Tuesday, September 29, 2009


It's a sad fact for almost all authors that sometimes their writing gets stalled. We usually call it Writers' Block. Or we talk about the Muse having deserted us.

Writers tend to whip themselves unmercifully, especially when they aren't being productive. No matter how they rationalize, re-frame or euphemize, they are really blaming themselves. Nothing feels more helpless to a writer, because when writing is blocked, productivity dies. A physician doesn't say, "My Muse has left me today", but there's a reason. He is calling upon his accumulated knowledge more than on new insight. A runner doesn't claim his legs just won't work today. Because they will. They might not be up to top speed, but they move. But when a writer is blocked, the brain just isn't making the connections that allow work to flow.

Mental creativity is a very different activity. Other things, like a base of accumulated knowledge, are required for new creativity, but usually the formulation of new fiction has to come from a different part of the brain. And all kinds of things can interrupt or interfere. All writers run into the problem in some form or another, and they all fear it. Getting around it, over it, under it, or through it can be simple, or it can be a monumental struggle.

Writing is one of the most difficult jobs a person can do. In the initial phase of a writer's career, she often feels the free flow of new ideas, the amazing exhilaration that comes along with a new story, characters who jump to life on the page, and a setting that gains reality even as the words come out- it often seems so easy. The author believes in her own genius (she should, because it's real). But she doesn't know, and probably can't grasp at this moment that she has just been suckered in to the most difficult job she will ever try to do.

Soon she'll reach the hard part. Soon she'll learn her first wonder-creating efforts are full of flaws-- naive writing, plot inconsistencies, characters without motivation, or other things that could make her story a financial success. (Discounting those few authors who actually do sell their first story right away, of course.) She'll begin to realize there is no such thing as a perfect story, and yet she must always strive to reach perfection.

But she's hooked. She sets herself on a course to learn to write better. She takes courses, attends workshops, reads books, studies other authors, meets with and shares experiences with other authors. She now is learning the actual craft of writing, which takes her creativity to new heights.

When she really starts to get good is when she discovers the work getting harder. Nothing wrong with that. But she may also feel like her ideas are drying up. Probably not. More likely, she has learned to discard the initial ones that are the easy way out- the trite solutions. She's learned not to manipulate her characters into doing something abnormal for them just because she wants them to do it. She now plots more carefully, more accurately, and doesn't just stick in a scene, because she now knows a scene must be a logical consequence of previous action, not just another event.

All of this is harder. Just plain harder. Now that beautiful, euphoric glow of creativity must co-exist with hard core, down-to-earth writing skill and technique. She's reached the point where she understands that good story telling is hard work.

This is when she will run into real problems and few solutions. She feels like the beautiful creativity has dried up. She starts battering herself with her own insecurities. Is she a has-been? Did she never 'have it' in the first place? She feels like a fraud, because she should be producing, but isn't.

Usually this is also the point when outside influences can interfere more. Most writers have many other obligations and distractions. Their multi-tasking abilities could already be taxed to the limit, when here comes one more. Concentration wanes. New ideas just don't come. Self flagellation increases.

The reality: Creative work is different from other kinds of work. As we learn and hone new skills to create better and better work, we are setting ever higher standards for ourselves. We can't accept the work we did when we were first beginning because now we know how to do better. We must now aim for higher, better goals. Those easy solutions we found when we were so ignorant are no longer acceptable. Now we strive not just for a story but for THE story, the best story.

And finding the best story is hard. It's simply not the same thing. Our writing job has changed. If writing is easy, then we need to be wary of it. It may not be the best we can do. The trite plot solution is the one that's easy to find. Anyone could think of it. It's the first thing that pops into a person's mind. Sometimes it's exactly the right solution. That's fine. But a book full of easy, trite solutions is of little interest. The answers that are hard to find are often the ones that give a book its unique twist and make it exciting.

When a story suddenly comes to a grinding halt, it's not because the author has lost her ability to create. Instead, she has reached a point of opportunity. It's her chance to dig very deep, work very hard, to find the one thing that will take her story out of the realm of the ordinary. It's her chance to find the magic world that really is her own creation, to find the unique and unexpected twist that takes her story beyond the boundaries of ordinary living into the extraordinary world fiction readers want.

So when you reach an insurmountable block in your writing, look at it as an opportunity. Time to work really, really hard, to dig, explore, search, experiment. Give yourself permission to try things that won't work, so you can study those and see if they subtly point to the path of something that might lead you to yet another path, knowing that each path, though it may not take you where you want to go, will show you something else that might change everything.

If story-telling were easy, anyone could do it. And no one would care.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Delle, great blog post! Really! Do you ever worry that following your own vision or searching for that unique plot twist might remove you from the mass market?

    Also, where is the joy in the process for you now?


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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.