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Archive for February 22nd, 2009

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Two – Writer’s Block & Procrastination

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Philip Pullman, not a believer in writers block

Philip Pullman, not a believer in writer's block

For all the stories that are constantly rattling around and exploding inside my head, all too often actually sitting down at my desk and writing things down is bloody difficult. It’s a bizarre dilemma. Too many ideas; not enough writing.

As you may have guessed, the topic of the week is procrastination and writer’s block. Fittingly, this blog is a week late. Apologies. My book hasn’t been going that well this week, you see. I’m still stuck at the thirty thousand word mark. In fact it’s actually shrunk a bit, when I lopped off a couple of dodgy pages, and murdered a whole character. I’ve been under a lot of pressure in the day job, and then I had a midnight trip to casualty, and there’s been some good telly….

All true, but I know it’s not the main reason for the lack of progress. I suspect I’m adept in the dark art of procrastination.

I’d like to think I’m not entirely to blame. Even if it is not harder to be a writer today than in the past, I think it is easier to be a procrastinator.

I am amazed at the sheer amount of distractions available. Mobiles, email, daytime television, Facebook – so far I have resisted the siren texts of Twitter – all consume vital minutes: often not many, but enough to break into my periods of concentration. As many times as writing feels glorious and effortless, I find it feels like homework or exam revision. During these periods I will do anything to avoid my desk.

Even as technology has granted us time from manual chores, it gives us the choice to do something else. We don’t want this choice. Watching Ice Road Truckers on Discovery, or joining some bizarre collective on Facebook is far easier than actually writing. For a writer, choice of entertainment is a bad. Give us only books, paper and pen, and lock us away.

Perhaps it will be a good thing. Only those committed enough to screen out distraction will complete their books: and thus the dilettantes and chancers will be screened out themselves, never cluttering the publisher’s desk, and leaving the field free for the committed and the good. And the question that wakes me in a cold sweat at night: which one am I?

A writer needs isolation and silence. He needs to delve deep into his own head: set dilemmas, flesh out characters; have the quiet space for his own imagination to whirr and play. Like Homer in the isolation booth, only when you’ve set aside some quality time with just you and your head, will the hallucinations that form the strange stuff of stories flicker into existence.


Not the Homer referred to in the blog post but still a poetic one

But then, perhaps when you’ve actually managed to pluck up the courage to sit in front of the laptop, you feel the weight of expectation pressing down on you. You’ve read a lot of books. You know all about literary theory and the corpus of 19th century Abyssinian poets. Thus, what you write is going to be perfect – isn’t it?

This has been one of my biggest problems. I want it to be perfect. But, almost always, the words on the screen capture just a ghost of my intention. That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I meant at all. I am paralysed and I have to fight to stop myself slipping back into the embrace of impossible expectations.

But there is hope. Few great authors found the writing process easy. In fact many of them spoke of the craft with something approaching revulsion and horror, yet still managed to write, publish and be successful. Philip Pullman, answering a question on writer’s block says:

“I don’t believe in it. All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that give a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?” (www.philip-pullman.com)

In practical terms there is a universe of techniques to jumpstart your writing. The most important for me is letting yourself be bad when you write. Lay down utter drivel. Just keep it private and tell yourself it’s just a rough draft. Rediscover the joy of forming sentences, paragraphs, creating characters. Create a schedule. Get up an hour early, and write in the dawn. Go walking – leave for work a half hour earlier and walk, letting your thoughts riff along the beat of your legs. Knock yourself out of regular thought patterns. Buy the Daily Mail. Get yourself worked up.

To finish on a more philosophical tack, I think that ultimately what keeps you writing is a mixture of love and fear. Love, for the special times, when writing feels like flying; and fear, of the alternative: of not writing. That is a giving-up, a little death. To write is to have a chance to live twice over, at least: firstly, you see, hear, smell and touch more intensely; and, second, when your stories are read, you yourself are multiplied. That’s worth writing for, isn’t it?

Watch Pullman talk about The Golden Compass and his writing technique below:

Discussion:
What are you guilty of when it comes to procrastination? Have you every experienced writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

Words: Richard Walsh