September 08, 2006 Features & Images » Feature Story

Clearing the blockage 

Writers offer antidotes and anecdotes on overcoming the blank screen

By Gillie Easdon

So. I sit at my desk, inside on a glorious summer-dregs day and my fingers rest on “asdf jkl;” like they are supposed to. I'm feeling moderately stoic for being inside at all. Smug, even. Like I have already accomplished something just because I am not biking down Dallas Road with my two-string kite ogling the paragliders and kiteboarders as I envy all the dog owners. Not to mention the buff shirtless joggers. There is lovely scenery along this wide ocean road.

I type the word, “So”. I stare vacantly at the screen with a gape generally reserved for elevators. I notice a smudge on the screen. I wipe it off with my thumb. It leaves a thumb print. I go get a cloth to wipe off the smudge and am suddenly acutely aware of how dusty my monitor is, and the keyboard. And the desk. And the laptop adjacent. I wipe them down. I throw the cloth in the laundry bin. The bin is nearly full. I sit down again. The word “So” looks more like a swan looking at a bowling ball now. I rub my front teeth with my left index finger and resume staring at the screen. I’m thirsty.

I get up and make a cup of tea. I spoon a little demerara onto my tongue and listen to the kettle ruffle its feathers. I check my e-mail again (20 th time today and it is 3:30 p.m.). Five new messages. A smile of glee slashes across my face. I open hotmail. My smile spills onto the floor. Hotmail is getting so much junk these days. Maybe Carla will invite me to g-mail.

Okay. I have my tea. Fingers alight the keyboard and a delicate right pinky lands, soundless, on the backspace button. Push. Push. Push. Blank screen.

I should do the dishes. I rise and beeline for the kitchen... I can't believe I have not done the dish— wait, there is only one coffee cup, a small plate decked with salt, pepper, a little leftover yolk and a spoon. Do the dishes later. Sit down. Would I just sit down and get to work? Okay, okay, I’ll just sit down. As I ease my derrière into the seat I wonder if the laundry room is free but I catch myself and yank my fingers onto the keyboard. Sit. Stay. Stay.

So. Well. Hmm.

I don't feel like working on my book. I don't really feel like drumming out articles. I’m still waiting to hear back from a few pitches. No, don’t feel like doing that. But then again, I don't want to bail on my writing for the day because then I'll feel like a loser. I wish someone would call, even to go for coffee. I could somehow justify that. In this type of situation it is not permissible to initiate that type of activity. I have very strict rules of this nature.

So. I am not going anywhere. I have to sit here and write. I don't care if it is good. It probably isn't good. The other stuff is quite good. So, what will I write about today. Chapter Six? No. Maybe I’ll start Chapter Eight. No. Man that screen is just staring at me. Maybe I’ll just freeflow write for a bit. On what I know. What do I know? Well, I know for damn sure that I am trying as hard as I can to find a sensible reason not to do what I love most to do. I think I need a hair tie. My hair is bugging me.

 

“I don't believe in writer's block. I think better words… (are) fear, procrastination, lack of imagination and/or over worked. If (it) exists, I'd charge it as a symptom... Writer's block just means I haven't stocked my desk drawer with enough chocolate.” – Nicole Fitzgerald

(Incidentally there is a site that recommends chocolate for writer’s block)

 

Is what I am experiencing procrastination or writer's block? Procrastination is such an unpleasant word, especially for one that starts with such a peppy affirmative syllable. But there is something weak, guilty and covert about the word “procrastination”. Couldn’t be that. Writer’s block? Well, isn’t that more of a phase in the creative process, a passing ailment, a necessary uncomfortable state, albeit a bit self-indulgent artsy-sounding. Let’s check the internet.

Wikipedia cites writer’s block as:

“Writer's block is a phenomenon involving temporary loss of ability to continue writing, usually due to lack of inspiration or creativity.”

  Hmm. Okay, and so my current mood could be more of a preemptive stage of writer’s block. Maybe that’s what this is. I read on…

“Writer's block can be closely related to depression and anxiety, two disorders that reflect environmentally-caused or spontaneous changes in the brain's frontal lobe.”

Great. Scratch being worried about the progress of the book. I may be exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression, much bigger fish to fry. Great. I minimize that screen and am faced with the blank screen. I minimize that screen and am faced with the page on anxiety and depression and my poor lobe. I minimize. I maximize. I minimize. I maximize. Min-max-mini-max — I find myself being lulled by the Lilliputian rhythm I’ve got going on with the click of the mouse. I close both screens and shake my head.

