Monday 23 June 2014

Writer’s Block: The Mythical Beast that’s Really Real

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for at least year now. So why didn’t I? Was I blocked?

No. I was too busy writing.

But for more than a year before that, I was. It took me a while to acknowledge my affliction, but some time in the second half of 2012 while struggling to fulfil a contract to deliver a novel by the end of that December, I finally admitted there really was no other name for it. Once the label “writer’s block” had been applied, I spent many hours on Google, the procrastinator’s best friend, trying to figure out what was going wrong. At which point I discovered I was a work of fiction, a myth made up by lazy wannabe writers, a romanticised notion of artistic ennui that couldn’t possibly be real. Because, according to many sources, writer’s block doesn’t exist.

So if writer’s block doesn’t exist, then it must follow that the period from early 2012 to spring 2013 didn’t actually happen for me. I didn’t suffer months of anxiety and fear, I didn’t become hellish to live with, I didn’t lie awake at night convinced that I had finally been revealed as the fraud I’d kept hidden since I signed that first publishing contract. None of that was real; it was just a figment of my imagination.

The proof offered by the vast majority of writer’s block deniers is devastating in its simplicity: writer’s block cannot exist because they have never suffered from it. Let’s apply that particular logic to a couple of other life-altering psychological conditions: I’m looking forward to cooking those steaks I bought this morning, so clearly anorexia is a myth; I enjoy walking my dog in the park, so obviously agoraphobia is a load of old nonsense; I’ve never seen the attraction in betting on horse races, so naturally gambling addiction is a completely made-up problem.

Please don’t think I’m equating writer’s block with a potentially fatal condition like anorexia, that’s certainly not my point, but rather I’m trying to illustrate the peculiar blend of arrogance and ignorance that’s exhibited when one argues that because something is true for you, it must also be true for everyone else.

Let’s backtrack a bit…

Between writing my last novel, Ratlines, and the latest, The Final Silence, I went through three huge upheavals in my life. I was about a third of the way into Ratlines when our first child was born. That didn’t prove too disruptive because once the dust settled, I went to work in my local library. I left the house, and my wife and baby, every morning and took my little laptop to the corner desk of the upstairs study room, plugged in some earphones, and started writing. If I’d been working at home, I’d be happy with 1,500 to 2,000 words a day. In the library, the norm was more like 3,000 to 4,000.

Not only did I finish the novel within a matter of weeks, I also revised it several times, and wrote a spec screenplay for the first episode of a TV adaptation of the book. Then I had the enjoyable grind of editing and further rewriting until Ratlines was done and dusted and ready for the printer.

The second major upheaval was moving house. A stressful experience, certainly, but nothing we couldn’t cope with. At the same time, my agent was thrashing out a new two-book deal with my UK publisher. That worked out well, and I had security for my family and me for the next two years, now that mortgage payments on the new house were covered. All I had to do now was start writing another book.

That’s where things began to fall apart.

Around the time we were moving house, I started on the first of the two books I’d been contracted for. Like all projects, it began with that initial hot rush of ideas that we know will carry us through the first few thousand words. When it began to cool, when I had to work a little harder to maintain momentum, I wasn’t overly concerned. I kept my head down, confident I’d pick up the pace soon.

At around the 10,000 word mark I began to realise it wasn’t going to be so easy. The writing became a war of attrition, days spent chipping out word counts that numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Then, at about 13,000 words, I reread what I had from the start. With a cold dread, I realised that the last few thousand words were a directionless mess, pages and pages that moved the story not one inch forward. The literary equivalent of treading water.

At that point I realised the novel I was writing had died. The basic idea behind it was still sound, but my execution of it had failed miserably. After several months of work, I was going to have to discard what little I had to show for it.

It took days to summon the courage to email my agent in New York. I shouldn’t have been scared. His response was understanding and encouraging. I wasn’t the first of his authors this had happened to, and I wouldn’t be the last. Likewise, when I called my editor, he was similarly sympathetic. Take all the time you need, he said. The attitude was the same from all the professionals who help me with my career. Nothing but understanding and good will. Thank God, that never changed over the desperate year that followed. One of the greatest blessings in my life is the small army of people I work with in producing a novel.

No problem, then. I could just jump to the second contracted novel, a more straightforward thriller, and a direct sequel to an earlier book. Easy. Except after a few thousand words I realised I had written this book at least twice before. The same kinds of characters, the same kinds of conflicts, the same kind of plot. It was functional but formulaic, and just not good enough.

So, back to the drawing board, the blank page, and the blinking cursor. Time to explore some of those other ideas that were kicking around inside my skull. Like most writers, ideas are never a problem. Most of us have a surplus. The trick is discerning which of them have the legs to sustain the writing of a novel. Few of them do.

There are some writers to whom constructing a novel is a mechanical process, a matter of applying ideas to formulas, and they are able to produce several novels a year. They tend to be the authors that self-publishing best serves, the quick turn-around, the stack-em-high-sell-em-cheap approach to fiction. I am not one of them.

