Writer’s block: A play in one act
Scene: A desk in a small apartment, somewhere in North America. The stage is dark, save a small Ikea desk lamp and the familiar bluish glow of an open laptop. The atmosphere is tense, and the audience can sense that the cursor on the blank computer screen is taunting both them and the WRITER, who exudes failure and despair, slouched at the desk with a cup of something that could either be coffee or whisky. The WRITER types a phrase, reads it; then deletes. This process is repeated three times, each time the WRITER types more frantically than before, and deletes more frantically. After the third time, the WRITER puts his head down on the desk. Fade to black—a symbolic fade that contains within it the diminution of the WRITER’s hopes and dreams. In the silent dark we hear dejected weeping.
END OF PLAY.
Writer’s block, according to a 2004 essay in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella, is a 19th -century invention. Inextricably tied to Romantic notions about the artistic wellspring that lies deep within every writer’s soul, the Romantic invention of writer’s block is connected to the golden age of blocked writers in America, Acocella writes—that is, the period just before and just after the Second World War. Due largely to the cultural ascendency of psychoanalysis and its attending theories of repressed childhood memories, the image of the blocked writer on the couch became embedded in our cultural imagination.
We’re firmly rooted in the 21st century now and psychoanalysis is long out of vogue, yet writer’s block remains firmly entrenched in both the public imagination and in the so-called writing life. The act of putting pen to paper (or, today, words on the blank screen) is no more or less difficult now than it was then. Everyone I know who writes, whether academics, playwrights, journalists, aspiring novelists—everyone, including me—is intimately familiar with the scene presented above.
We accept occasional writer’s block as part of the deal: Scribblers may no longer feel their work comes from inner divinity, but there’s little doubt to most of us that Satan is real. Ask anyone who has been tethered to their desk late at night, struggling with words that seemingly won’t come, and they’ll tell you the old cliché is true: The devil is in the details of 12-point Times New Roman.
I spend a fair amount of time trying to understand my own blocks. Through self- examination I’ve concluded that what we poetically call “writer’s block” can really be broken down into what I call “The Two P’s”: procrastination and preciousness. I suspect the two P’s are not exclusive to me and they’ll be familiar to everyone who writes. Those of you reading this in the frantic throes of procrastination, read on.
The two P’s feed into one another and reinforce each other in powerful ways. I consider preciousness to be the simpler of the two P’s. Preciousness is the idea that every single word you write has to be right and has to be right the first time you write it. It is the struggle for effortlessness and perhaps the vainglorious struggle for genius. All serious writers, it seems to me, encounter preciousness because writing is an intimate reflection of who is doing the writing. Will I sound foolish? Will ideas flow?
I tell my undergraduate students that clear writing is indicative of clear thinking. And because I really believe that, it’s often difficult to engage in productive periods of writing myself—as in, just getting words onto a page. As in, forgiving myself for sloppy sentences I can revisit later. Sloppy sentences are sloppy ideas, true, but ideas need to be refined and teased out, which requires time and effort. And the first part of that effort is actually getting a meaningful sentence onto a page.
Preciousness manifests in constant editing and revising before a page is full or an idea is fleshed out and, as every writer knows, is a great way to keep the ideas from flowing any further. I often feel that if the spirit had moved me—ah ha: those pernicious 19th-century ideas are still with us!— I wouldn’t need to go back, paragraph by paragraph, to make sure the writing is absolutely right. The right sentences would just flow out of me.
This feeling is often difficult to overcome, because at times I feel, honestly, that things are coming out just right and I am managing that difficult task of saying what I want to say exactly how I want to say it. Latching on to this feeling compounds the frustration of the other 99 percent of the time when I have to struggle to find the right words, and the right tone.
(If I am totally honest, I have to confess that I just edited the last two sentences for several minutes before moving on to the next paragraph.)
Now, let me just say, I believe very strongly that revision and editing are the most important parts of writing, and I rely on good editors to help me convey what it is I want to say. But preciousness actually detracts from this valuable process by preventing a complete thought from forming, which can then be edited and refined. Eventually, we walk away tired and frustrated with ourselves, wondering why we even began writing in the first place. We find a way to divert our energies. That is, we find a way to procrastinate.
Procrastination involves the frantic redirection of energy to avoid doing something else. In our case, that something else is writing.
Procrastination is both the more complex and, I think, the more interesting of the two P’s. Why do we procrastinate? Procrastination is a voluntary redirection of time and energy away from the thing we should be working on to things that we could be working on. Procrastination is self-defeating and seemingly irrational. Monday deadline for a draft of something? What better way to procrastinate than reading a script for a script report due on Friday!
Need to edit that scene before rehearsal tomorrow? Why not try that new recipe for dinner tonight! Once dinner is done, isn’t it time to catch up on that stack of New Yorkers on the coffee table? (This is my preferred method of procrastination, and the border between procrastinating and laziness is a very thin one, since I generally enjoy reading the New Yorker even when I should be doing something else. Yet I am also one of those people who read things with a sense of obligation, and a pile of magazines on the coffee table just taunts me.) Since it’s still light out now, shouldn’t we just clean the windows? You know, tax season is upon us….
And on and on. You see from the examples above that procrastination is not the same as idleness or even laziness; on the contrary, it is work. In some cases, procrastination may even be more work than the very thing that prompts such efforts. Whereas idleness is nearly always associated with pleasure, and laziness is an occasional guilty treat, even for the most productive members of society, procrastination is not pleasurable. In fact, it feels more like torment than the frustration of precious writing, which may have driven us to procrastination in the first place. A vicious circle is forming. Soon, we’ll be trapped inside that circle with our play/article/essay/novel on the outside, forever eluding our grasp.
At times preciousness seems the only option, because one is working against a deadline, which is growing tighter as the days, hours, minutes tick by. Why did I wait so long to finish this? When there’s no time revise, the importance of getting words right on the first try mounts; and this very feeling of preciousness leads us to procrastinate to begin with, which is what has put us into this time crunch, which is causing the anxiety to mount, which makes us want to procrastinate even further. Miraculously, things still seem to get done, but it’s often a close call.
The truly perplexing thing about writers procrastinating is that writers usually like to write. There is gratification in communicating through writing, and there is certainly gratification associated with seeing that writing in print, or in performance. There is also gratification in the process of writing, of designing the language to suit one’s ends. So if writing is gratifying and at times pleasurable, why procrastinate?
I don’t have an answer for this, though in a fit of procrastination, I came across a thoughtful review essay by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker on this topic. In it, he quotes an old professor of mine, Mark Kingwell, on procrastination’s existentialist undertone: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. … Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.”
And that, it seems to me, is what the two P’s known as “writer’s block” challenge us with, word by word, sentence by sentence. Does what we do, as writers, need to be done? The only way to answer a question like that is to write, and struggle, and write.