Wednesday 29 May 2013

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

For six years now I have blogging non-stop, except during holiday periods, when I usually take a break. Since June 2007 I have been putting out at least a blogpost per week (at some point it was three weekly columns) about subjects that interest me: music, literature, food and the role of fathers/male carers in today’s world, to name a few. You could say that with his broad palette of ideas and topics I have kept my muse active – and in full-time employment; very important in these economically straitened times. I would agree with that. I am one of those lucky souls who seem to have something to wax lyrical about on a regular basis. However, after reading a recent article in The New Yorker about writer’s block I was left speechless and pensive. Have I been really lucky? Is writer’s block a fact or a myth?

Of course, to call myself a writer is taking my online hobby a bit too far and possibly even giving it a gravitas that you might think it lacks. Yet, I use the word writer in its broadest sense, i.e., “a person who writes”, not, “a person who writes books and sells by the dozen”.

John McPhee, the author of the article in The New Yorker, is a writer, as in a “person who writes books and sells by the dozen”. Almost thirty books so far, plus countless pieces for the aforementioned magazine and Time. He is not someone I would picture as having ever suffered from writer’s block. And yet...

McPhee begins his piece with a hypothetical Joel, one of the many Joels who write to him asking him advice on their mental obstructions. John's answer is a mix of comedy and pragmatism. He asks Joel to think of a grizzly bear. When words fail to materialise to describe what this grizzly bear gets up to, McPhee asks Joel to write to his mother about the grizzly bear, and also about his frustration, his desperation and, above all, his block. Once he gets off his chest whatever he wants to tell his mother, the student (for I am assuming that Mr McPhee is a writing tutor) deletes all the references to his progenitor and has only the grizzly bear to deal with. Afresh.

We used to employ a similar technique at the impro troupe of which I was part when I was in uni. It worked wonders. The only difference was that we left the mother's bits in, too. We used to sit in a circle and someone would start a story with a sentence, say: “Peter went to the park”. Another actor had to annex another line whilst repeating the same one, for instance. “Peter went to the park and found a coin”. The key was in coming up with the next sentence in three seconds or less. If someone hesitated, they were asked to sit outside the circle. The other important element was to keep the story moving forward. Sometimes the instructor demanded that no one use conjunctions that could stem the flow, such as: but, however, yet, nevertheless, etc. The game was fun and it contributed to quick-thinking.

Does writer’s block spring from lack of this mental agility? Or should we look for the genesis of it in the disparity between a writer’s expectation(s) and the reality she/he faces? John McPhee’s facetious assertion that “You could be Joel, even if your name is Jenny. Or Julie,, Jillian, Jim, Jane, Joe. You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are struck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose is seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.

Now, you probably understand why I didn’t call myself a writer in the narrow sense of the word at the beginning of this post. If I ever do finish that damned novel I have been working on for years, I wouldn't like to give birth to stillborn sentences. I would like my passages – if/when they are ever born – to weigh between ten and eleven pounds and to be delivered naturally. Preferably in a little pool. I love water births.

But you see John’s point. Being a writer means dealing with the idea that you won’t like what you produce very much; especially first drafts. It is this panic of exposing yourself, revealing your innermost truths, what sometimes hinders good authors from becoming great authors. First drafts are like first auditions for amateur actors. You are suddenly facing a whole audience (your future comrades-in-arms in the am-dram troupe) and you are being asked to play a paedophile in an improvisation exercise. Self-consciousness doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Is it inevitable, writer’s block? Is it like chicken pox or measles, which you are bound to get at some point in your life (and cast your mind back and remember your parents and how happy they were if you caught them when little)?

This is one of those puzzles for which I have no answer. I spend an awful lot of time online visiting other blogs and I never cease to be amazed by other fellow bloggers’ constant literary output and the outstanding quality of it. The Claudias, Brians, Marys, Daves and Pats of this world write and post poems on a regular basis, many times following a prompt. They don’t seem to suffer from any mental impediment. Is writer’s block a myth, then? And if real, is it self-inflicted?

No, I don’t think it is a myth, or self-inflicted. I guess that sometimes as readers, especially if you read lots of books, you will, sooner or later, be affected at a conscious level by the author in whose work you are engrossed. That could explain the constant change of style and voice in that first draft.

The other factor could well be the “Who am I kidding” question, which John McPhee still asks himself after more than forty-odd years of writing. That’s certainly happened to me. Before writing this post I checked the last time I had put pen to paper to write a poem. April 2005. That’s more than eight years ago. There’s a poetry competition coming up now in June in Argentina and I had a few ideas for half a dozen poem. Plus my muse has been flying low and close around, and... Who am I kidding?

Of all the art forms, writing is, perhaps, the most perversely intimate and open at the same time. Perverse, because there is a wilfulness about it. Like one of Laura Marling's album titles, I Speak Because I Can. Or I Write Because I Can, as some people might put it. Intimate, because like it or not, there will be elements of your own life that will seep into your writing. And open because ultimately a writer (blogger or the one who sells books by the dozen) wants to be read.

