Away with Words

Sometimes the only way to combat writer’s block… is to write about it.

Dear reader, today I appear before you with nothing. Nada. Zilch. The grey cells that currently reside within my cranial cavity have failed to make the necessary connections that allow me to share those occasional nuggets of perspicacity for which you most assuredly did not ask.

To put that another way, I have nothing to say.

This scenario is, as you’ve no doubt surmised, not a terribly common occurrence, and you may well wonder what could produce such a sad state of affairs. I’ve been afflicted by the bane of writers everywhere – writer’s block.

The always pithy Seth Godin has posited that the idea of “writer’s block” was invented in the 1940’s when the stakes for the things we wrote about began to rise. He believes that the block comes from fear, from the pressure of trying to make every word and phrase a model of literary perfection.

Is that what’s happening here? Am I so concerned that my work be absolutely perfect that fear is holding me back? It must be said, perfection is a condition of which neither I nor my scribblings have ever been accused. Indeed dear reader, on most days I’m happy if this collection of literary litter is at least semi-coherent. It seems somewhat ridiculous to think I might be striving for perfection, but I’ve now rewritten the previous two sentences five times and I’m still not a hundred percent happy with them, so there’s that.

Writers have a bewildering collection of tactics and strategies they use to conquer blocks to their creative output. Some go for a walk to clear the mind – an odd solution since a clear mind appears to be the problem. Others turn their attention to various activities in the hopes that their subconscious will work diligently on the problem in the background. Still others attempt to force the issue – actively seeking inspiration through blog posts, articles etc. to spark their creativity.

As for me, when I feel the looming presence of a creative block, when my muse decides this would be the ideal time to indulge in that last-minute holiday without informing me ahead of time, I write.

“Now hang on,” I hear you exclaim. “How can you write if you have writer’s block? Doesn’t preclude the other? The name alone, ‘writer’s block’ seems to indicate a blockage that prevents the very act of writing does it not?”

Technically – and grammatically for that matter – this is true. (And bonus points to you for using preclude in a sentence. Bravo.) However I would point out that writer’s block does not actually physically prevent one from putting words to the page. The fine motor skills required to operate a writing stylus, or to apply fingertips to a keyboard in a specific rhythmic pattern are not impaired by the “block.” The only true enfeeblement is the belief that the words being recorded are anything more than vacuous rubbish.

Note: Nearly every writer experiences this on a daily basis. I most assuredly do.

I choose to write in spite of my absent muse in the fervent hope that doing so will somehow entice her to return, imbuing my work with the wit of Twain and the urbanity of Wilde. A cursory glance at my previous work will reveal how badly I’ve failed in that regard. Such is life.

Inspiration, like all the most interesting concepts, has as many different definitions as there are people who make use of it. Some, like the incomparable John Updike (author, poet, critic and one of my literary heroes in case you were wondering) see inspiration as a gift:

“Inspiration arrives as a packet of material to be delivered.”

Of course others, such as Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild, take a slightly more… proactive view:

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to hunt down inspiration with a blunt instrument, so I tend to lean more toward Updike’s way of thinking. Writing every day, no matter the circumstances, is the only way to improve as a writer. Now it’s quite true to say that the majority of what gets written each day will never see the light of day. The debris of countless unfinished essays fill my “scrap” file for possible use in the future. The idea is to simply build the habit of writing each day, preferably to a word minimum, punctuated by as much reading as possible.

I believe that inspiration is a gift, but a gift that is given to those who have laid the groundwork first. The muse doesn’t want to waste her gifts on someone who will squander them with inaction. In the words of the great Pablo Picasso:

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Today, as with each and every day, I write. Writer’s block, whether caused by fear as Seth Godin believes, perfectionism or some outside force, must be pushed aside. The struggle will make for a more satisfying product in the end.

As I approach 900 words in this essay – my self-imposed word minimum – I will leave you with this thought: Any endeavour worth attempting will require daily labour and effort to achieve the greatest results. The craft of writing is no different. If writing ever becomes easy, then it’s time to stop.

I had nothing to say, and now I’ve said it.

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