Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Thursday, 15 November 2012


All of this is true, especially if you are a writer, most especially if you are a novelist, perhaps. It’s a slab in the ground in Cathkin Park in Glasgow.

Yesterday, at Perth Academy, one of the pupils wanted to know what to do about writers’ block which she said regularly struck her down. We were close to the end of our session so I was only able to give very limited advice. Here are some more thoughts on the subject.

First, what is writers block? Perhaps it was me who used the term ‘struck down’ as if it is an illness. It certainly feels to me like a blight and for some people it can be seriously disabling. There are also levels of block, ranging from mild prevarication to abject terror of the page, but why is that? What are we afraid of? Disease? Heart attack? No. Our work not being good enough? Being rubbish as a writer and therefore as a person?

There is a big nasty censor in most of us and this inner censor needs to be firmly switched off. Find any ways that suit you, and I’ll give you some clues, but there are enough people ready to tell us we’re rubbish without doing it for ourselves.

A few years ago I took a drawing class at Glasgow University. The tutor, who is still there, was Irene Macneil. I was probably a less than average drawer and hugely bothered with block. She taught me not to think of the final creation, which always seemed so clear and perfect in my head if only I could get it onto the paper, but instead to consider every piece of work as an experiment. It was very liberating. Now, as a writer, the first draft is always an experiment, or perhaps a gathering of ingredients and then once it’s finished I can mould what I have into something which works better, is more beautiful, elegant, precise, clear, whatever. Irene’s advice was like a gift, the gift of the fun that was to be had in the first creation. She taught me how to turn off my censor.

Another way to lose the censor is to distract it and thereby loosen its grip. When I was a kid learning to play the piano, sometimes I’d get my fingers all tangled up at the keys and be stuck making the same mistake over and over again. My teacher would quietly ask me about sweets or Halloween or something completely different. After two minutes she’d get me playing again and the repeated mistake would vanish.

Fast forward a few years to working for highers and I used to study for an hour, practice piano for twenty minutes, study, practice piano etc and could keep going and be fresh for a whole day. I suppose what I’m saying is something about dissipating that stress that heavy focus on knotty problems can cause, by swapping briefly to a vastly different activity.

This is tricky for the prevaricators amongst us (me especially) because you have to be vigilant about when you’re prevaricating and when you’re using sensible stress dissipaters as avoidance. Much as I dislike Nike for their employment practices, I do love their slogan: Just do it! Sometimes just writing something, anything, is the only way past the barrier. But a writers needs to be careful about forcing themselves too in case the muse takes the huff and goes for a long walk.

Sometimes I think of the muse, or the writer part of me, or the character in my story perhaps, as having the soul of a toddler. That part needs encouragement and guidance, sometimes a strict governing hand and sometimes reassurance that when you say you’ll arrive at your desk at 8am, that you will actually do that, and that you really will open the relevant piece of work and you will even sit down and work on it even if it’s just to move a comma or two or to stare into space and consider the next twist in the tale. Turning up is the most important thing to do, otherwise this toddler/muse/writer/character will lose faith in you and there’s nothing like self-perpetuating despondency to kill the muse/writer/character dead.

By the same toddler token, I find bribery, otherwise known as reward, works wonders. Remember all that behaviourist theory from way back? I insist on a minimum of 1000 words in a novel-writing day. Sometimes this means I vastly outstrip myself and write 3000 or even more and feel pretty damn good. Sometimes I stagger to the end of the 1000 words feeling virtuous only in having completed the task, but note how either way I get to feel better than if I did nothing at all. But set yourself a realistic target, not one which will doom you to failure. At the end you can reward yourself with a different activity/tea/cake/phone-a-friend/walk the dog etc. You can also reward/encourage yourself as you go along. In my case this usually involves tea. But don’t take too long or get complacent. Get back to the task as soon as you can.

Toddlers also need 'herding' or gentle cajoling, recognition of their unique perspective and valuing their need to wander and explore without being constantly reigned in. This is how they learn best. Be nice to your inner toddler and s/he will take you somewhere interesting and fun.

