writer’s block

I am in the middle of PhD studies – I tell you this not to brag but to open this comment on Writer’s Block, as it is entirely germane to the issue. I have been writing stories, articles, books and the odd bit of poetry since I was 10 – some publishing success, but not enough, as for most people. In these many years I’ve never been stuck for ideas or been able to write as and when I’ve wanted to. True, things have stalled from time to time, and I’ve given up countless times, but to be blocked fast, with no way to go ahead that was new. But come the book for the study and into the second draft (96,000 words of first draft) and I get stuck. Fast. Utterly.

I had been ignoring this state of being for a while – it struck in February after a dose of luke-warm feedback from my supervisor. Come April with no relief in sight I am facing it and seeing if perhaps through talking about it – to myself and selected others – I can move through the impasse and return to Ophelia (working title), which is now, like the Shakespearean heroine, foundering in a dark muddy stream somewhere in the subconscious.

In fact the analogous image is more like the sleeping beauty in her glass casket – you can see her, she seems all right from a distance, everything is there but up close you know there is something wrong. You can’t open the casket, the glass is impervious to your banging; to your variety of ways to open the glass; you cant smash it apart as what you need is still there, so caution is essential. But you remain positive that once you get past the thick protective, opaque shield you can do something to make everything work as it should again. You can see it, you can smell it, but you can’t touch it or bend it to your will.

I tried all sorts of methods that had helped get me moving in the past – but as I had never been this stalled before, nothing worked. I recognised that work was a burden to the creative mind, that having family responsibilities wasn’t helping, that physical exhaustion and drinking most days was simply dulling the brain. But recognising problems wasn’t solving them.

I put my book and characters to the back of my mind, let them sleep a while in my subconscious, hoping they would reveal their true selves to me and start to talk to me again so I could find them and me and the story, which was so far away on the horizon that no matter how well or fast I sailed towards the spot it was always moving away from me – its breeze much greater, my ship in a wind-shadow. I could not find my characters in my dreams and if I found an hour to sit and re-draft a chapter it seemed futile. I had lost the story, lost my purpose. The futility of writing – of the story itself – overwhelmed me. I made notes in my pretty writer’s diary about the despair of losing my characters, especially of the loss of my heroine – it felt as if a friend had died.

But what to do? Re-draft from where i was, knowing my supervisor wasn’t really into where I was? Start the whole thing again? But how – what time did i have for that? Did I have to abandon the structure, move to first person, what would make it zing again? I simply hadn’t a clue. I needed to move away from the story and just leave it be.

I entered a long and reassuring email conversation with my trusted writing mate on the other side of the world. She recommended a few articles and reminded me of the facts of life, of how we do too often burn all our candles at both ends. And what were we doing – what was the point of our writing, our being? It struck me that being blocked was because of the study component, that i felt compelled to write only about it – not let other ideas in, or play with new stories, as I usually did. I’ve always had several things bubbling away on my stove at the one time.

And then, on watching Notes on a Scandal an idea seeded; something new began to percolate in the brain, something was shimmying there; something new was forming. New characters presented themselves and dialogue wrote itself in my head; the premise of a new story unwound and a new heroine, deeply flawed and needy was there, demanding to be made flesh. I wrote pages of scrawling notes in my book, happy to be making again, happy to have a new story to work through and sort out. I was writing again – it may not have been Ophelia but I was writing. I allowed myself to smile.

Two things then happened. My other characters returned to my dreams. It was as if they knew they were in danger of being replaced by these upstarts. They crowded in, making themselves flesh again, but in new clothes, bright and clear and demanding. And I got a brand new iMac and it seemed to reconnect my fingers with my brain and spark the story back into life. Plus, work became a whole lot less frantic, so the brain freed up on several levels, as did life itself.

As I revised a few chapters I suddenly knew exactly what to do. The structure and shape of the novel that had eluded me presented itself and I knew it was right. I changed the opening completely, made my characters more of what they were, laid out the essence of the novel and re-wrote like a demon. It all came flooding back.

Time and patience and trusting that what you are writing is worth it – that brings it all back; that unblocks the brain. I’m now very happy with where Ophelia is going – initial feedback from supervisor is good and the recent re-writing is strong. We will have a novel worth having. And there’s another one waiting in the wings, for its turn in the spotlight, so the urge to get the new one started will get the old one finished, I know myself – completion, completion.

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