Writer’s block

© C A Lovegrove

I’ve just read and reviewed a novel which centred around an author who struggled to follow on from a successful first novel. He was offered a strategy to help deal with his writer’s block: write two thousand words of any old nonsense at set intervals. In Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy this seems to have worked for him.

This fictional premise reminded me of an incident in the 1960s when I was in my teens. Around the age of sixteen and inspired by Treasure Island I began a novel set in 18th-century Bristol, having done some desultory research by cycling round the city’s historic sites. Unfortunately my parents got hold of the unfinished first chapter and made some really patronising comments, as a result of which I abandoned all attempts to write any fiction. That is, until I joined a creative writing class in my late 60s.

You’d think all those exercises I wrote — they eventually led to a Certificate of Higher Education in Creative Writing Studies from Aberystwyth University — would have stood me in good stead, and that the sluicegate holding back all those imaginative juices would have been opened—but no. Instead I pour all my energies into blog post after blog post—reviews and such—perhaps in the firm belief that I’m still learning the craft from the masters.

Yet I have many writing projects I would really like to get my teeth into. Here’s a sample.

  • An extended work on approaches to Arthurian legend, literature, archaeology, history and pseudohistory, based on half a century delving into the subject.
  • A children’s novel centred round a reclusive writer and the children who interact with her.
  • A history of the Pendragon Society (1959-2009) for which I edited the journal over several decades.
  • A magical realist novel riffing on Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies for which I have copious notes and drafts.
  • A memoir of growing up in Hong Kong in the 1950s, long promised to our grown-up children.

What’s holding me back from getting started on any or all of these? It’s very possible that, having recently self-diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, and with a partner who has been officially diagnosed as such, procrastination is very much concomitant with my condition; certainly I’ve procrastinated all of my life, and psychologists suggest postponing actions and decisions is linked to the chronic anxiety which is a common symptom of many on the spectrum.

For me the anxiety is partly due to a fear of failure, partly that the outcome of my efforts will be judged as wanting; it’s much easier not to hold oneself up to possible ridicule after having sweated blood to complete a task or project. Also linked to this, I think, is the stasis that comes when one is faced with too many choices, like the proverbial rabbit caught in headlights—and that is also a trait that some forms of autism manifest as.

In other news, I have five or more titles that I’m currently in the process of reading: some Jane Austen verse, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Friedrich Schiller’s The Ghost-Seer, The Lord of the Rings, a Batman graphic novel, and Jane Austen and the Clergy by Irene Collins. I wonder why I find it hard to utterly commit to any one title at a time? (I think we can guess why, this is merely a rhetorical question!)

Do you too have projects you can’t settle down to? Like the child in the sweet shop do you find you don’t know where to start? Or are you ‘merely’ weighed down with the anxiety that most of us are now prone to, given current events?

40 thoughts on “Writer’s block

  1. Those are some great ideas, Chris! I certainly hope you’ll get around to doing at least some of them 🙂

    And don’t for a moment think you’re alone in procrastinating or having too many ideas at once! 😉 We’ve all been there, and will be there again 😅

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for your reassuring words, Ola, greatly appreciated! On our morning walk today my partner and I discussed how we could support each other in overcoming our individual writerly blocks where our special projects were concerned, so progress has been made. 🙂 And I’d forgotten how procrastination (along with verisimilitude and serendipity) was ever one of my most favourite words!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So now you just need to find out whether procrastination can be serendipitous! 😉

        And if perchance you were to put these writing ideas to the vote, let me side with your children and request that memoir! 😁

        Liked by 1 person

  2. You used verisimilitude in one of your recent blogs, Chris, and now I love that word too! But I digress before I begin – a trait that goes hand in hand with procrastination for me. Anxiety too. So your ponderings are of interest. (Of course your ponderings are always of interest – these just particularly so. Digression … see what I mean? 😉)

    The possible reasons you give for procrastinating all sound plausible. I found blogging (when I was actually writing something other than something book-related) enormously satisfying because each post was finite, it was never intended to be ‘perfect’ and there was immediate positive feedback. Longer writing projects are rife with worry! Very recently – although not in my writing life – I have started to focus more on small steps, patience and habit – focussing on the process rather than the goal. Those practises apply equally to writing. Setting out to write that memoir can be broken down into much smaller steps and if pursued regularly before you know it, a completed history might emerge! (I’m hoping you’ll get around to those two novels too!)