I read recently that Druids suffered from writer's block. To cure it, they would lie in a windowless hut in a cold bath with an enormous stone on their chest. That would probably work. Reminds me of when I subjected myself to Buckley's, which I firmly believe only works because every ounce of my body screams “Okay okay you win, I'll get better. Just don't do that to me again. Jeez. Eww. Okay. Why'd you have to do THAT?”

 

“I have never suffered from writer’s block. In fact, most of the time my problem is putting a cork in it.”

Leslie Anthony

 

Alternately, Druids would sacrifice a white bull, chew on the meat and wrap themselves in rawhide and sit under a waterfall.

Okay, so Druids get points for creativity, panache and gore. I tend to do dishes, cook or exercise. This could explain why I have writer's block. Why? Because I am obviously becoming an inexplicably boring tit with nothing interesting to say, save that lemongrass-scented dish liquid defeats the purpose of cleaning food and food smells off plates.

I forge ahead with my research. One site gives a brief overview of Ayurvedic, Chinese and other natural remedies to overcome writer’s block. This site attributes writer’s block to fatigue, weakened immune system and low mental and physical stamina. Nice turns. What is my current self-prognosis, Dr. Easdon? Depression, anxiety, exhaustion, infirmity… Suggested remedies include Korean or Siberian Ginseng, cayenne pepper, yellow dock root, licorice root, garlic, bee pollen, alfalfa, seaweeds, blessed thistle, gotu kola, Fo-ti, damiana, St. John’s Wort and L-Tyrosine. I’m sure there are some out there who could come up with a few other herbs to assist with the writing process.

This slightly whimsical site ends with a note on the importance of attitude, and reminds us that a child doesn’t say, “I can’t finger-paint today,” which reminds me of an old quote that Rebecca Wood Barrett forwarded to me the other day:

 

“What do you do about writer's block? I don't believe in it. All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don't get plumber's block, and doctors don't get doctor's block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?”

– Philip Pullman

 

Now wait a minute. It didn’t occur to me to expect sympathy for the state I am experiencing. But I admit I am no plumber, nor doctor, nor would I feel comfortable making a broad sweeping statement as to whether they ever had a block, or preemptive block about their particular professions. It is a sound quote on the work of the writer as work, but I am thinking that writer’s block may exist, and not only because there are 29,100,000 linked sites on Google for it (approximately 10,000,000 more than the 19,300,000 for Santa Claus).

 

“For me, it's not so much writer's block as writer's resistance. I never have any trouble writing or thinking up ideas once I get my bum down in the chair. It's getting to the chair that's so incredibly difficult, because at any given time I have an infinite number of vitally important jobs to take care of, from petting the cat to cleaning the toilet. On a good day I convince myself to get to the chair and write before doing any of those other critical things. On a bad day I do them first and feel guilty and then get to the chair. On a really bad day I don't get to the chair at all, and promise myself I'll write double the next day, which I never do.”

Rebecca Wood Barrett

 

I sent in a request via Stella Harvey to the Vicious Circle (Whistler Writers Group) on how they dealt with writer’s block. Over half of the respondents replied that they did not believe in writer’s block. I spent some time digesting this. Was it the terminology? The implications of the terminology? Were they only writing when they felt like it? Or were they more prone to PWB (The preemptive stage of writer’s block, a.k.a. procrastination, which precludes writer’s block but may be a direct result of WBP, writer’s block phobia)? Or did they just always write fluidly and beautifully all the time? Really? I mean, how many films, books and marvelous pieces of theatre would have to be discounted? Bells are Ringing (1960), Paris When it Sizzles (1964), Barton Fink (1991), The Gambler (1997), The Muse (1999), The Man from the Elysian Fields (2001), Adaptation (2002), to name a few.

Apparently the term “writer’s block” was coined by Edmund Bergler, a Viennese émigré and later Freudian. He attributed it to “oral masochism, entrapment in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother. Starved before, the writer chose to become starved again — that is, blocked.”

Coleridge (1804) was one of the first cited cases. Bergler claimed to have cured over 40 writers with 100 per cent success rate. The things you can find on the Internet. I just thought I was having a bit of a blank day.

 

“Set a timer for two minutes and list possible next steps that could move the piece forward.  Then I choose the best one and make that my next action. Completing this action gets me moving again.”

