Some thoughts on not writing

This piece is for writers who are not writing as much as they would like and are worried about it.   

I don’t like the term ‘writer’s block’. I don’t think it is helpful. That doesn’t mean I don’t have periods when I start to wonder if I will write anything ever again. I do. And whether you use the term ‘block’ or not, I do empathize with those who find it difficult to get through periods of not writing very much or not at all.   People use the term ‘block’ when they feel incapable of producing anything of worth. But to label a phase of relative or complete inactivity as ‘block’ seems to imbue it with a tangible quality and thus give it a great and sinister power.         

Block   

The word ‘block’ makes me think of an obstruction. This implies that the normal state of the writer is to be a freely flowing conduit of words that has somehow been occluded.
Gushing stream

And I don’t believe this to be a normal state for any writer. Sometimes writing comes easily and sometimes…

Writing is hard

Assuming you do not make your living as a writer and thus have strict deadlines and output targets to meet,  the only person putting pressure on you to produce work is yourself. You are the boss. So take the pressure off. Be a kind and understanding boss. If you are worried about your ‘not writing’ try to find out what seems to be the matter. Sit yourself down and ask yourself how you are feeling.

Be good to yourself

If you are worried about not writing, it is important to try to figure out why you aren’t writing so that you can do something about it. I suspect that only you will be able to figure this out. There may be several reasons. Perhaps life is exhausting at the moment and there is little emotional and intellectual energy left to devote to writing. If you need a break, take one.

Sometimes not writing is normal.

Normal

It is possible that you have become cynical or, more seriously, depressed. This means you may not be able to access your emotional or intellectual resources. You might find it is hard to notice the fine detail of both your internal and external material. If you think you are depressed, you might consider getting help.

Not writing can be linked to inertia or staleness brought on by lack of change. It may be that you have not been stimulated by new experiences, environments, challenges or relationships for a while. Your routine, if you have one, may need shaking up.

Routine

It could be that you have simply not been reading, listening or taking in any
sort of art and so have not been providing your imagination with inspiration.

Or it could be that you are suffering from self-doubt a common state of mind among even the most successful writers.
ART

There’s no easy way around this, but try to think of what you have achieved so far. This may be a piece of work (published or unpublished) that you are pleased with. You may remember compliments about your work from friends or strangers. Try to see yourself as those who have praised and encouraged your work have seen you. It might not help. But it’s worth a try.

Every writer is different in terms of how frequently they produce work and in what quantity. Poets I’ve spoken to have told me they haven’t written a thing in months or even years, and in one case, decades.

Similarly, reactions to this phase of ‘not writing’ will range from relaxed to mild anxiety to terror.    I’m lucky in that I think I’m probably at the more prolific end of the scale. I go through periods of high productivity (I’m not sure how productive as I haven’t stopped to count but certainly more than one poem in a week) to periods of low productivity (a poem that might survive and be worked up from a draft every few months.) There is no ‘normal’ output for a writer and certainly not for a poet. And for poets the ratio of ‘keepers’ to ‘unsuccessful’ poems also varies greatly; some poets write tens of ‘almost’ poems for every one that ‘works’ and others write a high percentage of poems they consider worth sharing.

Personally , I notice I’ve been writing less poetry these last few weeks and more pieces for this blog. That could change tomorrow. I haven’t been planning to write these articles more frequently. I seem to be in a state of mind where subjects occur to me spontaneously and I begin to write about them. Of course I do a little research and thinking about the subjects, but generally the last few posts were conceived, written, re-written and posted within a period of a few hours(OK, sometimes more than a few hours) . But if I can’t think of anything to write about here next week I won’t be surprised as I suspect my brain will be working on something else.  As long as I’m writing something, anything – I know I’ll be happier about my writing than if I’m not writing at all.

There are a whole set of strategies for dealing with what is generally described as writers block.  There are numerous books and websites offering advice on how to get going again.  I hope I have made it clear that not writing is only a problem if you are distressed by it.  I’ve briefly touched on a few aspects which most writers will recognise as possible barriers to writing.
Here are a few more ideas to finish with.

You should get out more.
You should get out more

If you are stuck in some way- whether you are staring at the blank page or screen, endlessly redrafting or spending unproductive hours browsing the web.- you should think about getting up and doing something else. You might need a break from serious thought, or you might need an environment to do some serious thinking. I find walking is essential for mental and physical wellbeing and there are well documented research findings which illustrate how walking and creativity are related.

