I Don’t Have Time to Believe in Writer’s Block

Last night, I finished writing a draft of a chapter that had tormented me for weeks. It’s one of only a handful of chapters I have left to write (in what I like to call the Adequate American Novel, which I’ve been writing on and off for almost 20 years) for which I had no rough drafts, or even scribbled notes. I needed certain things to happen in the plot, in the development of one character, and in the relationship between the two main characters, so I sent them on a hike to a waterfall. They fought me every step of the way, up the trail and back down again. By the end, though, sorry to have put me through so much trouble, they presented me with three peace offerings: a baptism, a sandwich, and a lie, all of which I can certainly use.

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:

  1. “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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


13 thoughts on “I Don’t Have Time to Believe in Writer’s Block

  1. Wow! Can I ever relate to this. I started a book 4 years ago. Got off to an amazing start. Wrote 3 chapters in 10 days while visiting friends in Bequia. Had 6 chapters done in about 5 months and then I hit the wall. Wasn’t writer’s block — I just got to a chapter where I had to confront subject matter I didn’t want to confront. Took me a couple of months to figure it out. The book would be pointless without this particular chapter so I finally had to tough it out. So I took my laptop to Starbucks and wrote the chapter in 3 days, 12 grande milds, 3 yoghurts, 3 bottles of water, 2 cups of tea and 3 slices of lemon poppyseed poundcake (hard to take up a seat for 6 hours a day, 3 days in a row and not buy anything). And then I got stuck again. Haven’t touched it since. Can’t blame it on writer’s block because I’m having no trouble writing anything else — my blog, blogs for clients, websites for clients, copy etc. I’m distracted and seem to have lost the discipline you need to write a book. Only have 3 chapters left. I hate myself for not having finished it. I did toy with the idea of going somewhere remote for a month — where I’d have no distractions — but then life took over and I got busy with a new client. BUT — you have inspired me. I am going to finish this book! No more excuses. Thanks. Great blog post.

    1. @fransiweinstein – I’ll tell you what I told Julie: Write the missing chapters, but with something pointless happening and not resembling the plot at all. Give yourself permission to write something terrible as a placeholder. This may seem to have no purpose, but it’s about making forward progress even if you are going to rip all of what you do out. I think you’ll find that it’s easier by far to revise, expand, and re-write than it is to write from scratch.

      1. Thank you! I’ve never thought about it in the way you’ve expressed it, but of course you’re right about the importance of making forward progress. That’s exactly the reason why I’ve lost my motivation — because I’m not seeing any. And with each day that passes without any progress it gets tougher and tougher to get started again. I am going to give it a try. I’ll keep you posted. Thanks again.

        1. Hi, Fransi. I told the story of why it took me nearly 20 years to get to this point here: http://perfectwhole.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/part-i-how-freewriting-can-ruin-18-consecutive-birthday-cakes/
          I had lots of long stretches of no writing at all, but the story always stayed alive inside me, and it sounds like yours is alive and kicking, too.

          Difficult chapters ARE difficult! They’re discouraging, and you can spend a lot of time thinking about why everything is so hard and just avoiding it. I think it’s important to be patient with yourself and forgive yourself when you let it go for too long (for whatever reason), and just write, even if it’s only a hundred words at a time. Sometimes, those hundred words give rise to 500 others.

          Anyway, I’m no expert, but good luck!

        2. Thanks for the encouragement. And you’re right, too. We can forgive a thousand people for a thousand things but forgiving ourselves, for some reason, is easier said than done. Time to just get on with it.

  2. Big thanks to Neil and Julie! I worked on my book today — for the first time in a very long time. It’s been long enough that I decided to go back to the beginning and edit/polish/add/remove/change etc. instead of just starting again where I left off. It was as if I’d never stopped. Got through most of the first chapter and I think I’ll keep polishing. The really good news is, I know where I want to go with the last few chapters; have even started to draft in my head. Your blog post was exactly what I needed. Timing is everything. Julie — hope your writing keeps going well. I’d love to read your novel when it’s done.

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