Out of Excuses

When an Author’s Muse Packs Up and Leaves,” an interesting article by Catherine Keenan about writer’s block, appeared one week ago today in The Sydney Morning Herald.

If you’re a writer, you know how it feels: you can’t write. If you’re not a writer, you almost certainly have heard about it or seen it dramatized in books or film: the tortured writer, elbows akimbo on the Remington with head in hands, for whatever reason unable to get the words from his or her fingertips onto the page.

Writer’s block, the bugaboo that appears on the wing of the unnerved author’s flight of fancy and renders him or her uncreative, afflicted authors as stellar as Truman Capote, Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville, and Arthur Rimbaud, to name just a few. And, if you believe all that’s been written on the subject, it can happen to you.

The question is, why we continue to attribute so much dignity to what is simply the downside of the faith versus fear battle that wages within all writers: Do we have faith that what we write is worthy, or do we succumb to the fear that our writing isn’t worth reading? Are we frightened and frozen by that imposing blank page or do we receive it as an unbound invitation on which to create new worlds? 
If you treat writing as a holy act, it’s understandable how a mere writer could crumble under the pressure to perform. At the 1998 DragonCon in Atlanta, Georgia, as part of a “Masters of Fantasy” panel discussion that included fellow fantasist Ray Bradbury and special effects legend Ray Harryhausen, Harlan Ellison called writing “the single most egocentric act I think a human being can commit. If you’re an architect, you build a building it’s for people’s use. If you do a song, it is for people to hear. But writing… When you write for publication, what you’re saying is, ‘I am so important, and these ideas are so great, you must read these.’ That’s egomania unleashed. And when it happens in the general populace, they put you in a rubber suit and put you away in a funny room. When we do it, they say, ‘Ah, posterity great writer!’ It’s rampant egomania, but since we are all writing for posterity, that’s it, that’s the secret, that’s the bottom line: we are all writing so that we will be remembered.”

More online ruminations on the subject include Paul Saevig’s “If Tolstoy Could Do It: Some Thoughts On Writer’s Block,” and Stephen Gallagher’s essay “Writer’s Block.” (And though both pieces take jabs at Ellison for supposedly having dodged writer’s block, the author himself confessed to being unable to write when it came time to adapt his novella A Boy and His Dog to the screen.

Less sympathetic on the subject is JA Konrath, who has written over at his fine blog A Newbies Guide to Publishing: “I’ve talked with writers about the anguish of writer’s block. They speak of their WIPs [works in progress] like it is a monumental task to be conquered, a war to be fought, torture to be endured.

“This is how you want to spend your free time?”

In a different essay, Konrath asked, “Do plumbers need to get inspired? Do bartenders ever become blocked and unable to mix drinks? Can mechanical engineers only design a linkage when in the proper mindset?”

His points are well taken. Isn’t writer’s block merely a fancy diagnosis we hang on what happens when a writer (a) has nothing to say, (b) has something to say but doesn’t know how to say it, or (c) has something to say but is afraid to say it? (If writing isn’t Ellison’s rampant egomania, it’s at least an act of bravery.) In my twenty years as a published writer, I’ve endured numerous periods when I thought I couldn’t write but usually it was because I’d excused myself because I was too tired, too depressed, had nothing interesting to say, or, more often than not, was just too damn lazy.

In the last four months, however, I’ve written more than I have in years. I’ve completed three short stories, am almost halfway through the first draft of a novel, and contribute regularly to this blog. What happened? Long story short, I made several significant changes in my life and my lifestyle that made me a happier man. By deciding that I’d rather write than bemoan not writing, I ran out of excuses not to write. 

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