You should stay in more

Disipline

Alternatively, depending on your honest self diagnosis, you may need to set yourself some writing targets and stick to them. You might need structures such as prompts, or to sign up for a course such as these helpfully highlighted by Josephine Corcoran, or one run by the Poetry School.   It may be that you need to write more in order to write.

You might need other people
Other People

so join a writers group or workshop or find a mentor.

You may have become incredibly critical of your work. You might be nipping your buds before they flower. It’s good to be aware of this and allow yourself the freedom to write what comes into your head. Loosen up.  Forget you are a perfectionist for a while. Let yourself enjoy writing again. Let yourself write ‘badly’.

Read. Read everything and anything. Your subconscious will absorb and recycle words, phrases, ideas, images, myths, facts, stories.

It’s possible that you are not writing about what you need to write about. Reading can help you discover different approaches. For example, writing
in the third person may allow you to approach difficult or painful subjects.

Ultimately, the hardest task for the non-writing writer
is to understand and accept themselves as they are right now. Once this is done, and if not writing is considered a problem rather than a normal phase for that individual, it might be possible to find strategies that help to address the cause or causes.

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9 Comments

  1. As good as ever, Roy. It’s interesting to watch your posts getting less and less tentative, like part of a continuing conversation with friends. I’d add one thing, I think. I’ve always worried about poets who get famous and spend all their time being famous poets. So what are they going to write about. So maybe if your stuck the thing to do is get out and get some absorbed unselfconscious living done. Watch movies. Dig holes. Fall in and out of love. Chop vegetables. Go shopping. Go to a match in a big crowd.

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  2. Thank you John. I agree with your ‘famous poets’ comment. I did think about writing something like ‘remember to climb out of the tower and live’ and you have given some fine examples. Particularly the vegetables- maybe Marlow got his line ‘My vegetable love should grow/ Vaster than empires, and more slow’ while contemplating his marrow patch down at the allotment.

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    1. Mind you, he wouldn’t have got that from doing a julienne of some carrots. And I guess Larkin got a lot out of what would have looked like passive mooching. But I think what the biggest problem is, is the business of wanting(or intending) to write ‘a poem’ or ‘a story’ or whatever rather than feeling the urgent need to tell someone something because you have something to say and it might, just, be important. Right. I’ll let you get on with your Saturday. I look forward to your posts a lot. Yours and Kim’s, and more occasionally, Julie Mellor’s and Liz Venn’s.

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  3. Thanks for your advice. I found it helpful just to know I’m not alone. I mean, of course I’m not alone, but it’s nice to actually read about others having the same problem. I don’t know why, but every time I have two or three hours to write (usually beginning about 8 pm at night), I feel too exhausted to even think about writing. I suppose I’m being hard on myself: my last book just came out in November, and I’m still promoting it (and in fact I feel annoyed at present because I’m speaking about my book in public tonight and tomorrow night, meaning I can’t write — but I probably wouldn’t use the time to write anyway, given how I feel lately). So I tell myself, don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re not even done promoting your last book! But I also feel intellectually dull lately. After I finished my last book, and was merely waiting for it to be published, I spent about six months not writing, but devoted a lot of time to feverishly brushing up on a foreign language and reading a number of books, both fiction and nonfiction. For the past couple months, however, I haven’t felt like learning or reading, and I haven’t. I just veg out on TV shows. No, I’m not depressed, just exhausted. I’m sure I’ll get over it, but when?

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    1. Thank you for your comment. Congratulations on your last recent publication. I’m not an expert on this subject and can only speak from my own experience. I imagine all writers through periods of not writing. I’m not sure that this is ‘a problem’. My new book arrived this week, and I’ve been wondering if it will be my last! I imagine this too, is not unusual. I think we all need fallow periods after a piece of work has been produced. We can of course try to stimulate ourselves into writing by means of routines, prompts etc. Sometimes these methods will not work and we must just be patient and absorb material. Or veg out a little. A lot depends on what else is going on in your life. It sounds like you have been busy – ‘brushing up on a foreign language’ etc. Promoting the book is one aspect of your being a writer. It can be hard to strike a balance, but try and enjoy that aspect of being a writer too. Many people don’t get the chance to promote anything since they have nothing in print. If you really need to write, you will write again.

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