Writer's block

2004-01-20 22:40

I like to try to update my blog regularly, but sometimes I just have nothing to say.

Writer’s block is a real problem. Unfortunately, if you want to be a professional writer, it’s one you can’t easily afford to have.

It’s interesting how hard it is to defeat. Writing is not a purely volitional activity; it’s a creative one, and creativity is very hard to do on purpose. Some days, I’m so full of ideas I can barely stand it. Other days, I can stare at a blank screen for quite some time.

In fact, I was doing that when I decided to write about writer’s block. Since the idea of doing so happened, I haven’t had to stop typing for so much as five seconds, not once; the words are just sort of happening, with no kind of conscious intervention on my part. I don’t pick words, I don’t pick topics; having gotten the machine started, I can sit back and watch it run in quiet amazement, as automatic parts of my brain type, correct typos, pick words, phrase and rephrase sentences, and just generally keep the whole thing happening. I’m just watching this; I don’t do it on purpose.

Which is really weird. It’s clear that writing is in some way something “I” do, but I’m not the one picking these words; I don’t know what they’ll be until I read them. Where do the words come from? Who does pick them? Why do they always seem to agree with my own positions?

I think this is why I’m a moderately successful writer; I have somehow managed to get a great deal of the hard work of writing practiced enough that it’s become an essentially automatic process, which happens without the kind of conscious effort it takes to do less familiar things. It’s like driving. I don’t need to think about gear shifts, or turn signals, or any of that; the car just goes where I mean to go. Picking words is the same way, and indeed, structuring short pieces (say, a few paragraphs, or maybe a couple of pages) is much the same.

What’s particularly interesting is that I don’t think I can do it on purpose anymore. I can’t decide how to do things. When I’m stuck, that’s all there is to it; I’m stuck. I can’t decide to write, I can’t pick words, I can’t form paragraphs; I just have to wait for that automatic system to kick in and do the thing it does, in its strange and automatic way.

This is a very disconcerting experience, the moreso because it happens so often, and so easily, and because it can happen on such a broad range of topics.

The same thing happens even on fairly abstract topics; for instance, if I were to send an editor proposed outlines for a couple of articles, I wouldn’t be making many conscious decisions; I’d just sit there for a while trying to keep myself focused on the question, and suddenly words would appear.

I really wish I understood this. I don’t know where the ideas come from, and I’m not entirely sure it’s me… but if not me, then whom? I’d like to meet this guy. He writes about topics I find interesting.

Peter Seebach

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Comments

  1. Really interesting thoughts. I've noticed the same thing - I'm a technical writer - but I'm not sure I could have described it so eloquently.

    If you have the luxury of moving to an alternate activity, such as going for a walk, working in the garden, etc., and you focus on it, sometimes that automatic part of your brain seems to 'reboot' itself and the block is broken. I like digging in the garden, pulling weeds or trimming plants, because it is kind of a mindless activity where I can just let my conscious mind drift and, bingo!, suddenly it clicks.

    Unfortunately, I don't always have the luxury of doing something else. I may be sitting in my office (I work in a big corporation) and I'm facing a deadling, so it's a matter of trying to work through the block. I've found that if I start in the middle, do the end, and then try to work at the beginning, it can help. Just get something down on paper, no matter how bad, and somehow, it may - MAY - start chipping a hole in the wall.

    Just my thoughts, for what it's worth. (Yes, in case you noticed, I can't really bring myself to use all those 'net abbreviations - too much of a purist, or maybe a snob, I guess. And I still put two spaces after the period...)

    — Claire · 2005-03-24 13:16 · #

  2. Check out my article "Twenty Years and Twenty Minutes" on my _Essay, I Say_ website. In it I explain what goes into making writing automatic in the way that you describe:

    http://www.essayisay.homestead.com/twenty.html

    Tina Blue · 2005-03-26 01:41 · #

 
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