Writer’s Block

A few weeks ago, I invited readers of these Wanderings to let me know if there was anything they’d like to hear me wander on about.  Several people sent suggestions. Oddly, all were sent to my e-mail, rather than to the blog site.  Feel free to write me at jane2@janelindskold.com if you have something you’d like me to write about, but you’re too shy to post it here.

One of the topics I was asked about was Writer’s Block.  That particular issue caught my attention this week because, while I haven’t been blocked, I’ve had so many competing demands on my time that I found it hard to get back into my current novel (the sequel to Artemis Awakening) after I finished the short story I mentioned a couple weeks ago.  I finally gave myself permission to get the packages out, do the Christmas cards, plan holiday menus, and, basically, clear the decks so I could be a writer again.

My Salvation

My Salvation

So…  Here’ s the question.  “You always hear about ‘writer’s block.’  What do you do when you get ‘stuck’ creatively?    Does taking a break get you back on track?  How often does it happen?  What’s the worst you’ve ever experienced?”

Okay.  Let’s start with defining writer’s block, because there are a lot of misunderstandings about what it is.  Writer’s block is completely different from being “stuck” – that is, uncertain about where to take a story or how to resolve a problem in the plot or how to develop a character.  Pauses in the development of a story are something that every writer faces.  I talked some about how I deal with these hitches in the writing process in “Walking Away From It” (WW 8-11-10).

Writer’s block is completely different.  Writer’s block is a crippling inability to write.  I’m a disciplined and determined writer.  If I hadn’t encountered writer’s block personally, I think I’d be inclined to believe that it’s just an excuse not to write.  However, I’ve had it.  I know it’s real.  And really terrible.

Here’s what happened…  Many years ago, when I was teaching at Lynchburg College in Virginia, I also was working hard on getting established as a fiction writer.  Every day, no matter how demanding my day job, I’d make time to write.  When I finished a story and polished it, I’d send it out to one of the SF/F magazines.  Then I’d put it out of my mind and start something new.  When a story came back with a rejection, I’d go over it, then send it out again.  (This was in the late 1980s or early 1990s, so neither disposable manuscripts nor electronic submissions and correspondence had become routine.)

There came a day when I had five short stories out.   I was feeling hopeful that one of them would get published.  I came home from work, unlocked the tiny mailbox in my apartment house entryway, and found every single story I’d sent out smashed into the box.  Each had a form rejection.  I’m not sure that anyone had even looked at them.

My gut lurched, but I didn’t realize how hard that torrent of rejection had hit me until I sat down that evening to write.  I’d been working on a story.  I curled up with my pen and clipboard (I always wrote rough drafts long-hand) and my hand began to shake.  I couldn’t write a single word.   The story had vanished.  All I could envision was more rejection.  Maybe the couple of stories I’d already sold had been flukes.  Maybe I didn’t have what it took.

I gave myself that night off and graded papers instead.  The next night, I sat down to write.  Again, I started shaking.  Night after night, this went on.   It was horrible.  I could write letters.  I could write material for my classes.  I could write non-fiction.  But writing a story was impossible.

(I’ve got to pause here.  My heart’s racing with remembered fear and pain.)

What saved me was that my desire to tell a story was stronger than my fear that no one but me would ever read it.  I was teaching a course on mythology and one of my students asked, “Dr. Lindskold, I just don’t get this Orpheus guy.  What is it he does?”  I considered, then I said, “Well, Shannon, did you ever hear the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin when you were a kid?  Orpheus was like that, except that it wasn’t just children or rats that were charmed by his music, it was everything,.  Even rocks or trees would try to get closer to him when he began to sing.”

And as the discussion continued, as we moved on to the eventual tragedy of Orpheus’s life, a small part of my brain that had been too long dormant came alive.  “What if,” it said, “Orpheus didn’t die?  What if he escaped the maenads?  What if he somehow lived to become the Pied Piper?”

That night, I took out pen and paper for the first time in forever.  I wasn’t writing, I assured myself.  I was just making a few notes.  Every page I filled, I slid to the back of my clipboard unread, unreviewed.  After all, I wasn’t writing.  Eventually, I had more than the clip could hold.  I put these in a folder and stuffed the folder on a shelf.  I kept writing until I had the longest thing I’d ever written.  Somewhere along the way, the block was beaten.

