You know the question’s coming before they open their mouth. It’s an event somewhere, perhaps a workshop. Someone won’t look you in the eye but all the same they’ll ask, ‘The writing block thing…’
Mr Nicholson struggling over the page in the Overlook Hotel. We all know this is not going to end well.
I usually stutter the same pathetic answer. About how I don’t really believe in it. How you never get to the end of the queue in a supermarket and find you’re unable to pay because someone’s got till worker block.
Probably doesn’t help. But then people who go to workshops hoping for salvation will usually be disappointed. Writing is a curious, uncertain, improbable business, an elusive creature which shrinks into a dark corner when you try to analyse it. When the muse works for me I’m often uncertain why, just as I’m puzzled when it doesn’t and I think it has.
Block, as far as I understand it (which isn’t much), usually stems from someone failing to grasp the direction their work is headed. If that’s correct then the source could come from any number of problems: lack of talent, lack of preparation, the wrong choice of project. The cure lies with the malady not the symptom. I try to tackle this briefly in Writing: A User Manual but in truth the answer is one for the individual to find, usually through a better comprehension of the craft. Work, in other words, not a search for a shortcut.
But there’s another kind of malady too. It hit me for a while, right out of the blue. You know you’ve got it when you find yourself sitting in front of the computer understanding that, on one level, you want to write. You may even have something in mind, commissioned too. But all the while you’re thinking… I’d rather not be here. In fact I’d rather be doing anything else than hammering this keyboard day in and day out.
This is burnout. It’s real and it’s scary. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to understand why my enthusiasm for writing waned dramatically after the delivery of my last manuscript.
Let me try and outline a few reasons.
- This has been a hell of a busy time. As I’ve written before, in the old days you did one book a year. Now, in the digital age, everything has to be delivered more quickly and in greater numbers. In the last two and a half years I’ve written two books of my own, one collaboration, a non-fiction writing manual, and both books of The Killing. While this rush of work — all of it incredibly challenging and enjoyable — was happening I didn’t have time to think much about anything else. When the load eases… you look around and start to ask yourself questions.
- The world is edgy. I try to steer clear of the business of publishing for two reasons. First, I still don’t fully understand it. Second, I can’t affect it much at all. I don’t see the point in worrying about things that are beyond my control. On the other hand it’s clear that the book business is going through difficult and uncertain times, financially and creatively, few of which make you feel particularly great.
- It’s become very apparent over the last year or so just how far some people will try to game the system to succeed. This doesn’t affect me directly. But it adds to the feeling that publishing isn’t quite as honest and decent as it used to be. Yes, I know some of you will say it never was… but mostly you’re wrong. There are things happening today that would never have occurred even five years ago.
- If you’re honest with yourself in writing there’s no such thing as creative ‘success’. Yes you can sell a lot of books and attract the attention of the media (I seem to have done that more than I’ve ever managed before this year thanks to The Killing). And yes I’m proud of most of the work I’ve done over the years. But I’d still rewrite everything if I could because it just isn’t good enough. That’s in the nature of the process. Anyone who aims for perfection is a fool; the best you can hope for is a worthwhile, even glorious imperfection that holds sufficient ephemeral lustre until the next book comes along.
So what do you if you find yourself like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, staring at a page and seeing nothing to write?
- Get the hell out of the Overlook. Go somewhere. I spent a weekend in a lovely hotel in Mallorca, trolling round Christmas fairs, shopping, eating, having the kind of mindless fun you’re supposed to have at this time of year.
- Read something different but only if you feel like it. If you’re reading to learn more craft or — klaxons sound here — inspiration you’re just digging yourself in deeper.
- When you do come back, write something new. I eased myself back in with a short story I’d promised someone. The first page was painful. By the end, a week later, I was back in the chair feeling fine once more, looking forward to the next major project which will start first thing in the New Year.
- When you finally return to the central work remember that thing above about perfection. We’re never going to reach it. But you can at least try. The point of writing another book isn’t just to earn money or fulfil a contract. It’s to make that book better than the one before. Writing’s about rising to challenges. If they’re not there, you have to invent them.
Was this block? No. It was burnout. A strong reluctance to write anything at all, not because I was out of ideas but out of enthusiasm. I don’t know how you treat block because I don’t understand what it truly is. But burnout’s something you can get in any profession. It seems to me it’s usually caused by working very hard and then taking a sudden break which gives sufficient perspective to question why you’re doing all this labour in the first place.
I’m fine with it now but it has to be addressed. You have to love writing to do it well. If it’s just a chore there’s no point… for you, and most of all, for your readers.
All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy indeed. Have a great Christmas everyone.