From my desk, photo by iphone
When I put up a recent tweet saying writer's block was nothing more than an attempt to justify your own laziness (and not recognizing this was simply lying to yourself), I got a number of angry RT's calling me (at best) smug. To those whom I angered I would say, that's a common response when someone takes away a crutch.
If there is a problem with Twitter though, it’s an inability to express nuance (for most of us, anyway, who don’t have the poet’s genius for condensation).
But here I can say, re: writer’s block: This I Believe:
The phrase writer’s block is an excuse that should be used only by the weak and delusional (or as lighthearted slang for “It’s cocktail time somewhere!”). If you must put a tag on your inability to produce, be my guest. We all know what it means.
But! This does not mean that I believe being unable to write well or to have something to say every hour of every day is a matter of laziness. Sometimes the mind will and must lie fallow. And, yes, these are hard days/weeks/years for any writer, whether you write to earn your daily bread or whether you write simply because you must. But when the mind lies fallow, when the words simply aren’t coming, don’t call it writer’s block. Call it being serious about your work, and recognizing that not writing is simply one part of the writing life, and that tomorrow, goddamit, it will be better.
As I’ve written before, learning to cook at the CIA changed my life. When I returned home to write The Making of a Chef, Donna more or less looked at me, whilst bouncing our 18-month-old daughter on her knee, and explained that we would be broke in four months. Because I had embraced the chef’s ethos, the recognition that saying, “Sorry chef, can’t do it” simply was not an option, I figured out how many words, writing five days a week, I’d need to generate in order to have a book-length manuscript in four months (1400 words should cover it, I figured); I literally would not let myself rise from the chair until my word count read 1400.
Some days my mind felt so numb by 4:30 pm (word count 980) that I would actually scream to jump start my brain. But basically it came down to the fact that I was the kid at the dinner table who was not allowed to go outside to play until he ate his spinach; so I ate my spinach.
Often though, what happened was, when I got to that awful I-can’t-write-another-word place, then screamed and moved forward, it was like unclogging a drain, not like pushing a rock uphill. Once I cleared the way, the writing came easily once again. And I would write beyond the quota (and thus have a head start for the following day).
I spent a half day Saturdays revising.
But there’s a danger to this ethos, too. I believe I failed in the writing of Walk On Water by adhering too rigidly to a daily quota. Because I was working so quickly, I failed to see the overall structure of a story set in the beautiful horrible world of pediatric heart surgery, and as a result, I put the proper end of the book in the middle. The Making of a Chef had a built in narrative structure, it’s basically a school story. The world of pediatric surgery is never-ending, and it was the writer’s job to impose a structure on it. I did and, in my opinion, failed. Which is why there is a new edition of Making a dozen years after it was first published and no new edition or even new sales of Walk on Water (the publisher's new miserable phony subtitle notwithstanding).
So, I reiterate. I believe “writer’s block” is a harmful term that justifies laziness and encourages self-deception. But to be unable to write the next scene in your story, your screenplay, or even a new menu item to make something new out of all that arugula and eggplant in your walk in, this is an important part of your ongoing commitment to one of the greatest, and most difficult, human compulsions, to create something where there was nothing.