Yesterday I spent a long time writing – or trying to. I got the words down well enough but nothing worked. I couldn’t find the point, couldn’t connect the strands. So after a while I deleted the whole lot and went off to talk to the pigs, who had spent the time far more productively in coating themselves in mud to protect against sunburn.
I don’t suffer from ‘writer’s block’ in the conventional sense, in that I can always put something on paper. Perhaps that’s a relic of life as a journalist: you have to produce, so you find the most interesting angle and get on with it, get it done as best you can and move on.
The problem with writing something approaching poetry is that when I pause to look at what I’ve done, the connections between thoughts, lines, sentences, stanzas, feel dull and predictable. The words, no matter how much I chop and change, don’t interest me or capture what I thought I might have been trying to do. So it has to go. I start again, and on some occasions the same thing happens, until I give up.
It’s frustrating but doesn’t ruin the day. There is plenty of other stuff that needs to be done, but yesterday for some reason it set me thinking about ‘writer’s block’ in general. And so – of course, I did – I googled it and suddenly – of course, there was – in front of me was a whole page on it on wikipedia.
I remembered from when I studied Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner 40 years ago that the prolonged inability to write affected Fitzgerald badly and caused him enormous stress and a deep depression. And it was no surprise to see that there were records of it having bothered writers for centuries.
And then, perhaps inevitably, came the view of a psychoanalyst, Edmund Bergler, who declared in 1947 that it was caused by something called oral masochism, by mothers that bottle-fed and by an unstable private love life. Well, there’s always one, isn’t there?
The most important element of the whole subject of writer’s block is not why it exists but how to get over it. I have no problem with chucking out/deleting the nonsensical effort and coming back again another day to try again, but if the mood takes another course then there are plenty of ways of overcoming it.
One conventional method is to pick at random a person, a place and an activity, or verb, and see where the idea takes you – I used this in a poem of a few years ago about King George III on the tourist ferry to Alcatraz that I still quite like. (It’s somewhere in the Newer Poems section of this site if you feel the need…)
Another is the word bag. I used to have a plastic bag at the ready filled with cut-up shreds of old magazines, newspapers and already ruined books, then pull out a handful and see what a juxtaposition of phrases might bring.
Or you can flick randomly between TV channels and write down the first lines of conversation or narration that you hear for, say, two or three minutes, then jumble them all up and see what, if anything, happens.
There are plenty of other exercises, no doubt, in the multitude of ‘How To Write Poetry’ manuals.
I don’t mean to belittle writers who hit a serious depression because of it – to cite Fitzgerald again, he was trying and failing to earn a living because he just couldn’t find a way to make his stories work, which caused a genuine crisis of identity. In his case he was the feted ‘golden boy’ of literature one moment and then, to his mind, in the next moment a talentless has-been who couldn’t write anything worth the name. Which meant a drastically reduced income.
However, for most of us it shouldn’t reach that point. Writing is a choice we make – and if it doesn’t work, even if all the methods of kicking it into some kind of life still fail, well, we should have the capacity to walk away and do something else.
Though, I guess if you want to blame the whole thing on oral masochism, mothers that bottle feed and an unstable private love life, then that’s your privilege.
Enough, the pigs need to be fed.