If this were a movie, I would then sell the novel immediately, win awards, and thumb my nose at those who had rejected me.  What happened in reality was that, even though this was a long piece, it wasn’t long enough.  When I sent it out, it got rejected.  However, eventually I expanded it, adding a second part to the story.  It would come out many years later as my third published novel, The Pipes of Orpheus.

I hope that answers the questions.  To me, writer’s block is different than simply getting “stuck.”  Since it has its roots in something more complex, simply taking a break won’t be enough to fix the problem.  It’s called “writer’s block,” not “writer’s stuck” for a reason, and being blocked is hell for a writer.  To answer the one remaining question, it’s only happened once to me.  I hope and pray it never happens again.

Have any of you been blocked?  How did you deal with it?  How do you deal with being stuck?  I’m sure we’d all enjoy hearing how you get back into sync with your Muse.

12 Responses to “Writer’s Block”

  1. Scot Noel Says:

    Jane, the writer’s block you’re describing happens to more than fiction writers and even in fields other than writing. We have a small, family owned web development company. Part of the daily work is sending out proposals and submitting designs for approval.

    Occasionally we’ll run into a streak where several proposals are rejected at once; where no matter what we do to the design, it just doesn’t connect with our client, and twice this year we’ve returned deposits and cancelled projects because they just weren’t going anywhere.

    These things can shake our confidence every bit as much as your bad postal day shook yours. Have we lost our touch? Are we charging too much? Is our competition eating our lunch? It weighs on the designers when they sit down to work on the next proposal or mockup the next graphic. They can get “stuck” too, just as if they were trapped in an invisible cage and anticipating another electric shock from an unseen and sadistic mad scientist testing their sanity.

    Sometimes there is a great temptation to lower prices, try a new design style, offer a new product. Essentially trying to figure out where the mad scientist wants us to run in the maze.

    We resist the temptation to jump just because we’re being “shocked” by distressing results. We’ve been at this now for 15 years. The next contract will come. The next client will be delighted with what we provide. And somehow when we raise our prices, they’ll appreciate us more.

    Now, I kind of made that sound like a magic, happy ending; it’s not really. We do suffer when the news is bad. It does interrupt our creative flow. And we’re very lucky to have a solid foundation for our business that allows us the luxury of weathering a storm here and there.

    More than anything else, patience, persistence, hard work, and the dedication to improve ourselves and be partners to our clients keeps us going, and growing every year.

    The bad news and the bad breaks will come, and like you, we’ll take the hit, fret for a while, and get over it. We love what we do, and we’ll find the right people to serve with our talents, no matter what it takes.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    As I’ve gained experience, I’ve also gained experiencES. I actually hit true writer’s block (I think) just last weekend.

    I’m working toward self-publishing a novel. I find this publisher that take submissions (mostly to weed out the hacks), but is highly recommended by a former writing teacher and my eventual content editor. I go through the steps, submit my query, sample chapters, then *Gasp* a synopsis! With direction though, I write a good one and send it to my editor for proof reading before sending it to the publisher.

    She comes back and tells me I need to revamp the first four chapters (Like, massively), and then there’s a section late in the book that needs to be cut entirely and replaced with something else. After some pondering, I realize she’s right on both counts.

    Well it threw me. Here I was, I thought the story was done, now I have MAJOR rewriting to do. The creative side of me ran away and hid for a few days. I was pretty much in a funk, and wasn’t sure I could do what needed doing. I ran round in circles with all the excuses I could think of.

    In way, what I did is I surrendered to it. As odd as it sounds, often I find I get over “jolts” and other major stresses if I surrender to them like I’m letting a kid on a tantrum just do what he’s gonna do. This works (for me at least) because like that kid, I quickly run out of gas. The stress starves fast, leaving only the truth, and what meaningful thoughts or ideas came out of the tantrum.

    Generally speaking, when I’m “Stuck”, I just either continue to attack it until I find an angle that works, or I leave it be for a while and get my brain somewhere else. Watch an episode on DVD, play on my MMO, anything to get my mind off the block. It usually doesn’t take much before I’m past it.