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    1. ‘Process rather than the goal’ is good advice, Sandra, and one I intend following, especially with regard to that memoir. And I do agree that with blogging it’s finite and the feedback is more immediate. Digression is also a trait I recognise, as it’s often hard to keep focused when the metaphorical squirrel keeps hoving into sight! 🙂

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  3. I’ve often thought, when reading your posts about Aiken, for instance, that you should write something longer and publish it.

    If you’re like me, it’s the many possibilities that keeps you from committing to just one. (Walker Percy wrote about this dilemma in his novel The Last Gentleman.)

    During my blogging days I used to say I was a reader, not a writer, but then gradually started to talk about writing in terms of something I do because it turned out I had examples for my students, in the class I teach on how to teach writing. And then when the idea for Postcard Poems came to me I knew immediately it was something I had to work on and send out.

    As you write more, you may get a better sense of what you want to pursue, and what you are interested in enough to persevere. I hope you do.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hah, you mention another project I’ve been wanting to do, that companion to Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles! The list gets longer, underscoring what you say about so many possibilities… I think I just need to settle down and get stuck into the project most likely to start yielding immediate results.

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  4. You’re most definitely not alone in your procrastination, Chris. In recent years my attention span has dwindled which worries me and I tend to flit from thing to thing if I’m not careful. Your writing ideas all sound appealing to me. The children’s novel, unsurprisingly given my background in school libraries, particularly so. I’d be fascinated to read about your time in Hong Kong too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Attention span has been short for me too, Anne, and some of that I think may be down to reacting to political shenanigans instead of being proactive where it matters. You’d think that the last year or so would have provided a fine opportunity for each of us to pursue more longterm personal projects, given that we were told it was likely going to be a long haul; but I think anxiety has meant some of us (what I specifically mean is—me) have just done small finite tasks, going from day to day, the flitting you refer to. But it’s really time for me to change tack and try out one or two of those writing ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If we’re encouraged to think of and treat books as ‘friends’, then perhaps going from one to another and having individual ‘conversations’ with them is allowable, do you think? After all we wouldn’t put friends on longterm ‘hold’ just because one of them had a very long lecture to deliver to us—but then that’s my way of justifying being flibbertigibbert about my reading!

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  5. As others have said, these are ambitious projects that necessarily will take time to craft. I’m not surprised you put off committing to any one! But perhaps you can harness your book reading flitting and flit from writing project to writing project, as the mood takes you? That way, you’re not ‘doing’ any of them, but you’ll make progress all the same.

    I like Sandra’s advice a lot – the process not the goal is an excellent way to think about it. I’m a completer/finisher who likes to draw a firm line under things, and if I’m working on something that will stretch on with completion a way off, I have to turn it into a series of packages that will give me the completion I crave.

    Also as others have said, I’d like to read your memoir of a HK childhood. No pressure, though! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A report has come out that since 2020 household members are spending more than 5 hours a day online and watching TV (I found this out online just now…)—this largely due to the pandemic—and the combination of daily anxiety over current affairs (politics, health, extreme weather) with what’s clearly displacement activity on my part seems to be what’s driving my reluctance to settle down to creative writing.

      But yes, the breaking up of large projects into ‘packages’ or bitesize chunks, which I do with reading at the start and end of the day, is the way forward I realise! And who knows, maybe the HK memoir will be realised sooner too. 😊

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      1. “I found this out online just now” 😆

        That report doesn’t surprise me! I’ve done a whole lot more watching of tv during the pandemic – escapist rather than news. I’ve tried to curb my anxious scrolling through social media and The Guardian website because it was doing me no good! My brain has decided that it doesn’t want to concentrate on reading books in the way it used to and it currently prefers images presented on a screen to generating its own from the words in a book.

        I used to write short stories but haven’t done for years. One of my friends is studying part time for a Creative Writing MA and keeps trying to get me writing again, but I lack the space I need to do it in. So I write essays about the books I read instead!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. My essay writing is limited to chatty discussions about books, I’m sure less scholarly than yours! I used to put some short fiction on my zenrinji.wordpress.com blog, but mostly it’s shortform poems and doggerel these days…

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Some people use having many projects as an aid – when you have writing time, ask yourself which one you would like to work on for a bit. I can see this – I’d keep a Scrivener file for each project, and just keep going.

