Whenever the subject comes up in conversation that I’m a writer, the reaction is usually one of envy mixed with a fair bit of skepticism; the idea of trying to make your living on the written word is always a bit off-putting to some people. To others, it’s an invitation to utter the statement, “You know, I have an idea for a book/movie/article/comic book/video game/Penthouse letter myself.” Which, hey, great for you, but I have a caveat that I’d like to tack on to that idea: writer’s block.
I’m going to go ahead and state what should be pretty obvious: Trying to describe writer’s block by actually writing about it is a pretty big paradox. It’s a subjective thing, and my experiences with it might be patently different from my roommate, which will be different from our next-door neighbor, which will be different from the crazy lady who lives six houses down with her small army of felines. The only common thread is that the writing you are trying to do is simply not happening.
Mine usually starts like a negative-headache centered in the back of my skull. It’s not a pain so much as a yawning chasm of nothingness. I’ll be pounding away on my novel, an article, or a comic, and I’ll suddenly realize that after the end of the paragraph I’m currently working on, I have no earthly idea what I want to say next.
The feeling this generates in the pit of my stomach is akin to hurtling along a road on the edge of a cliff at 50 miles an hour. Suddenly I realize that the road ahead has simply disappeared. Before I have time to even think about it, I’m over the cliff and free-falling. Sometimes, that fall can last just a few minutes; sometimes, it can feel like an eternity.
I’ve had a block that lasted just long enough for me to smoke a cigarette. I’ll think about what I’m working on and where I want it to go, and by the time I’ve come back inside and sat down again, I’m back in my groove. Most of the blocks that I’ve dealt with have been fairly short ones, some have been as long as a week.
Alternately, I’ve had a block that’s been in place now for the better part of a year, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And, in case you were wondering, yes, that sucks.
A little background: I wrote and published a book last year, the intended first volume of a three-book set, a series of interlocking short stories set in a fictional city I created in the southeastern portion of California. I had everything mapped out for all three books, and the first set the stage for what was to follow. I had prodigious notes for all three books: an outline of every single story, a chart that talked about how they would all intersect, character maps of who appeared where, descriptions of neighborhoods, businesses, major streets, shopping districts, emergency services, government buildings, transit systems, the works. It’s all laid out, from start to finish, every twist, turn, backstab, double-cross, reveal, history, all of it. Sadly, I haven’t been able to write a single word about it since last January.
What’s frustrating about that is I already know how it goes. There’s no mystery to it, no questions about how the story will turn out, no unresolved issues that need to be addressed. I just can’t, for the life of me, put words down that are even remotely satisfying. What makes this even more frustrating is that I used the same formula for my first book, which worked out very well. The sequels, however, have been moving along with the grace and speed of a drugged out, hobbled, blind, and senile elephant.
The worst part is the ever-present feeling of inactivity in the creative centers of my brain produces a mental albatross that pulls me down. Something that I used to do for pleasure (and anyone who says that it is painful to write all the time ain’t doin’ it right) is now a burden, the 800-pound gorilla who has moved into my house and now sits in my bedroom, flinging feces at my head. Anytime someone who’s acquainted with my work asks, “How’s book two coming?” my first instinct is to growl and then punch them in the face.
Soon, I abandon all pretext of pretending. Instead of saying, “Okay, I’m going to sit down and work on the book today, no matter what,” I say to myself, “Alright, I’m going to see if I can beat my Freecell win streak of 14!”
This lasts until, well, it’s simply gone. Just like that, I wake up one day and know exactly what I want to write next. It doesn’t matter how long I was blocked, where I was stuck and how, I discover that, while I wasn’t paying attention, that albatross came back to life. And it takes off, bringing my imagination with it into the clouds, turning that free-fall into a soaring, wondrous flight. And that moment, right there, is the best feeling in the world.