Columns > Published on February 9th, 2012

Un-Building Blocks: What to Do When You Can’t Do It

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Just typing the sentence you are now reading is an act of will. That will is sometimes entirely absent. This condition is known as writers block.

Writer’s block is to writers’ publications as “Lose That Gut!” is to men’s magazines – there can never be too many articles about it and, more important, never too many ideas for getting rid of it. Writer’s block is every bit as common, and just as demoralizing, as a saggy middle-aged belly. Staring at it helplessly in the mirror won’t work. Neither will sucking it in – or sucking it up, as the case may be with writer’s block. You’re going to have to let the hot air out sometime, and when you do, there it is, still lopping over the elastic band of your Calvins, which you shouldn’t even be wearing anymore.

Writer’s block is worse than a beer gut, actually, because you could conceivably have liposuction and bid your fat a surgical farewell. (Hey, here’s an idea! You could use discarded human fat and start your own line of soap, and…. What’s that you say? Oh. Never mind.)
There is no surgery for writer’s block – except perhaps for the lobotomy, but let’s not get carried away.

Most of us have been blocked at at one time or another. Fran Lebowitz has made a career out of it. The only writer I’ve ever heard boast that he’d never been blocked is Gore Vidal, and frankly I think he was lying. (Personal note to Mr. Vidal: I use the word “lying” in its most complimentary sense. Successful lying is the key to a career in Hollywood, as I’m certain you agree.) My worst block occurred when I was unable to write my doctoral dissertation. I couldn’t even sit at my desk, so demoralizing, shame filled, guilt ridden, and vomit prone did I feel. The low point was low indeed: my father’s legal partner had just committed suicide, and one grey New York morning I was still lying in bed in my dismal apartment watching television to help me ignore the laughing-screeching monkey on my back and the grief that was pulling me down into a place no human should ever have to venture. The horrendous Richard Simmons was on. At the end of the show, he looked directly at the lens and told me, “I know you’re down and depressed. But I care about you! You can do it! I believe in you!” God help me, but I burst into tears.

Writer’s block is a long-term condition. It’s not just a bad couple of tearful days sparked by the realization that in the whole world only Richard Simmons truly cares about me, or staring at the ceiling from a prone position on the floor and wondering why I was ever born. That’s an average weekend. No, writer’s block is more longlasting and terrifying than a two-day paralysis dominated by the questions, “Should I take up smoking?” and “If I jump out my 12th-floor window, will I also kill an innocent pedestrian?” It’s a six- or eight-month (or longer) experience of Hell, with devils pitchforking you in the ass while some joker holds up glistening new hardbound copies of the five latest Michael Crichton bestsellers in front of your weeping, bleeding eyes. It’s a seemingly endless silence that gags you whenever you think about writing and is periodically punctuated by silent mental screaming and self-laceration. Or maybe those screams aren’t so silent, which would explain that persistent pounding noise my downstairs neighbor insists on making on her ceiling. And come to think of it, maybe those striped bloodstains on the backs of my t-shirts have a logical explanation after all.

Obviously, writer’s block comedy is to me as Hitler jokes are to Jews; the subject is so incomprehensibly terrifying that only jokes make it (barely) bearable to think about. As the great Peter Sellers, at heart a very morose man, said: “Some forms of reality are so horrible we refuse to face them, unless we are trapped into it by comedy. To label any subject unsuitable for comedy is to admit defeat.”

Writer’s block is admitting defeat. But it’s a premature admission, because you haven’t finished the book, or the article, or the short story yet. You can only admit defeat once its finished, which makes the block doubly wretched: Why, you ask yourself one day, should I even finish this fucking disaster when it’s going to end up being just a longer fucking disaster anyway? That’s feeling bad before you’ve earned the right to do so, a realization that makes you feel even worse. So you stop writing that day, which turns into a week, a month, a season, your 20s….

To make matters even more ghastly, suddenly everyone seems terribly interested to know what you’re working on. Funny, nobody cared before. Now it’s a constant stream of questions or, worse, looks of sympathy and pity from your friends, all of whom, you suddenly realize, had the good sense to go to law school or business school and who are now buying million dollar apartments and shopping at Neiman’s. And every day you ask yourself in the harshest possible inner voice, “Why don’t you just face the fact that you’re a shitty writer and get a real job and stop this incessant whining, you worthless piece of shit?”

