Writer's block explained

Website - 8 August 2005

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve helplessly hovered my pen over a blank sheet of paper, or stared at a computer screen with my fingers fiddling through my hair. When you write articles, you tend to find that the moment of inspiration for a particular topic stems from a moment of passing thought, provoked by anything seen or heard. It is slightly different from poetry writing or even novel writing, where the motivation is largely dependent on a more consistent mood. But the nuisance that is ‘writer’s block’ is irritating in all forms of writing, as the ideas you have can’t seem to manifest themselves on paper. For those who don’t write, writer’s block is comparable to inarticulacy among friends. You know what you’re trying to say, but your words seem to trip over themselves. And I know that it doesn’t just happen to writers. This century-old menace has plagued artists and composers too.

Writing at the rate I do currently, I experience writer’s block at least once a month. My self-made remedy never seems to work. I smoke a cigarette and think about what I want to write. What I want to say. I do this because smoking and writing seem an apt camaraderie, and it somehow makes me feel bohemian. It would be easy to write a flowing train of thought in these circumstances, but it is lethal – particularly as my articles are quite short and the scope of interest vital. If this method fails, I give up. I stop trying and continue with my normal life. But one evening, I researched this disease and made some interesting discoveries.

The website www.esc.edu offers some interesting intellectual framework on the subject. Elaine Handley, a psychology student, explains how “writer’s block is caused primarily by one thing: judging your writing before or as you write.”

Handley also describes “three entities” in your “writing personality”: the ‘Inventor’, the ‘Editor’ and the ‘Reader’. The ‘Inventor’ is the passionate, creative side of your writing. The ‘Editor’ is the critical, fussy, bossy, knowledgeable part of you who wants your piece of writing to be as good as it can be. Handley advises: “the Inventor and the Editor must never share a room at the same time”. The ‘Reader’ is the side of your writing that decides where to go with a draft.

Two key practises in writing are communication and satisfaction. Handley understands that good pieces of writing come after three or more drafts, when your ideas have been further developed: “like watching a photograph being processed and going from blurry to sharply focused.” Handley also evokes an interview of Ernest Hemingway, who said: “I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied … it was getting the words right.”

I find that the more I mentally plan my articles, the less I need to edit them afterwards. It works vice versa. At the best times my articles take about an hour to complete. At the worst, I’m tampering with them for weeks. For instance, this article took around seven or eight hours of my time, stretched over a period of about two weeks.

Writing is a ping-pong process. Write a first draft, edit it, write a second, edit it etc. etc. If you’re not used to writing in drafts, you will have to do so. If you are determined to do just one good draft for a piece of writing, well, you will be plagued by writer’s block all of your life.