When I read something I’ve written, I can usually tell when the sentences flow gracefully from one to the next, like perfectly-placed steps in a cascading waterfall. Conversely, I grimace while reading sections of my prose that are repetitive, disjointed, and confusing. A few days ago, while editing a chapter from an upcoming novel, I experienced an intense version of the second scenario. Each sentence felt forced, an awkward splatter of words that forced (rather than smoothly drove) the plot forward. Typically, I relish rewriting poorly conceived descriptions and stiff dialogue. Since I’ve already translated my imagination onto the page, rewriting crappy paragraphs can be relaxing when compared to the initial effort to fill an intimidating blank space. This time, however, I simply could not proceed.
I struggle now with describing the sensation. I looked at the words, saw that they were horrible, and I could not—no matter how intensely I focused—come up with better phraseology. Imagine that you went to medical school for years to become a surgeon. You’ve performed hundreds of successful surgeries. Then, one day, you’re in the operating room, staring at an open chest cavity, and you don’t know how to use the scalpel you’re holding. You don’t even know where the heart is, or what the beeping from the machine to your left indicates. Granted, this is an over-dramatization of what I experienced (since no patients would perish on my operating table if I failed to rewrite a paragraph), but that’s how I felt, like I’d forgotten how to write.
Writing is a creative endeavor, and creativity differs from other types of mental work. I can code websites all day long, and even though I become tired towards the end fo the day, a simple rest recharges my mental energy and enables me to continue coding. Not so with writing. A week of rest did not cure my writer’s block. When I couldn’t edit previously-written content, I tried to start writing a new chapter. When that failed, I attempted to write down ideas for a completely separate book. When even that proved an insurmountable struggle, I stared at a blank document for an hour, trying to get down a few words for an essay. Two weeks passed, and I started to worry. Had I somehow broken my brain? Was I sick? Did my imagination vanish? I scoured the internet for writer’s block solutions, reading others’ experiences and trying to compare them to my own. I tried everything I could think up. Then, one day, I woke up, sat down at my computer, and I wrote five thousand words. The block had ended.
So what changed? The disturbing answer is, unfortunately, that nothing changed. Writing is like the magic from the Harry Potter series: powerful and inventive yet inexplicable and lacking rules. Someone had bewitched me with a “Confundus Charm,” and it took a while for it to wear off. While I don’t know what happened, exactly, I do have a few ideas.
First, I now realize that during the time I could not write, my brain continued to actively cycle through ideas for my book. Lengthy showers became ideal brainstorming sessions, and I forged a few important connections that would strengthen my narrative. Throughout the day, the chances were high that I’d be considering a character’s motivations, or that I would be mentally introducing new plot points to glue together previous ideas. Perhaps writer’s block is like frying potatoes; if you drop your potato into the oil before it is too hot, you wind up with an oil-soaked, inedible log. However, if you wait for the oil to sizzle, the potato becomes a crispy French fry.
Second, external stressors take an undeniable toll on creative output. Lots of people are stressed out right now due to the state of the world and how that impacts their lives, and I am no exception. Some days, the stress tips me over the edge to a point where I don’t particularly feel like getting out of bed, much less spend hours writing.
Third, the history of a book can become a heavy burden. As a manuscript grows in length, so too do all the pieces an author needs to track. Even the most meticulous planner can become stymied by unpredictable complexities that arise through the course of writing. I don’t think my brain absorbs information immediately. It takes a while for the fabric of what I’ve written to weave itself through my mind to the point that it becomes intuitive understanding that I can rely upon for future chapters.
In the end, writer’s block is a fact of existence that most of us need to accept. Force doesn’t solve all problems — certainly, it doesn’t smash through writer’s block. Sometimes, time is the primary elixir contributing to the cure, and time marches forward at a single speed. The next time I am hit with a bout of writer’s block, I will be a smidge more confident that I haven’t permanently damaged my brain and that the words will eventually flow once more.