    For me, distractibility due to chronic illness, not procrastination, is my biggest problem. So I block the internet as early as I can, for at least several hours. I tell myself I can get out of the block by Restarting my Mac any time I want – and yet I rarely do. I stay on the current scene in the current book in the trilogy – because I have no extra energy for managing that one, much less more.

    It works most days. I alternate between researching things on my phone (if I need to), writing in the production file for the scene, writing in my Journal if stuck to figure out why, and actively working on the scene, and somehow the combination gets that scene finished and polished and checked off the lists.

    You will find what works for you – keep asking yourself what you want to do and why. Eventually the mind runs out of excuses, the enthusiasm for A project TODAY takes over, and, if you have any time left, you write.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. All useful advice, thanks, Alicia. Blocking the internet is easy at the start and end of the day for me, I simply switch off my phone and leave it downstairs. I shall have to do something similar when I retire to the study to go on to my laptop—leave the phone downstairs and only use the laptop for word processing. So, no excuses! 🙂

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      1. Try, instead, to find out the WHY of the excuses. People do what gives them pleasure (now or later), and avoid what doesn’t.

        I do a lot of journaling when I can’t figure out why, today, I don’t wanna!

        Yesterday had an odd cause (which also exhausted me – that didn’t help): I went out to lunch on the terrace with the younger women’s group here (supposed to be up to age 75; I’m 71). But every one of them is relatively healthy AND mobile – and I have a 31+ year chronic illness and can’t walk.

        The talk was about places to go around here when you have a free day.

        And all it did was rub it in that I never get to go anywhere, and my decisions are made to take into account energy today and payback tomorrow or longer, and a ‘free’ day isn’t realistic for me.

        It depressed me – but I wouldn’t have figured it out if I hadn’t stopped to listen to my gut.

        OTOH, none of them seem to have a long-term project that gives their life meaning in the same way the writing does for me. Projects, yes, but no legacy ones.

        I don’t always go to these lunches – and it’s always the same problem.

        I’m still mulling this over.

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        1. Oh, I think I’ve made clear one of the major reasons why I mount excuses, Alicia, fear of failure and/or ridicule countering any anticipation of pleasure; as with you, blogging as a displacement activity is my main go-to!

          My partner’s arthritis took a sudden turn for the worse as a result of Long Covid, leaving her housebound until eventually, following diagnosis, the opportunity arose to have a hip replacement; we’re both in our 70s too so I appreciate a little how utterly frustrating the lack of mobility must be, though not the long-term impact it will have had on you.

          I can also imagine how depressing the lack of shared interests and opportunities will be for pleasurable conversations; at least, even though at great remove, one can have conversations online with those who do share similar interests and aspirations, for which you and I can be grateful!

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          1. I am most grateful – my online community is a lifesaver.

            Our 70s. Even with all our problems, that is such a milestone. I won’t say achievement, because a lot of it is luck, and I’m so sorry your partner has long covid – I hope hers resolves much more quickly than my presumably post-viral syndrome. At least now they’re going to pour research money into a problem they’re finally admitting is actually happening! May we all benefit.

            This was a good post yesterday about claiming your opinions, as a writer:
            https://writerunboxed.com/2021/08/05/to-be-liked-or-not-to-be/

            At the end, Keith Cronin asks: Does your writing address the polarizing issues that bother/inspire/frighten/anger you most?

            I’m past the point of fearing ridicule. I started the WIP in 2000, and I’m getting to the really scary parts to write, scary because I’ve made the commitment to write a story, and I fear some people won’t want to continue reading – but I haven’t wavered in what I was going to write, and I’m not going to stop now. I just keep trying to make sure I’m doing it the very best way I can. I don’t want bad or awkward WRITING to get in the way of the STORY.

            Whatever you do, if you want to write, keep writing. Send the peasants with pitchforks to my house – we have security.

