It was a dark, November night. The sort of night when there are no stars and the air is choked with the smell of old bonfires. We sat in the conservatory with a bottle of Australian Shiraz and watched a hedgehog stumble across the rough flagstones of my patio in search of slugs. My friend turned to me and uttered the dreadful words: “I’m blocked.”
My mind raced. Why was he discussing his bowel problems with me? Had our relationship moved to a new level? Should I tell my wife?
“I can’t write.”
As he spoke, his face contorted into a shape I had only seen once and then on the face of a dying gnu as a crocodile leapt from a pool and bit it on the nose. This was serious.
Being a bloke I said nothing and drank more Shiraz, hoping he would not bare his soul until I was blind drunk, but, uncaring of my sensitivities, he continued.
“I found out last night. I opened my laptop, went to the file wherein lies my novel and there was nothing.”
“What!” I ejaculated, being tired of using said, cried, shouted and all the others, but unable to leave the dialogue alone. “You mean your data had vanished?”
“No.” His face was old in the light from a passing 747. “I started to write and my fingers would not move. I had no idea of what should happen next. I read the previous twenty pages and my mind was a blank.”
I hesitated to remind him that as a romantic novelist that was his usual state.
“It’s worse than the time I discovered I wasn’t the great-grandson of Charles Dickens,” he said.
We talked into the small hours, truth emerging in direct ratio to the amount of wine consumed and it was revealed that he had lost faith in his novel. He thought the storyline trite, the story arc unrefined and his characters wooden and unlovable.
So, I agreed to read it.
It was good writing. Storyline fine, characters rounded, story arc coming along nicely and not a split infinitive in sight. Not that I would have cared about the latter; for me only meaning and comprehension are important, not grammar. The only tiny problem with it was that it was overwritten and needed cutting.
I told him so.
The next day he rang me to say he was writing again.
So what had changed? Only one thing. Someone other than his family had told him it was okay, apart from a little overwriting.
There is no such thing as writer’s block. It does not exist. What we call writing block is a temporary lack of confidence. Now some writers will, no doubt, say “bosh” or “tosh” or something ruder in response to my assertion.
I can accept that, but I would ask those folks to examine what it is that is blocked, the next time something appears to be.
Don’t just go “ I can’t f***in’ write, okay?” because if you sat down with a piece of paper you could write a shopping list or an old nursery rhyme or a description of your knees. So, what you are saying is “I can’t f***in’ write what I think I should be writing in the way I believe I want to write it”.
That’s fair enough. But, you are not blocked, you are simply being prescriptive and trying to force your subconscious mind into doing something it finds unacceptable.
The answer? Write something else. Start a new story. Do an essay, three lines of haiku or a letter to your pet gerbil. If you cannot do that then you are not a writer. You are either a dilettante and should be effaced from the memory of mankind, or you are physically incapable, or you are so far up yourself that you can see your toes as if from the International Space Station.
I know something about the subconscious. Not a lot, but…I know it’s brighter than you. Or rather, brighter than your conscious mind.
When it make life difficult by temporarily preventing you writing what you think you ought to be writing then it is doing so because you should not be writing what you think you ought to be writing, but writing something else, or writing it in a different way. Phew! Long sentence. I’ve grown older than I thought, or at last I’ve become Tolstoy.
Take notice. Make friends with your subconscious – it is the source of your creativity and is even responsible for ensuring your heart beats and your kidneys work, so do not mess with it, okay?
My friend’s subconscious knew he had overwritten and was telling him to desist. Once he (the holistic ‘he’) realised that the conscious and the subconscious were in accord and happily playing in the sand, the supposed blockage evaporated.
There are many reasons why we sometimes have the inability to write what we want to write, but there are no reasons – apart from physical incapacity – why we cannot write something.
No one travels
Along this way but I,
This autumn evening.
Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) wrote this haiku on the way to the supermarket, after being unable to write his shopping list. He had stumbled over sushi and been troubled by tofu, but two hours after writing the haiku, he was able to resume writing the shopping list, which resulted in him being regarded as the most influential shopping list writer of the Edo period in Japan.
Note: the last paragraph might be untrue.