No wonder writing is such an existential ordeal. Even our hypothetical friend, the grizzly bear, would agree with that.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd June at 10am (GMT)


  1. No writers block for me, ever. There is always a way just have to think about it.

  2. As a reader, not a writer, I am filled with awe at the number of talented writers I find. In literature and not least in the blogosphere. And so very grateful that they have all defeated (or never suffered) writer's block.

  3. Perhaps you could say that writer's block is mental tiredness or the need to get inspiration...

  4. I do think that when one writes one does face that kind of panic over exposing one's innermost thoughts....whether in prose or in poetry. But for me oftentimes taking the risk does turn out to be worth it, but pushing PUBLISH can bring about a sense of momentary panic. I remind myself that the works of others I enjoy most do just that....share a person's realness, a person's depth.

    As I think this morning about writers' block, I wonder if it really is a block in writing......or a block in what one WANTS to think about (as writing breeds deep thinking) or if perhaps it is a block in what we want to SHARE with other people, what we want to expose of ourselves to those who read our words.

  5. I'd definitely call you a writer! A very graphic one too as writing sentences that weigh between 8-10 pounds in a pool of water will forever be burned on my memory. lol Now finish that book!

  6. i dont believe in writers block personally...i think it is a myth when we dont feel like writing...a convenient excuse....often we fall into comparison as well which locks us up, even when we compare to ourselves.....there is inspiration all around us to be found, if we are looking....

  7. I've experienced both, the blocks and the rushes, and they exist in all areas, in simple tasks as well.
    When that happens, I look for inspiration, in new areas, in new circles.

  8. ha smiles...i like that grizzly bear..smiles... haven't made up my mind rgd. writer's block yet.. personally i don't do everything i do with the same intensity all the time... i play saxophone like a mad man at times, then i dont touch it at all..the same with painting, guitar, piano...writing...doing it only for three years and still having smiles... and i is something very intimate

  9. Hi - all very interesting. For me the issue is not so much writer's block as choices as to what to focus on, and sometimes a lack of faith that any of it matters. Those are my biggest problems at least. I am not very happy if not writing, but I sometimes have no faith that any of my work is the least bit worth while, and also I have a very hard time encapsulating all the projects in both (i) the available time and (ii) the available faith. All difficult. Thanks for the post. (I do find exercises very useful.) k.

  10. Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. Faith in oneself features highly in your feedback and that's what I get when I visit your blogs. Have a great weekend.

    Greetings from London.

  11. i sometimes get what to cook block he he

  12. Cil I really find you are a good writer and you have a deep and smart mind!

  13. "writers block" nay. don´t think that is any special thing for writers. Happens to everyone. For me at can be I suddenly don´t SEE. I don´t see anything beautiful or anything worth capturing. I think it is about the brain, for a while, being overloaded. And need a break sorting things out.

    Glad you liked my cranes. Probably the best comment I have ever recieved. :)

  14. Interesting, your drama exercises. I have always tended to equate writers block with a drying up of ideas. I can't imagine a writer having a good idea and not being able to start in on it. But your thoughts that it might be a lack of verbal agility deserves some consideration, I think. I am also left with the thought that a writer may have an idea, but be censoring it because it seems too way out, in poor taste or whatever. (I do think you have demonstrated ell enough that you are a writer in every sense of the word.)

  15. David, a published writer I know, has often told me he never gets writer's block, just good-writing blocked. He is filled with envy of people who claim their books FLOW out of them(I am not envious, because I don't believe it for a minute).

    I write a blog, but am not a writer. I rarely even edit(though some think I should ;). If I have unexpected complications while writing something, I stop & delete. But then, I don't have many posts relative to some bloggers, so...

    Whatever you are as far as writing goes, what you write you write well, sometimes lyrically so.~Mary

  16. Agree with Elephant's child. There are so many bloggers who write good and sensible articles. There is no dearth of matter.

  17. Hay que imitar a un buen escritor como tú mi querido cubano ser de mente abierta es una bendición,saludos y abrazos.

  18. Man, I'd like to write a wizdomly comment, but am stopped cold by--you guessed it--writer's block.

    Again, one who writes..PERIOD, it is with a 'happy' I read this post. Almost makes me feel like, well, ONE OF THE GUYS!

    You DO write well. So get those 12 books out before the blockage builds up again.

    ...and thanks for comeing over to "fourth dimension".

  19. Writer's block is one of my greatest makes me feel a failure who should probably not be writing at all!
    But then when it inevitably passes, and the flow returns, I wonder how I could ever have thought of giving up my greatest love!
    Oh how we suffer for our art!!! Haha:D

  20. Is it so VERY mysterious? Writer's block, I mean. Sometimes I just don't feel like communicating. It happens.

    Your writing is first class. These days I don't think writers need to put their work in books, unless they want to be paid for it, or have the kudos of being published.



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