The Surprising Flora and Fauna of Writer’s Block
I have had my share. More than, actually. After I earned my MFA, I spent nearly twenty years producing very little work, and none that satisfied me (or anyone else). Often, in fact, I was like Joseph Grand in The Plague (Camus) who could never get past the first sentence of his novel . . .
That’s the familiar kind of writer’s block. A writer can’t come up with a good enough “idea,” or the writer composes a paragraph or page then can’t go on, probably because he or she doesn’t think it measures up. One of my old tricks, in fact—designed to bring on this type of writer’s block—was to read aloud the opening page of one of my favorite works of fiction, then to read aloud my own new page. I would ask myself, then, if mine measured up (spoiler alert: it didn’t).
Still, there are other forms of writer’s block that receive less attention.
One: over the years I have had many students tell me they want to be professional fiction writers or poets, but when I ask what they have been working on recently they say, “Oh, I haven’t written anything for six months.” Can you imagine having someone say that she or her wants to be a concert pianist but hasn’t played the piano for that long? Part of this, I think, is the mistaken notion that writing is all about inspiration and not craft, but there is also a form of writer’s block involved. So long as we don’t place words on a page, we can imagine they we will be brilliant when we do. Not writing, it seems, helps us sustain the fantasy of being geniuses.
Two: years ago now I sent a short story to the Paris Review and received a personal note from the editor that praised the story but raised an objection. What did I do? Nothing. Discouraged, I stopped sending out the story for the next five years. Then, when I came to my senses (I was a bit slow to get there), I wrote a revision and sent out the story again. It was accepted at the very first journal I tried. This writer’s block goes like this: if I don’t send out my work then I avoid the pain of rejection.
Three: students of mine are often working on many projects at once, often producing bits and pieces of multiple stories or novels, without every finishing any of them. In other words, the works exist forever in their own Peter Pan world, never needing to grow up, never needing to face any of the realities of readers.
Four: many writers feel while completing a first draft that they have created something wondrous. There is a godlike sense of having brought some masterpiece into the world that will surely sell millions of copies and live forever. Then, though, the analytical mind takes over a few days later, saying, This is the worst piece of crap anyone in the history of writing has ever produced. It is putrid, vile. These emotional swings are so psychological damaging they can drive writers from wanting to write anything at all.
Five: simple procrastination. Writing a blog, for example, places less at stake than working on a new story or poem . . .
Thanks Doug – nice to not feel alone with all this!
The pain of rejection prevented me from sending work out for years and years. In another blog post, Doug, you say you now write quickly, revise quickly, and send the stuff out quickly. If you’re going to improve your odds, that’s gotta be a way to do it. The sting of rejection is lessened when you have a lot of stuff doing the rounds, don’t you find? Especially now that simultaneous submission is no longer verboten.
Here’s my Paris Review anecdote: they only read hard copy submissions, right? Well, in January I sent them something. Soon after, of course, covid-91 slammed New York City, where The Paris Review is based. Finally a month or so ago I sent a status inquiry by email. I got a very nice reply: “We haven’t been able to get to the office. But we will enjoy reading your work next year.” Gosh, I thought, the editors at Paris Review will enjoy reading my work.
I hope your work is accepted by Paris Review, and thanks for the comment!
I hope your work gets accepted at Paris Review, and thanks for the comment!