Publisher’s Weekly posted an article a couple of days ago called “7 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block,” by Andrew Lewis Conn. Way number 4 was my favorite, because it sums up the only advice I give about the alleged condition:
4. Place your trust in craft, not inspiration. Leave chasing vampires, looking for the Loch Ness Monster, and making friends with the Easter Bunny to others. Because writer’s block, similar those other figments, does not exist. There’s writing and there’s not writing (and, within those two large camps, factions of good writing, poor writing, and mediocre writing). Like anything else, there are going to be good days and bad days. But let’s not get all exalted about it! Demystifying the process for oneself—treating it as craft, as labor, as back work; and approaching the process like a bricklayer—can relieve an enormous amount of self-imposed psychological pressure. There’s going to school and there’s playing hooky. There’s reporting for work and there’s calling in sick. A big part of being a pro is about showing up, not making excuses, and getting on with it. Be a professional.
That’s right, folks: writer’s block does not exist. And if you found Conn’s advice about treating writing like laying bricks offensive, that’s probably because you haven’t faced the reality that all aspiring professional writers must eventually face: writing, as wonderful a calling as it may be, is still a job. It’s a craft, just like carpentry or masonry, and the essentials of the craft can be learned and practiced with or without inspiration.
There’s an old story about one of the Romantic poets–possibly Lord Byron, but I don’t really remember. He produced a cherished poem, and when asked about the writing process, said some suitably Romantic thing about how the words flowed from his pen as the Muse inspired him. In other words, he claimed he wrote it all as is, in one go, on the first draft. Much later on, after his death (if I’m not mistaken), his original manuscript of that poem turned up. He had written and rewritten it time and time again, scratching out one line only to write in another, slaving over it the way most writers slave over their work. He was full of shit, in other words. Because most of the time, writing is work like any other, whether you’re feeling inspired or no.
If you doubt me, listen to Neil Gaiman. When asked by Chris Hardwick whether he wrote only when he was inspired, he responded:
If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not.
You have to write when you’re not inspired. And you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you. And the weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you just wrote because they had to be written next.
The process of writing can be magical. … Mostly it’s a process of putting one word after another.
If you’re serious about writing, you need to view it like a job. Because it is one. Letting yourself off the hook because you’re not feeling inspired is an excuse. Can’t decide what should happen next? Use logic. Think through it. Don’t wait for lightning to strike. That’s a great way to never finish a novel.
Worried what you’re writing isn’t good enough? Don’t worry, it’s just the first draft. Again, listen to Father Gaiman:
For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important.
One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed. …
For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.