Chad Nantais

 

Reading over articles on writer’s block, and famous authors on writer’s block, and the history of writer’s block makes me wish I didn’t believe in it either. Granted, most of the cases I found on websites are about dead authors who just stopped writing altogether. That was it. Reasons offered were that some had dried up, or been intimidated by success, or disillusioned, mentally ill or fiercely substance dependent. These tales are too large, much too epic to compare to just the simple issue of not getting past a blank screen in my lovely apartment, with the view, the fish, the healthy house plants and the nicely vacuumed-floors.

 

“I've been trying to answer this one. Honestly, I have. But do you think I can come up with a single thing? Hell no… There's the Charlie Kaufman technique: reward myself with food. Then I think about food. Oh, I do better than think about it… I get on my bike and go for lunch. And coffee. Coffee shops and bars are surely the havens or purgatories for writers with cramps.”

Tim Smith

 

More nicer (yes, more nicer seems an apt descriptor) kick-starts listed on writer-friendly supportive sites suggest stepping away from the page or computer for a spell, typing out a chapter of your favorite book, having a nice herbal tea. Physical exercise is also a frontrunner for overcoming PWB or writer’s block; yoga, deep breathing, meditating, walking or casually banging your head on the keyboard in Sesame Street style. A venue change is also a popular suggestion. There are reams of writing exercises, such as choosing an object on your desk and simply describing it, or cutting a picture from a magazine and scribbling a short piece on it and doodling. Perfectionism is to be avoided. Goals are to be realistic. There should also be a note about not spending too much time on the Internet learning that Trollope wrote every day for three hours, 250 words every 15 minutes and produced 49 novels in 39 years. Nor does it behoove one to learn that some compounded cases of writer’s block are currently being treated with anti-depressants (which may kill creativity, but at least kill the anguish associated with lack of production) or Ritalin.

 

  “…If I’m stuck and can’t wait for an idea to magically appear, I go for a walk listening to music. I generally get absorbed in the imagery of the song and then WHAM, a flood of ideas hits me.”

– Erica Basnicki

 

Okay. So. What have I learned? I have learned that I am having extra trouble writing because of:

1. Anxiety

2. Depression

3. Lack of fitness

4. Nutritional deficiency

5. Perfectionism

6. Belief in a condition that may not exist

7. Lack of chocolate

8. Lack of breast milk in my life

9. Lack of proper breathing

10. Spontaneous change in my frontal lobe

11. Obsession with the Internet

12. Lack of imagination

13. Lack of white bulls

14. Lack of big stones, windowless huts with icewater baths

15. Lack of work ethic

16. A desire to starve because Freud said so

Hmm. Well, I must say I sort of feel better for writing all that down, writer’s block or not. So I think I’ll work on Chapter Four.

 

…Steak. Sally bought steak for dinner. Steak, baked potatoes with normal sour cream, real bacon bits and no salad. Not one vegetable, apart from the potato. Beer. She bought a case of beer and set up dinner in front of the TV. There were no candles, no flowers. She was ready to go at half past six. Sally had bathed for an hour and put on her special crimson dress with the clandestine side-slit. Her hair was up and a few tendrils graced her freckled back.

At half past seven Steve arrived. He brought his briefcase home, along with his gym bag and six bottles of Kokanee, one already open. “Shit!” He stubbed his toe on the leg of the kitchen table and belched. He looked around and smiled to himself…

 

Nice. Well that worked. I’ll do the laundry later.

 

The Whistler Writers Festival takes place Sept. 14-17.

Readers also liked…

  • Death in the Alpine

    Social media is changing our relationship to risk, with deadly consequences
    • Jun 10, 2018
  • Getting Lost On A Bike

    Mountain biking? Nay. Touring? Not quite. Hiking? Heck no! Welcome to the world of bikepacking
    • Aug 12, 2018

Latest in Feature Story

  • Deadly decisions

    Critics say the BC Conservation officer Service is overly reliant on lethal force—it maintains they are only seeing a 'snapshot' of what they do
    • Oct 11, 2019
  • Whatcha Smokin'?

    Canadians face lifetime bans to U.S. over past cannabis use, CBD oils and social media posts
    • Oct 4, 2019
  • Paradise found

    Searching for the families that quietly waited out doomsday deep in the Cayoosh Range mountains
    • Sep 28, 2019
  • More »

More by Gillie Easdon

© 1994-2019 Pique Publishing Inc., Glacier Community Media

- Website powered by Foundation