Sometimes we writers can’t think of things to write. Or, more often, we will have ideas - good ideas, plentiful ideas, ideas bounding through the meadows of our minds like so many carefree ponies - but we will be unable to get those ideas from mind to page. This is commonly known as writer’s block. I suspect many of you beautiful, wonderful readers who so feed our souls with your voracious appetites for our words have heard of this mythical beast called Writer’s Block but don’t really know it. I want to show it to you. I want you to understand. Not so I can scrape pity from you with desperate pleading fingers, but just to share. Just in the interests of sharing. You know. “Hey, read any good books lately?” and “How was work today?” and “DEAR GOD KILL ME NOW BECAUSE MY EYES ARE BLEEDING INTERNET AND I HAVE NO WORDS LEFT EVER I AM AN EMPTY HUSK OF MEANINGLESS DRIVEL”.
Writers. So dramatic.
Okay, it’s time for some mind painting. Let’s craft some happy little trees, shall we? Except instead of trees imagine a blank canvas. Imagine Bob Ross has put a blank canvas on his easel and you’re staring at him staring at it. Now imagine that he’s asked you to paint some water. Just water. The scene narrows until all you can see is the blank canvas: not the room, not Bob, not even the paints. Just that big wide empty canvas. You know what water looks like. Your mind is full of water imagery. You can hear waterfalls crashing in your memory. You can remember the exact shade of the morning sun glinting off the lake where you camped when you were eight. You imagine a river. You imagine waves in Hawaii full of surfers. You have hundreds of ideas about water. But you can’t make your hand paint any of them. Not one. Your fingers clutch the paintbrush and it hovers over the paints just out of your sight. You should probably start with blue. Blue is an easy way to start water. But nothing happens. You can’t make a single stroke. You just stare, with increasing frustration, at that big empty white space in front of you. And the longer you stare at it the more it seems to mock you. Oceans are crashing in your mind’s eye. Rain tumbles into creeks. Fountains burble into pools. Water everywhere in your mind. But before you, like the worst insult, a blank canvas. And with a sinking feeling you start to believe it will always be blank. You don’t even know where to begin. Blue doesn’t even seem like a color anymore. Water is now trying to mentally drown you. You want to cry but crying requires a form of water and you can no longer deal with water in any form. And the canvas stretches, white and blank and horribly empty, until it consumes you.
That’s writer’s block.
“But Corinne, why would that happen? I mean why would you run out of words? That makes no sense. Why wouldn’t you just write the opening sentence?”
Yes, thank you reader in the back. I will refrain from snorting in derision because I love you for reading and I want you to come back. You’re so important to me, to all us writers, because without readers do writers say anything at all? It’s like the mime in the forest only less weird. Having said that, MY GOD is it frustrating when people just tell you to start writing. And dear readers, you’re not alone in that. Many good writers tell other writers to just start writing. Some of the best advice about writing is that it’s easier to edit existing work than it is to fill a blank page. Which means, in translation, that you shouldn’t worry about what you’re writing or how it sounds until later. You should just write. Don’t curb your ideas until they’re out of you. That’s sound advice! But almost impossible to practice. If I could just throw words at a page like monkeys with poo at a wall I’d never have to work again, you know? And also almost everything I wrote would be unbearable drivel. Thus necessitating painful hours of editing figurative (and possibly also literal) shit. If there’s one thing many writers hate more than a block, it’s editing.
I can’t tell you why writer’s block happens for every writer. I suspect it’s a highly individual thing. I can only tell you the reasons why it happens to me.
- Fear. Of not being read. Of writing the wrong thing. Or, conversely, of writing something so right that it’s alarming and reveals entirely too much of me.
- Disbelief in my ability. Generally this happens after I’ve read some fabulous work by some wildly talented author and it has changed my world (every good book will do this) and I just wallow around in doubt for a stupid amount of time believing I’ll never have anything that good to say ever.
- Empty Head Syndrome. I made this up myself. It’s how I describe the times I actually have no coherent thoughts in my head and can’t string a sentence together to save my life. Just a lot of unrelated words drifting aimless through inner space, never colliding, never gathering together.
- Too many ideas. This can result in all the ideas jostling together and elbowing each other out of the way and creating such a mass tangle of inspiration that I can’t sort them out so instead of all of them getting written in turn, none of them do.
- Distraction. True story: I started out knowing the five main reasons for my writer’s block but by the time I’d gotten to the third point I’d suddenly had an idea about a character in my novel and then gone off on a tangent in my head about gothic castles and whether above-ground crypts were common in them so that when I came to point five I typed 5 and then just sat there, fiddling with the volume on iTunes, checking Instagram, and admiring my CSI mug which, of course, made me to think about which episode I might want to watch later while remembering my favorite parts of ‘Grave Danger’ because shit that’s a great episode and I wonder if that Dukes of Hazzard board game Hodges played with Greg is an actual thing for sale - right, and, um, so the 5 just sat there until I noticed it again and still had no idea what the fifth point had been. At which point I said aloud “God I am so easily distracted” and BAM! Like Emeril. There we go. Completion.
Writer’s block is a real thing. I don’t know that there’s a cure but it’s certainly a rampant disease. If you come across a writer afflicted with this, just back away slowly. I’m fairly certain there’s nothing you can do. Unless you are a muse. If you are a muse or have muse-like abilities, go muse them straight away!
I think sometimes we just get so caught up in wanting to say something profound, in wanting to write something meaningful, that we curl up and stop writing because we’re certain we can’t find the right words. Maybe it is just better to write and let others ascribe meaning for themselves. Maybe it’s just better to be heard full stop.
I’ll try to keep that in mind next time I’m staring at a white screen with the cursor mocking me on repeat.
- Corinne Simpson