I am certain that at least some of this is familiar to you, even if you’re just starting out. It goes with the territory of writing, and unhappily there’s not much that you can do to prevent it. It strikes without warning; it hurts very much; it feeds on itself over time and can destroy you if you let it.

So don’t let it.

Here are some methods of yanking yourself - or more likely slowly and painfully inching yourself - out of the quicksand. They may or may not work for you. But if you’re blocked, at least try one or two and see what happens. You have nothing to lose but your mind.

  • Stop trying to write the piece you’re blocked on, and instead, write something purely stupid and never meant for anyone’s eyes but your own. Try your hand at pornography. (Get it?) Seriously: arouse yourself and bring yourself to climax by writing the most erotic story you can imagine. It will almost certainly get your mind off your block, and it will do so in a most pleasurable way. Words will come and so will you. This is confidence building.
  • Give a trusted friend a copy of what you’ve managed to get on paper before the block set in, and ask for an honest read. Then accept the honest read for what it is: a good friend’s opinion. If this person is really a friend, s/he’ll tell you the truth: either it sucks or it doesn’t. If it does, you might consider the possibility that your block is your soul’s way of telling you that this piece of work is simply not working, and you really might be better off abandoning it. If, on the other hand, your friend likes what you’ve written, ask him or her to bounce some ideas around about where to go with it. You don’t have to take any of the advice. But whatever it may be, it should prove to you that you have many paths forward to choose among. In fact, perhaps you’re blocked because you can’t choose one path among many. If that’s the case, see what your friendly reader thinks, and try one. My guess is that you’ll pick one that will get you unblocked if you stick with it.
  • Force it. This is the “tough love” approach. Get your ass into the chair at your desk and write something. Anything. Start a new chapter way ahead of where you are in the novel; begin writing in the middle of a new chapter or later in the last chapter you were working on in the biography. Or hit command+end and bring yourself face to face with the last word you wrote – the one that induced the year’s worth of self-contempt - and write a next word. Do not exit the chair no matter how wretched you feel until you have written one sentence. Then write another. They may stink. So what? They’re better than nothing. No sentence is permanent until somebody publishes it. You can delete the sucky sentences and write different ones once you realize you can write again after all, that you’re actually quite capable of writing well, and that you really don’t give a rat’s ass whether Richard Simmons loves you.
  • This suggestion poses some real dangers and should be used with great caution, but I offer it as someone who has employed it successfully at times for about 40 years: buy a fifth of the liquor of your choice or a bit of marijuana, bring it to your desk, ingest it, and let ‘er rip. There was a particularly inane anti-drug public service ad in the 1960s in which someone held up a canvas covered in colored smears and solemnly intoned, “This was painted by someone on drugs. She thought it was beautiful!” The ad only served to convince me of the creative value of drugs, and I’ve lived my life accordingly. What you write under the influence might be shit, but then again it might not be. You can judge the outcome when you sober up. For the moment, though, just write without the usual inhibitions and constraints. Even if only one good phrase comes out of it, you’ll have that good phrase and – behold – you won’t be fully blocked anymore. Hopefully you’ll realize that the phrase came from you, not the booze or mj.
  • This one also poses a serious danger, and I have avoided it like the proverbial plague: join a writers’ group. On second thought, the last thing you want to do is surround yourself with other likely-to-be-miserable writers. The only good that could possibly come of it is a viable partner for a murder-suicide.
  • I hate to fall back on this old chestnut, but try limited-term psychotherapy directed entirely at getting you back to writing. Note: I did not say getting to the source of your block. You can go on and do that if you like, but if your therapist does not agree to spend 8 weeks and only 8 weeks on motivating you back to active writing and instead launches into a know-it-all monologue about how you have to get to the real roots of the problem, hie thee out the door immediately. Yes, there are root causes; no, you don’t have to know what they are before you can write again. Writers know this; most therapists can’t imagine it. Find one who can or don’t bother.

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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