Nile River Split Pea Soup (Why writer’s block is no laughing matter)

June 5, 2010

In most people’s eyes, writer’s block does not happen to real human beings. Writer’s block only affects caricatures of writers, outlandish characters in foppish hats banging their heads against the blank sheet of paper on their cluttered desk.

We can imagine a cartoon of Wordsworth, struggling with the first line to a poem; strewn at his feet are crumpled pieces of paper which read ‘I wandered lonely as a horse’, ‘I wandered lonely as a butterfly’, ‘I wandered lonely as a hiker’ etc.

A far more recent example of actual writer’s block afflicted J K Rowling at the height of Potter mania. Even among sympathetic writers it was hard not to raise a wry and mischievous smile at the picture of crying children picketing the gates of castle Rowling while the writer sat up in a high tower trying to recall the magic spell that would invoke the final chapter of the latest Potter tome.

The main reason for this light-hearted treatment of the condition is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding among non-writers of what writer’s block actually is. And the biggest problem writers have in trying to get non-writers to understand writers block is that they simply try to explain what writer’s block is. This might sound very logical, but herein lies the problem.

Imagine a seasoned cook was preparing Nile River Split Pea Soup and handed me a spoonful straight from the boiling pot, saying, “it’s still not quite there, what does it need?”

I would have to admit that I was clueless. Though I enjoy a variety of foods, I have never personally tasted Nile River Split Pea Soup and so would not be in a position to know what was missing from the recipe. Having never experienced this dish when the process had gone right, I would have no knowledge to draw on in assessing the process when it was going wrong.

And so it is with writer’s block. Most people understand ‘writing’ as the simplistic mechanics by which a person uses a pen or keyboard to construct letters and have no real tangible knowledge of the process that is creative writing.

The sum of most people’s experience of creative writing is when the teacher used to ask them on a Monday morning to write a story about what they did over the weekend.

So when people hear about writer’s block, their perception of ‘writing’ is that it is a purely mechanical effort and so the block must be some inability to perform the mechanical function. Much like a plumber with a hand injury or back strain might have to refrain from heavy manual work for a short time, so a writer (who can obviously still physically lift a pen) must simply be feeling lethargic and not really in the mood for writing.

And so most non-writers would therefore understandably feel less that sympathetic to a writer suffering writer’s block and simply shrug before suggesting they ‘take break and try again in a bit.’

So now let me paint a different picture.

Firstly, let’s dispel a few myths:

  • Writers do not write in order to become rich (most are not and have to maintain secondary jobs to prop up the finances).
  • Writers do not write in order to become famous (those that want to be are not and those that are try to escape attention and live a reclusive life somewhere remote).
  • Writers do not even write because they feel they have a good story to share (though this one is partly true, this is not the main factor that compels a writer to write).

Most writers would write even if they knew in advance that nobody would ever read their material and that they would never make a penny from it. You would still find their old wizened body slumped over a laptop in a forgotten attic and have to prise their dead hands from the keyboard.

Imagine that you are walking down the street, minding your own business, when a strange thought or concept suddenly just pops into your mind. It might just be a name, or a place, or a piece of conversation (even an actual one you overheard earlier), or maybe it’s a question you ask yourself.

Initially you just put it from your mind, but later that week it comes back to you and then it keeps coming back to you.

And then it starts to grow.

Before long there are distinct entities with personalities that start to arise and there are places that start to exist that you cannot physically visit, but are more real than your own house. And all sorts of events begin to happen, many of which will even contradict each other.

And it is not very long until this concept has begun to invade your entire life. Even during a mundane activity such as washing the dishes you will end up with a character alongside or you might even end up washing the dishes as one of your characters.

You drive down to the local shops and find that you drive right into a scene from your concept. Whatever you try and do, everything is tainted by that small concept that has now expanded to fill your entire head. Even when you try to fall asleep at night, your characters chatting away among themselves keep you awake for hours.

Although this process is incredibly creative and produces vast amounts of material, there is no let up.

And that’s just a single concept. Imagine if you have several parallel concepts in your mind at the same time. Sometimes you might have characters from two different concepts in your head together. Often a character from one concept might ‘defect’ and decide they would work better in a different concept.

It is little wonder that a recent study concluded that creative mind’s mimic schizophrenia.

After a while you begin to forget important people’s birthdays and messages you were asked to pass on go straight into the ether. If you have understanding friends and family around you then it makes life a lot easier, but the majority of people will just see you as some odd, forgetful eccentric.

But there is a cure…

There is something very simple that a writer can do to regain their mind and exorcise the characters and events from their brain. In order to get a normal life back, all a writer has to do is write the concept out in full.

So a writer’s life is much like having a balloon (or two, or three) inflating inside your head. It keeps growing and you keep attempting to reduce the pressure by letting some of the air out onto paper (or a laptop screen nowadays).

So now we can return to the subject of writer’s block.

Writer’s block is not where the balloon stops inflating, far from it. Writer’s block is where the writer feels unable to get the concepts down in a way that they feel satisfied with and so the concept stays in their head regardless. It’s as if the characters in your head read what’s on the page and turn their noses up at it. In this situation, a writer will often give up and stop writing for a while, as bad writing can be very frustrating and can crush a writer’s motivation to write.

But the balloon keeps inflating. The concept keeps getting bigger and more complex and the more space that your concepts occupy, the less space there is to try to keep a handle on the rest of your life.

This is why writer’s block is no laughing matter. It is not a simple inability to write, it’s the maddening fear that the mental balloon inside your head is never going to stop and something inside might just burst.

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