Then there’s the speed writing. This idea comes from Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’. The idea of speed-writing is to sneak past your inner censor. It’s simple but very effective. Get a pen/pencil and three sides of paper and get writing. Keep writing as fast as you are able and don’t stop until you get to the end of the three pages, not even for a second, anything that comes into your head. If you run out of thoughts write ‘I’ve run out of thoughts.’ It’s a bit like vomiting up all the nonsense that is going on in your head and using up all your creative energy, the ballast that keeps the balloon on the ground. Write ‘I can’t think what to write’ as many times as it takes. Be strict. Don’t stop before the end of the third page. Don’t worry about spilling out those evil thoughts about your brother/parents/partner/gorgeous-new-person-next-door. No-one is going to read this, not even you. If you have an amazing idea while writing, which often happens, put a cross in the margin and keep going, so you can come back later. When you’ve finished, check any of these good ideas but otherwise don’t read what you’ve written. Tear it up and bin it. Now you’re ready to write.

1 comment:

  1. Writer's block is one of those expressions—inspiration is another one—that muddies the waters a bit. We feel we need one but can't work because of the other. The worst thing I find is to compare ourselves to other writers, especially the prolific ones as if they're the only ones who get to call themselves real writers. Up until my early thirties I'd basically only ever written poetry. Poetry can't be forced; at least I can't force it. If I try I end up with… let's just be kind and say very poor stuff. In my thirties I found I couldn't write which is odd because I was going through a right miserable time and that's a perfect breeding ground for poetry. Again I can only speak for me but I'm not known for my happy poetry. Anyway three years passed and I'd become resigned to the fact I'd never write again. The annoying thing, the really annoying thing, was that the urge to write—more, the need to write—never went away. Very frustrating. So one day I sat down and tried to write a something, an anything, just to feel myself writing again. When I stopped and counted up the words I'd written a novel and then with very little encouragement from those who read that first draft, I wrote a sequel. So two novels in less than six months. I've tried to fathom how I managed this. My answer, for which I have no proof, is that the creative process never stopped and for three years I was processing and stacking up ideas that had to find expression one way or another. Normally with a poem every two or three weeks I let some of the pressure off and so never had enough material for a long work. And then I found I couldn't write. The reason was illness; I was depressed. I was still depressed when I wrote both books in fact most of my books have been written whilst depressed so I don't know what to say there.

    The first time I experienced what one might reasonably call writer's block was halfway through my third novel. Several years separate those first two books and the third. I went back to writing poetry and viewed the novels as a glitch but then I found the urge to write another long work and decided to have a crack at it but at what I thought was the midpoint I reached a crisis in my protagonist's life and had no idea what to do with him. Eventually I gave up and started trying my hand at short stories. Two years and some fifty short stories later I went back to the book, found a new voice and a different direction (which is what it needed) and finished the final two-thirds as it happens (it was a long novel, for me) with comparative ease.

    Much the same happened with the fifth book—the fourth was a fairly straightforward affair—and now I've been working on my sixth book for the past two years. Most of that time has been spent not writing, not engaged in the physical act of putting pen to paper or typing, but thinking. Was I blocked? It's a word but it's not the right one. What I've learned about myself, certainly as far as the prose goes, is that I require a long gestation period before I get going and it can't be rushed. I write every day and often thousands of words—give me a topic and I'll rattle of a thousand words right now which is probably how long this comment will be once I'm done—but that's non-fiction which I tend to shrug off as not real writing.

    I was reading a book on writing—I think it was the one I just reviewed by Scarlett Thomas (let's just give her the credit)—and she said that she worked in much the same manner and would think about a book for a year at least until she was fit to burst and then she would begin. I get that. You have to get the timing right. I long ago accepted there is a duality at work here and I'm not, never have been and never will be, in full control of the writing process. The subconscious has to be given its place and its space which is why very often I end up writing books I never set out to write but at least they were books that were worth writing.