On Writer’s Block

Writer’s block can be masking anything from outright laziness to clinical depression. Then again, the desire to write a book can be a front for almost anything. The practice of writing is encrusted with excuses conjured over the centuries by the most imaginative of people.

It is difficult to nail what writer’s block really is when so many things are being ascribed to it. But the study of writer’s block can tell us a lot about writing and how we operate as writers.

Reviewers of speech recognition software have been saying for years that speaking like writing is a skill unto itself and that talking into a microphone does not automatically produce printable text. Some have gone so far as to suggest that there is a neural connection between our brains to our hands that help us to compose the prose we write.

Samuel Delany wrote that what we envision becomes clearer when we fit words to it. The process of choosing words to fit the idea forces us to focus what we want to say. In the course of lining up the “right” words in a string, we give birth to more visions ahead, which in turn needs to be clarified by fitting words to them. Delany calls this the “envisioning/notating process”. Nanoers call it “pantsing”.

Fitting words to what we want to say, clarifies, focuses and consolidates the original vision. Once fitted to words, the vision becomes less flexible and less fluid. The vision coagulates into text. As thoughts harden into solid text, more thoughts appear just ahead. Writing rides this precarious balance between vague ideas and hardened prose. It is the perpetual motion machine that is carried on by the momentum of falling forward.

Thus, we are prone to be stuck when we lean too much toward envisioning or notating. When we try too hard to see the next vision or find the next word, we get stuck. The sweet spot is in between the two. The story moves forward when you have one foot in the vision and one foot in the text. If you are too fixated on finding the perfect phrase, you lose sight of the vision. Many of the tricks to counter stuckness I explained earlier aim to take you away from the obsession with text and take you back to the vision. (the Light Trick, the Icon Trick, the Invisible Entry Trick, etc.) Or, if we see the vision but lose sight of the words, you  can talk about your story to others, to the wall, or to the characters. (the Wall Trick, the Pizza Trick)

It is often pointed out that the writer is the first reader of his own work. When we see our words appear before us, we automatically switch from writers to readers, enthralled at the story that is forming in front of us. Writers may be the instigators of the story, but it is the story that pulls us through. We perch on the borderline between writer and reader. Sometimes the story takes us in unexpected directions.

Why is this possible? Why do stories start taking on a life of its own and write its own plot? The imagery must come from the associations derived from the story elements, emotions and words we have infused into it. When given the word “orange” some people think of breakfast, some people imagine baked treats, some people associate the word with terrorism and national security. Writers, being ever so fond of metaphors, mix words of overlapping  imagery to compose their prose. The web of associations accumulated on the pages create the atmosphere over which the story flows. The writer, method acting his characters, is carried on the emotional currents of the imagery as the words appear before his eyes.

Writer’s block is when this stops happening. The emotion doesn’t seem so vivid anymore. The balance between creator and consumer had been broken. Issac Asimov claimed that he never suffered writer’s block. He didn’t know what it felt like. He lived the simple writer’s life of writing, reading, and writing. He made good money doing it, and should have been able to indulge. “We shall,” he said. “Today we will hop over to Doubleday’s and buy someone else’s books.”

An avid reader not only collects new vocabulary but adds new associations to the words he already knows. He also grows connections on his plot elements. The concept of a pedophile was not on the conscious minds of the general public until Nabokov wrote Lolita. Now, when you read a description of a middle aged man in a tweed suit, some people think of a school teacher, some people think of a writer, but some people think of   Humbert Humbert. Just as the word “orange” can conjure a variety of images, a character description, a setting, a situation, or a plot twist can conjure a variety of emotions and imagery. A reader collects these associations and adds new ones to his story vocabulary. When writing, these associations automatically connect each other and produce new imagery as the words appear on the screen.

Stephen King wrote that if you do not read, you will not have the tools with which to write. He did not try to elaborate on the mechanism behind his words. Delany came closer to explaining the process. Asimov was insightful as always but he had the disadvantage of never having experienced writer’s block to be able to understand it. But they all seem to know that the origin of the next line  was what you wrote in the last line, and that what you associate to the words, sentences and story segments you wrote in the last line became the vaporous ingredients of the next vague vision.

This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to write fiction in a second language. Writing fiction involves so much more than just linguistic skill. It requires the construction of a massive world of interactive connections and identifications. You must not only know the definition of the word “orange”, but also associate it to the state of national security. Without the words on your screen stretching tendrils into the realm of your imagination, your story cannot move forward on its own.

From what little we know about the process of writing and the mechanism of writer’s block, it can only be surmised that the best treatment is prevention. A writer’s mind must be constantly maintained by ceaseless reading. The web of associations must be constantly updated and improved. It is this web of associations that create the unexpected turn of the story in mid-writing.

And that is why, you should always read more than you write.

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