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            1. There’s not just the biblical span of three score and ten to be aware of at our age (though why we should think conditions that applied a few millennia ago necessarily apply now I don’t know); for me there’s also the knowledge of when blood relatives got ill or died to bear in mind. My mother died around 75, but her father died before I was born; my father died aged 51 but his mother reached beyond her hundred year. Each milestone passed and staying in relative good health is a plus in my book. As for my partner, she caught Covid-19 just before the lockdown happened in March 2020, and the after-effects lasted at least till January this year when she had her op. She’s now as right as rain as ever she’s physically going to be I suspect.

              I’ll look at your link presently (or, as the Welsh politely say, I’ll be there now, in a minute when they mean I’m a bit busy right now). 🙂

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            2. I’m SO glad your partner is better.

              I still do hope for improvement. One of those improvements would be that if I got my energy back, even just some of it, I would risk getting my back operated on to both relieve pain and improve walking. Right now I won’t take that chance – from experience, I heal horribly slowly, and I can’t take the risk. I got nothing done for a year after the previous back surgery in 2007, and they treated me like an old woman then, so imagine now.

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            3. Me, too. Meanwhile, I live my life, do the best I can, write when I can make the brain focus, and make sure to get in the pool every once in a while.

              Last night I forced myself to make two low-carb quiches – asparagus, Swiss, ham, cream, and eggs – and now I will have a hot breakfast for about two weeks. That makes me happy.

              Liked by 1 person

  7. Your post is serendipitous – I just read an article in Psyche about procrastination which had some suggestions for coping with it. A few suggestions I’ve heard over the years that might be helpful include: telling yourself whatever it is you’re writing is just for practice and for yourself only; realizing every writer’s first draft is awful, the key is getting words down; and having multiple projects going at the same time – when you get stuck on one you can move to another.

    You’ve probably seen this news, but you came to mind when I saw it: https://lithub.com/ursula-k-le-guins-blogs-are-back-baby/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t seen the UKLG news, Julé, but that’s good to know (more online distraction, alas!) for those who can’t get enough of her often trenchant commentary! 🙂

      Regarding the strategy of pretending a draft is just for practice, this is just what I found useful about creative writing classes up to the time we had the first lockdown: we had exercises to complete every week, an imperative to get something, anything, down in writing and often resulted in passages I was quite pleased with. I think I need to pretend to myself that I have to produce work regularly for class and that may produce results!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. JJ Lothin

    From the fluency and regularity of your blogs, I would never have guessed that writer’s block was a problem for you, Chris! In a previous job I was schooled in the art of 100-word blurbs (large print editions!), which I blame for the fact that writing for me is akin to squeezing blood from a stone.

    But I really hope you find a way of getting cracking on at least one of those projects – the results should be fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah, thank you, JJ! I’m afraid it’s a kind of displacement activity, writing a post, instead of composing the next award-winning title or bestseller! I tend to go for miniatures in writing, much as I used to do with musical composition, so I can understand the discipline and delight in putting together a 100-word blurb.

      As for my projects I hope I may be able to give some news in due course! 🙂

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  9. I’m late to this one but I wanted to share because I really related to your description, “the anxiety is partly due to a fear of failure, partly that the outcome of my efforts will be judged as wanting; it’s much easier not to hold oneself up to possible ridicule after having sweated blood to complete a task or project”. It’s a very vulnerable thing to share something we’ve worked hard for and expose it to potential criticism (although praise, I tend to forget, is another possibility). I’m not sure how relevant or appealing this will be to you, but for myself I am so thankful for my poetry group who meet online as peers to encourage one another as we hone our skills. Having a group of writers who know me, and know that vulnerable feeling, has given me a welcoming space to test-run my writing with an audience.

    All the best with your creative projects – as others have said, your consistency as a blogger perhaps masks the writer’s block frustration you’ve revealed here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Imposter syndrome is there in the mix too, Isobel, and I’m one of those who instinctively pays attention to the one critic rather than the nine who might praise one’s achievement! (I’m immediately reminded of Shostakovich’s “A Soviet Artist’s Practical and Creative Reply To Just Criticism” in response to that doyen of artistry, Stalin.)

      But I totally agree with you that vulnerability can be assuaged to a large extent by a sympathetic though not uncritical support group. I also think that in trying to say something different about books in my reviews, seeing them as it were from an oblique angle, I am trying to be a creative writer—just in a different way!

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