I complained about this recalcitrant chapter to my friends and my husband, and if they weren’t bored and annoyed, then they are much nobler people than I am. My Facebook writing group (consisting of several Nosy Authors and a few others) offered great suggestions, including having the characters jump on a trampoline while I moved on to work on other chapters.
I felt grateful for their sensible advice, but didn’t take any of it. I wanted to write this chapter, now, and although I couldn’t get any cooperation from the characters or from my own creativity, I didn’t want to skip ahead and come back to this hike. During the past two decades, I had written chapters of this book as if they were short stories with recurring characters, disconnected scenes that formed a rough timeline in my head, but which, over time, developed major inconsistencies that it took me much of 2011 to straighten out. Once I wrangled them into a table of contents in which one chapter flowed more or less logically into another, I hesitated to skip ahead. My characters like to surprise me, and I love them for it, but I want them to astonish me in chronological order from here on in.
I know what the Standard Issue Writing Advice is: When you’re “blocked”, write about something else. Work on another project. Write a letter to one of your characters. Skip ahead to a part you’re interested in and write that. Go outside and write a close observation of something in nature. Go to the mall and peoplewatch, and write about what you see. Write a childhood memory. Write, as St. Anne of the Birds suggests, about school lunches.
I’m sure that all works brilliantly, but I don’t have time. Like every other aspiring novelist with a busy life, I wring moments to write out of a schedule that already includes a full-time job, two children, a spouse, cooking, shopping, cleaning, volunteering, paying bills and all the other obligations of contemporary adulthood. I complicate matters further by trying to write two good essays per month for my blog. Even if I’m feeling blocked, whatever that might mean, I don’t want to write about my sweet, inexperienced third grade teacher or the civilization of a dozen different kinds of bees attracted by the wild mint in the garden. I want to get this goddamned book written before I die.
The world does not await my novel. I don’t have an editor or agent who takes me out to a swanky, boozy lunch for a stern talking-to about meeting deadlines and keeping my fans’ interest. I don’t have an editor. Or an agent. Or time to go out to lunch. Or fans. All I have is a story, a desire to tell it that won’t leave me alone, and a very large to-do item on my bucket list.
So I gritted my teeth, day after day throughout November and December, on the days I could squeeze in twenty or thirty minutes to write in between holiday preparations and everything else. I told myself I would write a hundred words at a time. Sometimes I got seventy-five words, other times, two hundred. If the Muse wouldn’t sing, then sheer bloody-mindedness would have to play the understudy. I never took any pleasure in it, and never experienced a moment during those two months when I thought the chapter was anything but garbage. But last night, at around 2,700 words, the draft was done, and it turned out pretty well. I may have to revise it another five times or throw out half of it, but that will be much easier then trying to wrestle it into existence.
So, why don’t I believe in writer’s block, even though empires of cottage industries are built around its diagnosis and treatment, and despite my own experience? For four reasons:
- “Writer’s block” sounds like a disease, like a bowel obstruction. The phrase itself imbues the feeling with more power than I care to give it.
- If writer’s block exists, then we have a host of treatments for the condition from people who really understand writing. I may be too irritable, impatient, and ungentle with myself to take the time to write a remembrance of cream tea in Bath on my honeymoon in England, but I understand why those exercises solve the problem, if you just force yourself to do them every day until the block releases. If writer’s block is real, it is not insurmountable, more like an ear infection than a terminal disease.
- The word “block” suggests a mystical source of writing, defines writing solely as an art, excludes the notion of craft. If the poet is merely a conduit of the Muse, then some spiritual barrier can jam communication between the sender and receiver of the message, and the poet can only supplicate and wait. I don’t care to supplicate, I have no time to wait, and years of carving and polishing sentences have cured me of faith in the Muse. I am, at best, a Muse agnostic, though perhaps I’d better not say that too loudly. She might hear and wreak terrible punishments upon me.
- Writer’s block is just too juicy and tempting an excuse not to write. It sounds simultaneously clinical and tragic, and I already have a well-documented tendency toward self-dramatization. I already possess a houseful of explanations for why I’m not making more progress. The last thing I need is more interesting excuses not to write.
I just need to write.
Julie Goldberg blogs at Perfect Whole and works on her first novel, when not performing her role as a school librarian. If you want to take her out for a swanky, boozy lunch to beg her to write faster, she’ll try to make the necessary schedule adjustments.