Victor J. Banis is back with some very wise counsel about what to do when writer’s block hits, which it will. Every writer experiences it – it doesn’t matter how famous he or she is.
James Jones once said, “No one can help you. A writer is alone with it, by the nature of it.”
I mention this because it seems to me that a whole generation of would-be writers are spending their time in coffee houses and cafes, tapping on their laptops.
I think this is a pleasant enough way to spend your day if you are interested less in becoming a writer than in posing as one in the hope of eliciting the admiration or envy of others. (Be forewarned: not everyone admires or envies writers.) Jonathan Kellerman has a character in one of his novels remark that when an aspiring student says he wants to be a writer, he knows there is no hope for him, but when he says he wants to write, there is at least a slight hope.
If you are really serious about it, for Pete’s sake, go home and write. Jones had that right, at least. To do it right, you have to be alone with it.
Now, some of you are already thinking about your writing classes and writers’ groups. I have no doubt they serve their purposes, though I am reminded of Stephen King’s pithy remark: “It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.”
I don’t pretend to know everything about how the mind works, but I do know that one feels the urge to write because one has something one wants to express and can’t think how to express it any other way. That dab of grit, if you will. I think the writer and indeed the artist in every field is responding to an itch that he hasn’t been able to successfully scratch otherwise.
The process is a bit like a steam cooker. The pressure grows within you and writing allows you to let off some of the steam. You can release the pressure as well by talking it out. The problem is that as the pressure wanes so does the need to write that drives the writer to the word processor and keeps him there.
I don’t say that you can’t ever pick someone else’s brain or occasionally talk out some knotty plot twist that has stymied you; but, for myself I have never discussed a novel or any aspect of it at length with anyone else without losing some of that urge, that inexorable drive, to get it down on paper. You may have better luck—or you may not. Do you really want that great novel to die on the vine because you have talked it to death with someone else? This is a kind of writer’s block—the worst kind, really, because it’s almost impossible to get that enthusiasm back once it wanes.
However, I do think it is good for the writer to be around other writers if only on the internet. It’s hard for non-writers to understand what you are going through. If you are like me, you get crabbier and more anti-social as a book progresses. If you don’t, there is probably something wrong. I don’t know of any writers of any consequence who don’t look for ways to shut themselves off from the world while they are writing. I have read that Simenon would check himself into a hotel for two weeks and even set up a work table in the bathroom so that the maids could come in and clean without interrupting him.
Not every writer goes quite that far but the deeper you get into the world of your novel the harder it becomes to relate to the day to day issues in your non-book world. The characters in your novel become more real to you than your next door neighbors and your friends, even your significant other.
This is a necessity. In order for you to make these characters and their world real to the reader they must be real to you; shuttling back and forth between two worlds becomes increasingly difficult and wearisome.
Another writer knows all this in a way that non-writers do not because he has been there too. Non-writers expect you to go to the party and be witty as if you were interested in the people around you—and indeed you might well be, but just not at this time. They will expect you to carry on an intelligent conversation about something having nothing to do with the world in which you are currently immersed. They will want you to care about, to love and be friends with them, and will be unable to understand that your entire attention and your every emotion is focused on some individual trying to escape from inside your head onto a piece of white paper. These are situations that can lead to divorce, to murder—possibly even to a chapter in your next book.
Non-writers tend to think you are not working if your fingers aren’t moving over the keyboard. Many of them don’t think you are working even then. As a writer you get used to hearing, “You don’t work during the day, couldn’t you pick up the dry cleaning?” Worse, no matter how you explain that you want to be left alone for the next two or three hours, as soon as your fingers grow still you are fair game for conversation.
Perhaps most important of all, only another writer truly understands that you are always writing, day and night, even in your sleep. You may be having a heated quarrel with your lover and really be into it but there is still that little part of your brain taking notes (“Aha, that’s good, I can use that in Chapter Six…”).
In the middle of making love you are conscious of which way the toes point and the raspy sound of excited breath in the ear. The taste of a wonderful cioppino is not just a gustatory pleasure but fodder for the voluminous files in your writer’s memory. Without these files you can’t bring your story to life in a way that makes a connection with the reader.
Most writing instructors insist that you write every day. The point is to make a habit of it. It’s sort of like telling your muse, “Okay, here is when I am available, if you want to drop by.” In time, she too will get into the habit. Still, you are going to discover that some days you will feel inspired and some days you will not.
Just go ahead and do what you can. If nothing at all comes—yes, we’re back to the dreaded “writer’s block”—don’t try to force it. If you don’t know, say, how to get your heroine and the villain alone together in a car on a dark country road (and this is probably because you’re trying to push your characters around instead of letting them lead you), do not doggedly make up a scene. Ask yourself—aloud is best, at least if you are alone, though it may get you funny looks on the subway—“How do I…?” and let it go at that. Which is to say, let your subconscious mind (and, ideally, your characters) work on it.
