Writer’s Log, September 3rd: The Physics of Writer’s Block

What, exactly, is writer’s block? When most of us talk about it, we don’t mean that we are literally negotiating a boulder between ourselves and our computer, or stuck under something heavy. I think we’re talking about being at a creative impasse, a terrible no man’s land where the desire to write and actual writing are inexplicably staring each other down. In other words, writer’s block isn’t so much a thing as it is a perspective, one that doesn’t necessarily require nearly as much muscle to budge as it might seem.

Have you ever seen two kids fighting over a toy in a sandbox? All other toys fall away in the conflict, and they lock on that piece of plastic like it’s the only source of joy any child can ever hope to know. Almost always, there are other toys within reach. But whenever we start grasping at something, it’s usually a good indication that we’ve lost sight of everything else around it.

Here’s a little exercise to do the next time you have writer’s block: Describe it. What does it look like? When and where does it come up? Who or what are you thinking about when it rears its ugly head? And, most importantly, what’s around it, or on the other side of it?

Once you’ve described it, realize that you’ve also defined it – and given it parameters. Now ask yourself this question: How might I go around this block? Try not to ask how you can get rid of it; in my experience, if you try to move writer’s blocks, they get agitated and blow up, not unlike supernovas. Instead, take a minute or two to consider what, exactly, it’s standing in the way of. And if you get stuck again, remember that you’re not trying to summit Mount Everest; you’re trying to move past something you’ve constructed in your own mind.

If I’ve learned anything about writing in the fifteen years I’ve been doing it, it’s that if you want to write, you have to write. Isn’t that the most obnoxious advice ever? Especially when it feels like in order to write you have slog through the sort of psychological resistance that would make General Patton go weak in the knees. But more often than not, the problem isn’t with the writing. The problem is in how we see the writing.  

Just as an example, my own writer’s block frequently takes the form of unreasonable expectations. I get stuck because I feel like I need to produce work that meets a certain standard, which of course totally ruins me for the natural process of herky jerky lurky writing that must unfold in order for anything to get done. I can’t get rid of those standards and expectations, because they are the dark side of how much I believe in the power of the written word, but I have learned to step around them. In other words, I peel my sweaty, grimy fingers off the red bucket, give myself a cookie or a snack, and pick up the blue one instead. It may not look anything like what I think I want to play with, but if I can get myself to play again, after a while I forget what I thought I needed and just enjoy the playing.

This is not my best metaphor. But I do think it’s enough to give you the idea. You don’t need to solve your writer’s block or wait for a future in which one won’t exist (spoiler alert: such a future exists in the land of unicorn-riding yetis); you just need to see it for what it is and get creative about walking around it. Maybe today isn’t the day you write what’s going to win you that Pulitzer, but it probably is a day where you can write five sentences. Maybe those five sentences will be some of the worst you’ve written since you kept a journal in seventh grade, but maybe their awfulness will make you laugh, which will almost certainly loosen up something interesting inside of you.

The point is, I think we tend to lose sight of the fact that the products of our writing are not what give it vibrancy; they’re just what we leave behind. The actual vibrancy exists in the writer herself, and anything you can do to get out of her imperfect, impulsive, insightful way will give her the space she needs to get going again.

Art: Wassily Kandinsky, “Colour Study”

3 Replies to “Writer’s Log, September 3rd: The Physics of Writer’s Block”

  1. Oh, how I needed to hear this at this exact moment. I am going to just believe you were writing to me. Thank you for the gift. Back to muttering and pacing and …. herky, Jerry, lucky writing.

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