put it in a separate folder, if you must--but I'm telling you, you'll never use it. May as well just throw it away.)

Sometimes we haven't made a misstep; the writing just doesn't work for us anymore. We can't go on because we're changing as a person and/or as a writer. (The two are inextricably intertwined. If your skill grows, you grow. If you change, your writing changes.) Writing--good writing--is infused with and animated by the writer.

So, for example, if you've just been through Clarion, if you've just had a myriad disparate techniques pumped into your head at high pressure, when you re-enter real life you will have to take the time to let those skills/practices/perspectives seep into your writing groundwater. (You have to hope it's not toxic to your existing skillset.) This takes time; there are no shortcuts. Just go eat ice cream and take long walks. Let it mix and shake and separate out. All will be well eventually. Really.

And then there's fear.

Fear of exposure and fear of failure visit us all. Some writers live with both all the time. I think that's why so many writers use and abuse drugs and alchohol.

For me, fear comes and goes. (My liver is grateful.) This week, for example, my nagging worries (none of them are anywhere near the DEFCON 1 status of fear) are that my Hild novel is crap; that, no, it's brilliant but no one will publish it because it's too big a risk in this economic climate; that someone will publish it but that no readers will buy it; that lots of people will buy it and they'll all hate it; that I'll be living in a paperbag under the viaduct before I can finish it; that even if I win the lottery, I'll never finish it. All this is perfectly normal--especially the negative capability of it's crap/it's brilliant. Mostly I roll my eyes at myself and just get on with it.

One particular and, thank god, very occasional anxiety drops from a clear sky. I've never been able to work out where it comes from, or why; it's a kind of magical thinking, a ridiculous superstition: that if I begin a scene and do it wrong, the whole book will wither and die. It's patently untrue. It's paralysing. And it comes from nowhere. Then it just goes away. But, oh, while it lasts it's totally crippling. And if it morphs into the lost-and-lalala version, where I don't admit I'm afraid, so I keep working, only I'm too afraid to look at, really see, what I'm doing, so everything starts veering from the true line, then, oof, it's vile. Only I'm too afraid to admit any of what's happening, so I just dig deeper into the hole.

This happened with the beginning of the first draft of Slow River. I've talked about this before:

Meanwhile, Slow River was growing in the back of my mind. I was terrified of it; I knew I didn't have the skill to translate my vision. I was right. Thirty thousand words in, I knew it wasn't going to work. I had become hopelessly muddled with flashbacks piggybacking on flashbacks, and dizzily escalating dream and nightmare sequences. Each time I sat down to work I felt queasy. The more I tried to consciously wrestle the book into shape, the worse everything got. It wasn't until I'd given up--or thought I'd given up--that I found the solution.

Kelley came home from work one night and found me sitting in a heap on the living room floor. How did your work go today? she asked. 'It's crap. I'm crap. I can't write. I've given up. I'll have to find a job.' I meant every word; my life, as I understood it, was over. Once Kelley saw that I was utterly serious, that I could not be consoled, she disappeared into the kitchen and after a long moment re-emerged with two frosty Dos Equis. 'Okay,' she said. I looked up. She held out a beer. 'This is a magic beer. When you reach the bottom of the bottle everything will be better. You'll find out how tomorrow.' I stared. 'Trust me,' she said. 'Just drink the beer. It's magic.'

I drank the beer. About one swallow from the end, I felt a stray thought break my brain surface and arrow into my subconscious. I didn't pursue it. I was trusting the magic.

I woke in the middle of the night, thinking 'Brazzaville Beach'--William Boyd's brilliant novel set in the Congo and written from two different points-of-view, though both from the same character. And the solution lay there, whole and perfect, in my mind. The next day I deleted those thirty thousand words and began again.

I don't remember how long it took me to write. Not long, I suspect. I was moving through an ecstatic dream. I printed the draft. Gave it to Kelley. She read it and burst into tears. 'Oh, honey, it's brilliant!' I smiled through my own tears and told her she gave good beer. 'Oh, god,' she said, 'I was so scared that day, I didn't know what to do, I'd never seen you like that before. The magic beer thing was sheer desperation.'

One common writer's fear is of being known. In self defence some writers take cover behind emotionally impenetrable fiction that hides even from itself; some take the opposite approach and write startlingly self-revealing, self-lacerating autobiography (the I'm-going-to-get-me-before-you-can tactic). As far as I'm aware, I do neither. (But I'm prepared to admit I could be delusional.) I've been accused a zillion times of writing autobiographical fiction, or wish-fulfillment fiction, or thinly-disguised romans-a-clef. I used to reason patiently with my accusers: Look, see, no, I've never been an heiress, or lived in the future, or reproduced by parthenogenesis, or lived in Norway; no no no, I just took that name/eccentric mannerism/sexual peculiarity from a movie... But no one believes me. So now I smile and shrug and say, Hey, believe what you want.

It astonishes me just how much people read into fiction: Kick is really Kelley, right? (Julia is really Kelley, right? And Thenike. Oddly, never Spanner...) I shouldn't be surprised anymore, but I always am. And I understand why some writers fear others seeing into their hearts because we do, in fact, expose ourselves horribly (as I've said, it's the writer who infuses and animates the fiction). But the thing is, readers always, I mean always, miss the real revelations. After a while it becomes a game, one giant sleight of hand. Enormous fun.

Back to your question: what do I actually do to overcome these Moments of Epic Stuck? I relax (go for a walk; have a bath; have a beer) and then turn and look, as honestly as I can, at the work. Sometimes I grin and think, Fuck me, that's good! Sometimes I think I'm going to throw up, and spend a day or two deleting months of work. You never know until you look. But that's the secret of good writing: you've got to look.

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