Writer’s block is real

I don’t know why I’m always tempted to start my blog posts with “Hey, I nerds!” My wife said last time I did it that it sounded too combative. So I guess I won’t do that.

But have been feeling more of an urge to write in this blog. My posting had slowed down quite a bit this year, as I just started to feel like maybe I didn’t have anything to say. I still read lots of books, but I don’t have much to say online about them that’s interesting or new, so I’m left to talk about the difficulties of the writing life, such as they are. There’s some meat on that bone, to be sure, but I do sometimes think that the writing life is just a vehicle, whereas the real destination is the work itself. And in many ways, the work is the opposite of the life. The work is about capturing those things that are energetic, active, and ever-changing, whereas the life is mostly about excluding those elements.

I recently read Tillie Olsen’s Silences, which is a polemic from the seventies by a communist, labor activist, and writer whose work, after being well received in the thirties, went fallow for many years as a result of the pressure of motherhood and earning a living. The book is an examination of writers who went silent, either before or after their periods of great productivity. For instance, it looks at Thomas Hardy’s last twenty-five years, when he abandoned prose, or the thirty years of silence that marked the end of Melville’s life (which was broken only by the composition, near the end of his life, of Billy Budd, almost as if to prove that he was silent not because inspiration had left him, but because he’d lost the will to chase it).

Coming from a genre background, and particularly a background in science fiction and fantasy, silence was not well-respected by the writers who I admired. They were people like Ray Bradbury, who from the age of eighteen sat down every day in the library, wrote a story on Monday, rewrote it Tuesday through Saturday, and put it on submission on Sunday. Or Heinlein, who once asked Asimov why Asimov bothered to retype his stories in order to correct the typos. “Why not just get it right the first time,” Heinlein said. Or, in modern times, Philip Dick, the energy of whose writing came, in part, from their amphetamine-fueled manic random quality. When I was starting out as a writer, Jay Lake (now deceased, sadly) had a well-trafficked blog about the writer’s life, and he was well-known for writing a story every week, for years. He was a machine; he could write anywhere, anywhere. Harlan Ellison was known for composing entire stories, as a stunt, while sitting in a store window, fully on display, with his typewriter. And one of the formative experiences for a young science fiction writer is the Clarion Workshop, which I attended in 2006, at the age of twenty, where the expectation is that you’ll write one short story a week for six weeks, and most attendees manage this and sometimes more (I think I wrote five, only slipping up in the final week, when I came down with bronchitis).

The point is, I am very, very familiar with the viewpoint, which tends to be overrepresented amongst successful writers of commercial fiction, that one ought to be able to write no matter their successful circumstances.

The magic of Olsen’s book is that it demolishes this claim. No writer could be more real than Herman Melville or Thomas Hardy, but they nonetheless fell unwillingly silent. And, Olsen argues, this fate is even more common for women, who face greater domestic burdens, and it’s just as common amongst those who’ve not yet begun their careers as it is amongst those with mature careers. In essence, the same forces that silenced Melville and Hardy could choke off a writer’s output at any stage in their career, but when it happens early in a career, or before the publication of one’s first book, the absence isn’t even perceived as being anomalous.

In my life, I’ve suffered periods of writer’s block, the most extended and notable of which came in the two years after selling my first book. The block didn’t take the form of being unable to put down words. I wrote two middle-grade novels during that time, but I spent far more time discarding what I’d written or losing faith in it. More than a lack of ability to write, I’d lost touch with wherever the stories come from, the place that tells me what stories deserve to and need to be told.

Some writers are successfully able to power through this kind of block, and they produce something that’s publishable, but I think in some ways that’s more dangerous than what happened to me, because it teaches you to ignore your own instincts and to subsume your own creative desires to those of the market.

Personally, my writer’s block started to lift, I would say, when Disney broke its contract with me to publish my second book (they hated an early draft of We Are Totally Normal) and abated in full over the course of the last two years, during which I’ve done numerous rewrites of We Are Totally Normal and of my novel for adults, The Lonely Years. Something about the process of working on these two books, which, for all their flaws, are definitely the kinds of stories that I think ought to be told, has provided me with the kind of guidance I was lacking before.

These days it’s almost an instinct, a gut-check. I think of an idea for a story, and I perhaps even write a few thousand words of it, and then I think, But am I really into it? Or is this just a received idea—someone else’s story—that I’m writing simply because it’s easy. In truth, there’s nothing harder than working on an idea that’s not really yours, but in the beginning, at least, it can feel very simple.

When I posted about writer’s block on Facebook, I think two themes emerged in the comments. One is that some writers are inspired by duress, and that the pressure of writing for publication in some ways keeps them productive. The other is that many writers who’ve experienced writer’s block found their way out by doing the opposite, by recovering their beginner’s mind and thinking of themselves not as professional writers but as amateurs, continuing to do what they love.

For me, I think what’s freed me lately is that I’ve felt compelled for years to write a work of ‘serious’ fiction—something that would stand next to the writers I love, and I feel like The Lonely Years was my attempt to do that. But there’s no guarantee that the book will be published, and if it’s not, I think it’d be very difficult for me to write another ‘serious’ book. But I have lots of interests, and I believe in lots of different books. Lately I’ve been trying to write books that come straight from the ‘id’. Books that embody deeper, more primal desires. I’ve been thinking about what it is that I, personally, want from a thriller, a horror novel, a military sci-fi novel, and why some of those things are lacking from so many of the books I read. It’s a pretty fascinating exercise. For the first time in a long time, I feel as if I have MANY different stories to tell and that I can tell them in different forms and different styles, and for now I’m loving the sense of plenitude.