The Writer’s Despair – Tip 11

A number of authors have asked how to deal with writer’s block, or the sheer anxiety they feel when facing the blank page, so this is a new blog to examine the problem.

In fact it is two different problems. ‘Writer’s block’ usually means that one is stuck with the particular project one is working on, and has no idea where to go with it. Persistent despair at tackling the writer’s trade is a more serious matter.

Let’s take them one at a time.

WRITER’S BLOCK

Like many authors, I sometimes find that I get half way through a venture, and am happy with it so far, but then am up against a dead end. If it’s a play, then I have Act One, but cannot see how to progress further into Act Two. If it’s a book, then it has come to an apparent final climax at around 50,000 words. This could either mean that I only have a one act play, or I have written a short novella for which there isn’t much of a market. And maybe that’s all there is to it.

However, if my instinct tells me that the work is more worthy than that – that the subject really merits a full length treatment – then it’s a question of seriously putting my brain cells to work to discover what it is I’m missing. Has the idea been developed to its ultimate conclusion? Is there a whole dimension to the story that has been ignored? Has imagination gone the full distance?

It may sometimes be necessary to put the thing aside, and concentrate on something else, before lightning strikes. I have several times shelved a piece for a year or two before coming back to it with the thought, “I really like this idea – I don’t want it to go to waste”. And then I usually manage to find that elusive Act Two, or next 50,000 pages – even if it means partially rewriting the first half.

If, on the other hand, you get the dreaded mind-dead feeling at regular intervals as you work, it may well be telling you that the subject is simply not worth the effort you are putting into it. It has not got enough depth or originality to merit the endeavour. Your subconscious is telling you that, and the subconscious is something writers should always listen to.

My most successful pieces have been those that have the feeling of ‘writing itself’. They roar along at a great pace, and I have a job hanging onto the reigns. In fact the thing sometimes goes so fast that it leads to superficiality, and I have to go back over it all to fill in the gaps. But that’s fun, and a far more creative process compared to struggling with a reluctant baby.

However one rarely knows until one starts, whether it’s going to be the stop-start business, or if the magic is going to happen.

WRITER’S DESPAIR

This is something that is far harder to deal with, and merits closer examination of one’s own mental makeup. One frequently hears comments, or sees postings from writers, bemoaning the fact that they hate having to face their work in the morning, or they are filled with anxiety about its worth, or they can’t conceive why anyone should want to read such rubbish. Many famous authors in the past have wrestled with such feelings, even whilst producing works of genius.

I may not produce works of genius, so maybe that’s why I cannot understand such pessimism! I am far more despondent when I am in between projects, can’t think what the next one might be, and have to face the day with nothing to occupy my brain except household chores and the VAT return.

I think it invariably comes down to one’s overall outlook on life. If you are at heart a pessimist, and preoccupied with the problems of the world and your own situation (and therefore probably left wing inclined), then it’s not surprising that you find the task of producing something uplifting and inspiring is an intolerable business. If, however, you find life exhilarating, and the myriad challenges and complexities of existence fascinating, then exploring them gives true meaning to the day, and impetus to the work.

Of course problems and setbacks occur to everyone, but the fact that the writer can escape them for hours at a time, into a world of his/her own creating, is one of the great benefits of the vocation.

Easy to say, but if you are one of those who find the artistic process unbearable, then somehow you have to find what inspires and motivates you in life, and concentrate on that. Perhaps your metier is not writing that psychological epic or family saga, which is too close to home, but maybe trying your hand at a detective story or historical fiction. Or even better, comedy. After all, many of the world’s comedians and funniest authors have been manic depressives!

Or if none of that works, and you find it impossible to slay the demons, then maybe you just aren’t cut out to be a writer. Abandon the whole idea, and go and do something that utilises the other side of your brain instead. Find a different calling, and perhaps you’ll return to the words business later on.

Good luck.

Robin Hawdon

Robin Hawdon is one of the UK's most prolific playwrights, with productions in over 40 countries and 30 languages.

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