Months of false starts followed. Ideas explored, exhausted, discarded. Thousands of words written that were ultimately wasted. It seemed the harder I tried to find my way forward, the more obscured the path became. Soon the anxiety began to build, and the urge to write was driven more by fear than any will to create. That anxiety melded with the other concerns faced by most people with young families to support. Where’s the money coming from? How do I pay the bills? If I can’t hand in a decent novel, I won’t get the on-delivery portion of my advance. If I don’t get that, I don’t pay my mortgage. And now there’s another baby on the way - the third upheaval - and a biological deadline to go with contractual one that was looming on the horizon.

I’m not sure where the tipping point was, but sometime in late 2012 I experienced what I can only describe as a complete mental paralysis when it came to writing. Every part of my brain involved in dragging an idea up from my subconscious and onto a keyboard simply shut down. This was not the ‘Where do I go next?’ speed bump with which every writer of fiction is familiar. This was not the normal foot-dragging of procrastination which we all know better than we should. This was not even the common struggle of the immovable plot problem.

This was, I had to finally admit to myself, writer’s block.

Of course, I did the first thing most of us do nowadays when indulging in self-diagnosis: I Googled it. I found countless articles on how to beat writer’s block, tips and tricks to spur the muse, exercises to get the juices flowing. All, without exception, entirely useless. The key issue was that all of them addressed the normal day-today struggles of writing: how to stop procrastinating; how to resolve plot issues; how to push characters into choices that move the story forward. None of the dozens upon dozens of articles I read came anywhere near addressing the problems I was experiencing. Worse, however, was an assertion that came up over and over again:

Writer’s block doesn’t exist.

I read God knows how many articles by smart people, including writers I greatly admire, stating the same thing. And they all arrived at this conclusion using the same logic: I’ve never had writer’s block, so neither have you.

The same flawed arguments came up over and over, and here are just a few:

Writer’s block is just laziness. Well, my experience involved a great deal of hard work. For being blocked, I actually churned out a lot of words. Pity they were completely useless.

Writer’s block is romanticised procrastination. The same image was dredged up over and over: the tortured poet drinking espresso in a coffee shop, bemoaning the lack of inspiration. There was nothing romantic about my experience. In the end, all I had was fear. And I don’t like coffee.

Beating writer’s block is just a matter of sitting down and grinding through it. This is perhaps the worst advice of all. If anything, all the hours, days and weeks I spent trying to work through it only exacerbated the problem. If the cure for writer’s block is just to write, then the cure for depression is to just cheer up, and an eating disorder can be defeated by just scarfing a cheeseburger.

As 2012 became 2013, I saw no breakthrough on the horizon. I was actually having discussions with my pregnant wife about what I could do if I had to give up writing. Things really looked that grim.

In the early part of the year, a relative passed away after a short illness. As happens in these situations, it drew my wider family together, and several of us undertook the task of clearing out her house. She lived alone, and I remember the creeping feeling of intrusion as we went through her things. I wondered how the average person would feel if they knew someone was going through their most personal and intimate possessions, discovering the kinds of secrets we all keep.

Perhaps a month or two later, something remarkable happened: I had an idea. A very, very simple one. A man dies suddenly, leaving his estranged family to clear out his house. And in that house they find a journal hidden in an old desk. A memoir of murder, a catalogue of all the people he killed.

I started writing straight away. As I worked, I felt a constant worry that this idea, like all the others, would wither and die. Every time I found a scene tricky, that worry would grow to a clamour, but still I kept going. After 10,000 words or so I began to think this one was going to stick. I contacted my agent and my editor and described the premise. The both agreed that it worked. Even though our second baby was born and writing time had become a rarer commodity, 10,000 words somehow became 20,000 words, then 30,000 words. The characters took shape and began to steer the story, and they were different than the books I’d written before. They had real lives and loves, families and fears. And there was a striking difference between my previous books: no one had been murdered yet.

Around this time, I listened to an episode of John August and Craig Mazin’s excellent Scriptnotes podcast (I thoroughly recommend it to all writers, whether for page or screen - a transcript of the episode in question is available online). It featured a guest by the name of Dennis Palumbo, a screenwriter and mystery novelist who is also a practicing psychotherapist specialising in working with writers. Mr Palumbo has no doubts about the existence of writer’s block, and a great deal of his work is in tackling it. In the Scriptnotes podcast, he made a point that resonated with me. He said that all writers who come out the other side of a period of being blocked will have made a change in their writing, usually an improvement. He characterised writer’s block as a cathartic shift in the individual’s work.

That statement made me finally understand that my year-long struggle with writer’s block was the working out of a change in my style. Knowing that, I was able to go back to my new book with greater confidence and see it through – thank God – to the end. Now that I understood that I was becoming more interested in character than body count, I was able to work with that rather than against it as I had been doing for the last year or so.

The result of that struggle is The Final Silence. It’s a different novel for me. Don’t worry, it’s still pacey and dark, with a few good twists. But the story is also more rooted in its characters, and the relationships between them, their emotional journeys placed much more to the fore. It was a difficult birth, but I got there in the end.

Right now, I’m writing another book. The story I abandoned back in 2012, in fact. But I know why it wasn’t working then, and I know how to make it work now. I’m a little more than 50,000 words in, and I’ve hit a bit of a wall, a plot point I’m fighting to break through.

But it’s not writer’s block. Not this time.