by Phil Geusz
©2000 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
Writer's block is an author's worst nightmare. Once a person gets used to writing on a regular basis, the habit is very hard to break. Writer's block does exactly that, however, breaking your writing habit no matter how hard you try to keep the words coming. It's analogous to quitting heroin by the cold-turkey method. While a 'blocked' author might not become physically ill, losing the ability even temporarily to put words on paper is an unpleasant experience indeed.
The primary thing the blocked author needs to keep in mind is that every serious writer goes through unproductive phases. None of us gets off scot-free. The trick lies therefore not in avoiding writer's block, which is demonstrably impossible. Rather, the wise author remains calm, recognizing that block is simply a normal part of the creative cycle, and seeks a cure.
I've read of a lot of potential fixes over the years. Some of them include traveling abroad, reading a new and different type of book from your usual fare, and attending lectures on a subject you've never studied. All of these seem to me to share a common thread -- the exposure of the blocked writer to new experiences and viewpoints. Much of the creative process revolves around reassembling familiar ideas and concepts into new and different shapes. Adding new experiences and ideas to one's repertoire is very much like offering a mason a new type of building stone to work with, or giving an artist a new medium to explore. Whole new vistas can be opened by the simplest of new concepts.
Another good way to break block, at least for me, is to switch genres. For example, I tend to write this column when fiction ideas just don't seem to be coming. Non-fiction has always been the most comfortable thing for me to write; in fact my only formal training in writing comes from High School journalism classes. I also write political tracts (usually relating to my job) and sometimes news articles for the Union paper. Doing these things reminds me, when things are dry, that I still can do useful work at the keyboard and that someday the drought will end. I also use dry periods to write experimental stuff like Doyoudoyoudoyou Love Forevermore? (which appeared in Fang, Claw and Steel), Hubris, and most recently Of Giving and Of Love. In this way, it is not stretching things too much to say that I've grown more as a writer from being blocked than from being productive. Deliberately changing my accustomed style is (for me at least) challenging, fun, educational and block-breaking.
Editing is another useful way to help break block. (And even if you don't break it you will still have at least gotten some writing work finished that probably needed to be done anyway.) Every story needs to be edited over and over -- I am reminded of reading a collection of vintage Asimov works in the Eighties that he had written in the Forties and Fifties. His introduction explained that he had just edited and touched them up yet again, thirty to forty years after first writing them. I edit every work submitted for publication at least five times, and every story I want posted on the 'net at least three times (though I sometimes find, to my annoyance, that the person who owns the web page persists in posting the older, unretouched version.) I have hundreds of hours of editing work lying around that needs to be done at any given time, and the very thought of getting started is often enough to make me try just that little bit harder for a new story idea. (I find writing new material much more fun and rewarding than rewrite and editing.)
There's also no reason whatsoever that a writer must demand of himself high quality at all times. My idol, Robert Heinlein, wrote some real stinkers during his long career. And so have I. I've started dozens of stories that have never been finished or seen daylight, and have frequently posted stuff that I knew was far from my best work. Any writer that expects his work to continually get better is doomed to frustration and failure! Life just isn't like that, and you should not demand the impossible of yourself. As I've stated in other articles, Asimov wrote over 600 books during his long career, and heaven knows how many short stories. Yet when asked what he thought his best work was, he always pointed to two shorts written very early in his career. Was the rest of his writing life wasted? Of course not! He was one of the most beloved writers in history. And none of his later stuff would ever even have been written by someone who irrationally insisted on constant improvement!
(And, as I like to remind myself on bad days, he was still getting rejection slips while on his deathbed. Everyone gets rejected, just like everyone gets blocked.)
I've saved what I believe to the single most important element for last, however. And that is your work ethic as a writer. I've seen lots and lots of writers claim to be blocked who didn't seem to be very upset at all by the fact. Maybe I'm the cynical sort, but I often secretly wonder how hard many of these folks are really trying to keep going. Block to them is, I rather suspect, a fashionable and readily acceptable excuse for playing video games or chatting on-line instead of typing. A writer who has quit writing is, after all, merely a washed-up ex-writer, while a blocked author can still lay legitimate claim to a title that for reasons mysterious to me carries a degree of prestige. Block is a very real phenomenon, don't get me wrong. I've experienced it myself, sad to say. But it's also a darned handy excuse. And if an author once starts looking for excuses not to write, he will find them by the score.
I don't remember who said this, but it's the perfect quote to close on. "You need luck to be successful, sure. But it's simply amazing how often you discover that the lucky people also happen to have worked really, really hard..."