    Plus when all else fails, I turn to my mom. She remains a wise, honest, and straight forward sounding board who always helps me see things from another angle I never thought of. What’s in a way annoying is something, she doesn’t need to say a word. She’ll just sit there and I’ll talk, and then I’ll talk at myself (and her sort of), then I’ll vanish into my room to work on whatever brilliant idea I just had.

    And she doesn’t mind at all.

  3. Paul Genesse Says:

    Hi Jane,

    I hate it when I can’t summon the strength to write. It’s happened a number of times to me as well, for various reasons. Thank you for sharing your story about writers block. I’ll think of it when I’m on a panel about it, or when someone asks me about it. Personally, I’ve struggled with it, and most of the time I’m just not in the frame of mind to write. I need to rethink what I’m doing and figure out a solution to some scene issue, or a personal situation I need to resolve.

    It’s never without pain, but sometimes I find that if I prepare really well, the writing is easier.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    Scot’s insight that many jobs are subject to demoralization was a good one. And Nicholas shows he has what it takes by realizing that it’s better to do a good job than to have finished job. Bravo!

    And I’m glad to give Paul Genesse grist for the mill.

    Writer’s block is scary. Heck, even being “stuck” can be scary. But with insight, it can be beaten.

    Anyone else with tools for doing so is welcome to add them to our growing kit.

  5. Other Jane Says:

    I’m not a writer, but I still found your story to be frightening. Do you find that your discipline keeps writers block at bay?

    I’m certainly happy to found a way to past it and continue to tell your stories.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Discipline can work with beating the “stuck,” but beating the block takes something more, sometimes it’s finding a way to fool yourself that you’re not doing what threatened you. Sometimes, it’s recognizing what is getting in the way. I can’t remember if I put in the introduction to the re-pub of CHANGER how close that book came to never getting finished because it was the book I was working on when Roger died.

  6. frederickpwalter Says:

    Jane– Very inspiring! I applaud your honesty and explicitness! Since rejection can unhinge so many of us, this sharing of your “experience, strength, and hope” (as they say in 12-step pgms.) is a gift to us all. Many thanks, Rick.

  7. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I’m a printmaker. I’ve had several instances of being blocked, over the years. The first time, I was still in art school (I majored in painting), and I panicked. I called my aunt, also an artist, and she acknowledged the difficulty I was going through, but assured me that it was temporary. She was right. I don’t remember what happened after that, other than that eventually I got unblocked. But over the years, it’s happened again and again. The key for me seems to be going to a different place, whether physically or metaphorically. One time, (I don’t remember the cause, but it was about 10 years ago) I was going nowhere and felt hopeless, feeling that nothing I did was any good, I couldn’t ever do anything good again, nobody cared if I did anyhow, the whole spiel. So I abandoned the studio for a while, and went down into the sewing room and, using fabric scraps I had lying around, made a cloth doll. I did some beadwork for her outfit, too, and she looked cool. Really cool. I liked her so much, I went up into the studio and did a drawing of her. I thought, hmm, this drawing could be a pretty nice print. So I did the color separation mentally, put tracing paper over the drawing, and did the drawing for the key block, and transferred it to the block, then carved the block. Way cool! Only thing is, it was larger than my usual print, and I couldn’t print the way I usually did. So I had to figure out a way to print it… and so I made my first printing jig (I’ve mad 4 or 5 more since then). Anyhow, with the printing jig, I was able to complete that print, and subsequent prints have been in better register, too.
    One time further back (about 1974?), I got a really bad review of my paintings in the newspaper. I couldn’t paint for months afterwards; I would try, and break down in tears. What broke the spell that time was I decided that I loved to paint, so by god, I’d go ahead and do a stupid, bad, ugly painting and the hell with them. Turns out, it freed me up and I did something different from my usual, and it was way cool! I ended up doing several more paintings along that line, and some of the design elements I used then have recurred in my work throughout the years. So now, a trick I use that works *sometimes*, is to decide to do a really stupid, bad, poorly designed, rotten drawing. It usually turns out pretty well, or at least, gets me over the tears and into the drawing.

  8. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    And sometimes I just need to remember that I’m doing my art mostly for ME. It’s lovely when other people like it, too, but I’m not doing it for them.

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