Monday, June 23, 2008

"It's Not Me, It's My Writers' Block"

In April, I wrote about questions children ask of authors – at least this author. Now I want to explore a question I have heard but did not mention in that post: “What do you do about writers’ block?”

It’s a good one. It shows that the questioner is truly thinking about the writing life, and perhaps hoping for enlightenment that will help his or her own writing life. I have also noticed that the children who ask about writers’ block seem to be just a bit self-satisfied (some might say smug) for knowing about so sophisticated a concept. I harbor no resentment toward their attitude. I confess to having felt a bit smug as a child when I learned something esoteric, and I did not hesitate to bandy about my newfound knowledge.

But in this case, I am slightly troubled. It is not that children want to hear a few tips for getting the writing process restarted when it's stalled. The problem is that, like many adults, they view writers’ block as a handy, even respectable, explanation for why nothing has been produced. It’s not me, it’s my writers’ block.

The view is supported by a hefty collection of books on writers’ block by authors who apparently conquered the ailment long enough to get the job done. In Outwitting Writers' Block and Other Problems of the Pen, Jenna Glatzer opens by warning readers of a pestilence: “Writer’s block is an insidious pest—a beady-eyed rodent hiding under the floorboards of even the hardest working writers, waiting to rear its hideous head at the most inopportune times.”

For over half his working life, my father was a furrier. He operated a sewing machine on the floor of a factory in New York City. I have not asked him, but I’ll bet he would have had Furriers' Block from Monday to Friday of every work week if he could have gotten away with it. He went to that factory and sat at that sewing machine so his son and daughter could have something to eat and a place to call home. My mother was an English teacher at Syosset High School on Long Island. She probably found the working conditions more pleasant than those my father's workplace, but she loved to read, she liked to play tennis, she enjoyed Broadway matinees and word games and I don’t remember what else – and I’ll bet there were plenty of days when she would have relished a bad case of Teachers' Block.

In my opinion, writers who regularly find way to pass their time other than by putting words on paper – a large subset that includes myself – do not deserve to take refuge in so dignified-sounding a condition as “writers’ block.” We should call it what it is: procrastination. And we should teach our children and our students that it is best conquered by force: Forcing ourselves to sit down and get the job done. Not knowing what to write and struggling over it is not writers' block. It is writing.

On April 8, Garrison Keillor devoted his daily “The Writer’s Almanac” radio show to honoring novelist Barbara Kingsolver on her birthday. “She took a job as a technical writer,” Keillor said of her early adulthood, “which forced her to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day and do nothing but write. She later said, ‘I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writers’ block, oh, I have to wait for my muse.' I don't. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.”

In writing non-fiction, I have noticed a subtle way in which writers’ block manifests itself: over-researching. There is no bell that goes off telling a writer it’s time to stop researching and time to start writing, so the author having an “I-can’t-do-it" moment (the root cause of much writers’ block) can extend the research phase indefinitely. That’s what I do, and I must say it is very effective in its two main goals: putting off the moment when I must put words on the page, and enabling me to feel OK about myself for not putting those words on the page (since, after all, I’m partaking in the essential task of researching – never mind that I already have way more information than I need).

And now I must close this blog entry and get to work on the sequel to Where in the Wild?, tentatively entitled Where Else in the Wild? Hmmmm. Maybe What in the Wild? would be a better title. I wonder what Mom thinks. I will call her. As soon as I clean out the refrigerator.


lgburns said...

Oh, how very true.

(who has perfected the research-as-procrastination technique)

mstewart said...

I've heard Jane Yolen say that she has a fail proof technique for overcoming writer's block. It's called BIC--butt in chair.

Melissa Stewart

Jennifer Armstrong said...

I totally agree -- there is a tendency to romanticize the artistic process. From the outside it looks mysterious, so nonwriters imagine that all kinds of voodoo must be involved; many writers encourage that assumption. My test is this: Did I agree to write this? Did I choose this? Then I must have wanted to do it. So do it.






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