If the problem comes back to nag at you, as it almost certainly will, just ask yourself again, “Okay, fine, but how do I…?” Sooner or later your subconscious mind will get the hint.
That is not to say that if you stare at the blank page for a minute or two and no words pop into your mind, that you have my permission to go water the garden. Stay where you for a while at least, to see what develops.
Have a drink of water. That may sound trivial, but the brain works better when it is well watered, and when in doubt as to when more water will be coming, it tends to hoard what it has. When you take a sip of water (mind you, not coffee or carbonated sodas or alcohol, but water) the mouth immediately signals the brain that help is on the way, the brain releases the fluids it’s been hoarding—and ideas start to come.
Edit something you wrote the day before. Type out a line or two about a possible character. Invent someone and give him a physical description. Or just reread what you have already written. You started with an idea; going back to it may remind you. Let the elusive muse know that you are still there waiting patiently for her to show up. Elizabeth Gilbert suggests looking across the room as if your muse is standing there and saying, aloud, “Okay, here I am, I’m doing my part. Now it’s your turn.”
This, really, is the point of writing every day, of making it a habit, because the muse does get in the habit of visiting, sometimes on days when you are not even aware she is whispering to you. This is why, too, you want to be alone—that voice in your ear can be tiny indeed and hard to hear. It is easy to miss it in the chatter of a coffeehouse, however delightful that chatter may be.
Walter Mosely says that writing a novel is working with smoke. Or ghosts. The ideas, the characters, the words, are ephemeral. When they first come to you they are no more than wisps and you must do what you can to get something of their nature down on paper. Then you must come back to them the next day. Your subconscious mind will have worked on them and hopefully fleshed them out just a little. With each day they become more substantial. But if you wait a week, those initial scribblings will likely be meaningless to you when you read them back. They are only words. The ghost that wanted to enliven them for you has given up and departed. They are jealous, these spirits, and easily offended.
Physical athletes often rely on the body in union with the subconscious mind to duplicate winning moves for them. The tennis player bounces the ball three times before she serves, maybe she tugs at her pigtails, or stomps her left foot twice. This is what she did when she served that perfect ace, and hopefully the body will remember and do the same again.
Of course, it goes without saying, every writer is different. John Cheever liked to write in his underwear and Hemingway wrote standing up. Flannery O’Conner liked to face the back of a clothes dresser and Kent Haruf likes to pull a stocking cap down over his eyes and write—literally—blind.
You may be one of those writers who find it better just to get away from the blank page from time to time. If, after staring for a while at the keyboard in frustration, nothing seems to be happening (but do remember, sometimes the muse whispers), try going for a walk—alone, as a companion’s voice may drown out the voice you really want to hear. In addition to drinking plenty of water, a bit of exercise can up your circulation, and the brain will work better for that, too.
Again, don’t wrestle with your plot problem while you’re walking. Writer’s block is all about tension and fear. Nagging at yourself will only increase them. It’s like trying to wrestle with your shadow. Enjoy your walk. Smell the flowers. Listen to a bird’s song. Let the ideas come to you when they are ready.
If none of these tricks work, here is one that almost always works to get you past that blockage. If you have an earlier, published book, pick it up and begin copying from it. You are reminding your writing self how you did it.
If this is your first novel, pick a book by someone else, preferably in a similar vein to what you are trying to create—and, ideally, someone whose talent is confirmed.
The most important thing to learn is to trust your instincts. It is hard to get used to the idea, but even when you think, on a conscious level, that you are entirely at sea, the Writer within knows exactly where your boat is headed and will get you safely into port if you get yourself out of the way and let him do his job.
One final point: Do not confuse facts with the truth. You must not let your facts get in the way of your fiction. That is the road to pedantry. But good writing, all good writing, is about the truth. All stories are true on some level. If you find yourself at a brick wall, it may be because you haven’t yet gotten down to that most fundamental kernel within. You haven’t made clear to yourself just what it is that you want to say, beyond the structure of plot.
Find the truth of your story. It is this to which your readers will respond on the deepest level. We all recognize the universal truths when we encounter them because we already knew them somewhere inside, though we may not know that we know them.
This is why when we read in a book some fundamental truth of the human condition, of love or fear or Good or Evil, we respond with the “Yes, that is so,” of recognition, and not with the “Gee, I never knew that” of discovery. That wisdom was already there in our hearts, waiting for the light to be shined upon it. This is the writer’s, the artist’s job, to light the way for us to the best and wisest within ourselves.
The art of the storyteller is as old as humankind. We go back with man to his earliest beginnings. We are the spirit of all his dreams, the seed of all his religions. Can you think of a holy book that isn’t, in essence, a book of stories, stories in which man has tried to understand his nature and the nature of the universe?
I have said before, and say again, as writers, we are custodians in the oldest of man’s holy temples. All of the arts are sacred, but the most sacred of all is the art of the storyteller, for it is from his labors that all of the rest have sprung.
Write with love, write with joy, and write with pride.
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