Writer's Block

5 December 2014

I've been staring at the same blank page for the last month.  

You may have noticed there's been very little activity on this blog recently. Each time I try and write something, I'm forced to start with the same blank page.  I'm not short of ideas. I just can't articulate anything. 

I've self-diagnosed myself as having writer's block. It's one of the scariest things I can imagine.

Instead of seeing this white space as a blank canvas to be attacked with gusto, the document become increasingly more adversarial. Each time I flip open my laptop and open WordPad, I'm faced with the same vacant feeling. My fingers hover over the keyboard but I have no idea which button to press first, or second, or at all.

Normally my brain works in perfect symphony with my hands as I write. My thoughts teleport from my head to the screen faster than I can type - so I've taught myself to type pretty fast to keep up. Some passages require more contemplation, but I can normally pluck a phrase floating around my head, or reach into my lexicon to find the best way of describing how I'm feeling.

This blog has always been unpolished but I've never been short of content. I can write 1000+ words about the most banal topics with little trouble. It's my favourite way of relaxing and of sharing my observations on the world. And I won't press publish until I can read back and nod along with the words I've written.

I remember once, some years ago, telling a friend that I didn't believe in writer's block. I'm still not sure I do - at least not in the sense that I couldn't write at all. Writing isn't hard. I could easily sit down and tap out thousands of words on any topic you gave me.  But there's no guarantee they would be very good. I almost guarantee they would be very bad. It would be a case of forcing myself to churn out a document of the required length.

When I was at University, I would routinely start on my assignments the evening before they were due, knowing I could produce 2000 words with the click of a finger. When I worked for newspapers, I wouldn't start writing until 30 minutes before deadline. I knew what I was doing and how much time I have to produce something.

The difference now is that no one is forcing me to write. I have no deadlines. I can put this blog off for as long as I want, and don't have to justify it to anyone but myself. I've toyed with setting myself rules - a post every three days! - but there are no consequences. Anytime there's even the slightest hint of elasticity, I put things off. But right now things are worse than ever. 

I haven't written a meaningful blog post for months. And it's not just this site. I've been telling my friend Luke I'm going to send him an email for the last two months and I'm still only halfway through it. Usually that takes me 30 minutes and one cup of coffee.

I'm frustrated. I enjoy writing it and I know lots of you enjoy reading it. Typically a topic springs into my mind and I spend the next 24 hours thinking about ways to approach it and the points I want to cover. By the time I sit down to write I have a pretty good idea how I want to structure a post. From then it's just a matter of committing it to print and finding the most elegant way of bringing all my thoughts together.

Writing is no different than any other creative pursuit. Anyone can write, or paint, or sing or take a photograph. I'm self aware enough to know my photographs are mediocre and that my art is kind of cliched. But I enjoy trying my hand at both and it's no loss if they don't stand out. It's brave to put share something creative with others, but if you're self aware enough than you can accept that not everyone wll appreciate it.

That's where writing is different for me. Not fiction, because I can't write fiction. And not features or news, because I can't write those very well easily either. What I can blog write good is essays. I've kind of stumbled across this format as my blog has evolved, but I've realised I'm pretty good at forming opinions and articulating myself convincingly. And I don't want anyone to think I'm a bad writer.

Something I ponder a lot is the motif of Salieri from the movie/play Amadeus - a character doomed to be good enough to recognise genius but not to create true art himself. In the film, he is a contemporary of Mozart, and Salieri alone recognises his genius from the beginning. I empathise with him. Lots of people can read The New Yorker, The Guardian, Vanity Fair or even a site like Grantland and enjoy the writing. To appreciate it, and admire the skill involved in crafting a peice which in which every word serves a purpose towards a coherent argument, is something lost on many readers. 

I can already recognise this, but I aspire to be able to write this well myself. I want good writers to enjoy reading my writing. 

 Im aware of my shortcomings  - I can stand to be more ruthless by taking out sentences I like which add nothing to my argument, I could be more careful when proofreading, I should take fewer liberties with sly jokes no one will get* - but I know I've gotten better every year. I still re-read my old posts and think about where I can improve. I'm very, very critical of my own work.

So I don't want to just sit down and churn out 1000 words of garbage for the sake of publishing something. I want every post on this blog (well, apart from the animal pictures) to be something which is worthwhile. I want you enjoy reading it. And I want to enjoy writing it.

Over the last few weeks, I've tried writing in every different circumstance I can imagine. I've tried writing in my bedroom, in my living room, at a cafe, at the pub, on the tube. I've tried writing sober and a little buzzed. I've tried writing while listening to music or in silence. I've tried writing on my laptop, in my notepad and even on my phone. I've tried writing first thing in the morning and late and night.

Still nothing. That's writer's block by most definitions. 

The stereotype of writer's block is someone sitting at a typewriter, fingers hovering above the keyboard, eyes focused on a blank page. One or two words come out before the sheet of paper is ripped out of the machine, screwed into a tight ball and flung at a bin. Shoulders slump. A grimace is heard.

That image plays to the notion of "the writer" in popular culture - a lonely figure at the mercy of his own critical mind. Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson, David Foster Wallace. It's a romantic notion - move to Paris, drink a lot, smoke a lot, sleep until midday, write alone. Tweak the steretype a little here and there and you have a fantasy almost all the good writers I know personally have daydreamed about. 

But I've gotten to thinking recently about where my best writing has come from. And it hasn't been when I've been alone. It's when I've been surrounded by interesting people who have stimulated my mind and engaged my thoughts. Yesterday afternoon, on a bus from Birmingham to London I stared out the window at the looping English countryside and realised that my best work doesn't come from inside me, but from the world around me.

I'm lucky to have a great circle of friends from a huge variety of backgrounds. I value people who challenge me and make me consider the world from a different perspective. It helps me grow as a person and fulfill my potential. I value being alone on occasion, but I'm never happier than when I'm with other people. Friendship is one of life's most genuine gifts.

Recently I think I've found myself taking that for granted a little bit. When I look back at the not-so-great periods of my life, there is a common theme of retreating into myself at the expense of being honest with others. I've never written anything on this blog that I wouldn't say to someone in person and by tossing ideas around with people I trust, I've been able to articulate better the way I feel and then commit it to print.

I've had quite an eventful few months - I've moved into an awesome new apartment with great people, I've got a new job, I've said goodbye to some of my best friends in this city and I've turned 30. I've been aware that I'm not being as honest with the world as I should be. I've been internalising a lot and letting life wash over me rather than taking control of it. It's not a case of being outgoing or not, more of being aware and comfortable with life as it is. 

Writing is an active pursuit. It requires observation and reflection. To actually produce something, I have to notice things that inspire me and then have the disposition to write about them. The last few months I've been kind of shuffling along without the drive to do this. And that's symptomatic of something bigger than writer's block.

Which is why I still don't really believe it exists. The ability to write never leaves you, but the motivation to do so can come and go. It's taken me six hours to write this damn piece but I got there eventually. I hope it doesn't take me two months and six months to write my next piece.

*"...Blog write good..." a few paragraphs above was supposed to be a reference to my block, coupled with a Simpsons reference. It probably shouldn't be in here but I can't help myself.