Writer’s block is something I have managed to avoid for most of my life. This past year, however, has been different—mostly because of the pandemic, the lockdown, social isolation, and persistent politics. All of those conditions create a subtle anxiety that interrupts the flow of ideas. I know this because other writers I communicate with also seem to be having a hard time.
The popular conception of writer’s block is that the writer is just full of ideas but, when he or she sits down at the keyboard or the notebook, the words just won’t come. Somehow, the conditions for putting the mind in a special configuration—for me, it’s a semi-trance while staring at the screen and working my fingers on the keys, or staring at the paper and manipulating the pen—have been interrupted. The desire to write is there, but the mechanics aren’t working. The popular analogy is a type of constipation: full gut, no flow.
The reality is somewhat different. For me, the word-making machine—that interaction of eyes and fingers directly connected to the brain’s speech center—would work just fine. But the ideas—the notion of what comes next in the novel I’m working on, the topic for my next blog post—have vanished clean out of my held. I drop a stone in the well of my subconscious, the place where things are supposed to bubble up, and only get a dry rattle or nothing at all. It’s like part of my brain has gone dead.
As I say, the word machine still there. For fiction writing, I usually have in hand an outline, a sketch of the novel that goes from beginning to end. Each day I take the next scene or piece of action, consider how it should go, what the characters must do or say to move the story along, then wait for the “downbeat.” That’s what I call the start, the ignition point, the first words, actions, sense images, or other detail that begins the scene. Once I have that, I sit down at the keyboard or the notepad (these days it’s more direct to computer than through a pen and ink intermediate), and the words start flowing. And the flow is direct from the subconscious, where the story has been brewing for the past year, months, days in whatever form until it comes alive now in the form of words on paper or on the screen.1
And once the story is in that form, having passed through the subconscious mind into my full consciousness, it has a sort of permanence. I can go back and alter details to fit previous or subsequent developments. I can improve on wording or add details that better explain the action. But the story as it comes through is, in my mind, about ninety percent complete: it represents what “actually happened” to the characters in the story arc. This means that, if the story has gone wrong, if I have mistaken my characters, or if I have misread my own subconscious, it’s harder for me to scrap what I’ve written and start over on that piece of action or dialog. So it’s no good, really, for me to force the story. I can’t just sit down and doodle my way into the action when it’s not ready in my subconscious.
If I try to force it, then the whole process slows down. Descriptions become longer, and irrelevancies grow, as my mind tries to come up with something to say. I start describing every leaf on a tree, every scratch and scar on a door panel, things the reader doesn’t need to know and that waste the reader’s time. The focus of my writing is like a flashlight in a dark room, revealing details that build in the reader’s mind a picture from the viewpoint character’s awareness of the story as it progresses. Focusing too much on useless detail is like living inside the head of a character who is obsessive or drunk.
Writing nonfiction is somewhat easier. The information is usually at hand: from research and note-taking on the issue, interviews with participants, or observation and note-taking on a technical process. If that preliminary work is done, I can go ahead; if not, I have to wait. But with the material in hand, it’s relatively easy to outline a 1,500- or 2,000-word article or procedure in my head. There is usually no reference to other articles on the subject, and no link to a broader story arc or concern for a point-of-view character and his or her own history. All that’s missing, in the case of an article, is the downbeat, the point of entry into the subject matter for the interested reader. And if I’m writing a process document, that’s even easier, because every process begins at the first step.
Besides, the nonfiction material is generally outside me, outside my imagination and the tilt of my subconscious. So it’s easy to connect with the word generator and get the thing done. And, usually, there’s a deadline and money involved, and they are great incentives.
But fiction, especially a long work of connected scenes, themes, and characters—where, as Tolstoy said, a gun produced in the first act must be fired in the second—is a great ball of threads and issues. It helps to have an outline, a walk-through of the story at the 30,000-foot level, to use as a guide. And I generally have an outline, a who-does-what-next, before starting a novel. Usually, it takes me eighteen months to work up a complete outline—sometimes after considering a project for years or decades—and then only six to nine months to write the book.
But the current novel, a military story based on Mars, is different. I had a general idea for the story, was outlining it section by section, heading toward a still-undecided end—and then I fell and broke my hand. That interrupted my writing, because it’s hard to follow my trancelike process when I have to spider-walk across the keyboard with one hand. As my hand was healing, then the pandemic and the isolation hit, and anxiety set in. The book has been flapping feebly on the ground ever since.2
I’ve been able to continue working on this blog during the past year, but the politics of the 2020 election and its aftermath have been just too absurd. How can someone write anything of a political nature—which is one-third of my subject matter—with all of this going on? Science topics have been available, but I’ve been powerfully distracted by the politics.
So my mind, that dark well of the subconscious, has run dry for a while. I’m trying to prime the pump. Maybe it will work. But the mind is a delicate thing after all.
1. And the bet with myself is always whether what comes up in the moment of creation will be better than the slender and still unformed idea represented by the outline. Usually, it is. Since the outline was completed, my subconscious has been making more connections, tossing up subtler and more complex ideas, and the final product is richer and more complete. Usually.
2. Well, for those reasons and because I don’t actually believe in colonizing Mars. For internal logic, the story had to take place off Earth, and aside from the barren and airless Moon, Mars is the next logical planet to set up an off-world colony. Life there in the time frame I imagined would be similar to that of Antarctica: mostly scientific stations and support services, with the addition of some mining interests and modest terraforming activities. Still, in my estimation, it might almost be better to focus on the Moon, where the conditions are harsher but the engineering simpler—you’re in hard vacuum, deal with it—and the logistics and travel times far easier. A writer first has to believe in the story he or she is telling, and I don’t quite believe in Mars.