I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writer’s block is just code for laziness. I am an adult, and so when I am lazy and procrastinating, I am at least capable of admitting that that’s what I’m doing. I will also admit that, as a teenager, I went through those melodramatic phases where I blamed everything on “my muse” — or on my characters, as though they were capable of stymieing my progress with their obstinate independence. Also crap. Excusable then, in my youth, as I was learning and growing. Those were also quite popular fads among internet writers at the time (and may be still, in some circles), and I was utterly susceptible to the influence of my peers. But those avoidance techniques are thoroughly unacceptable for any grown human who wants to be a writer. (And therein, I think, lies the real problem — more people are interested in claiming to be writers than in actually doing the work of being writers).
It’s actually rhetorical, and it’s something you see characters in Shakespeare doing a lot. Devices like prosopopoeia and meiosis and synecdoche allow you to assign agency to an inanimate object, to an abstract concept, or to some part of your whole being, thereby excusing you from responsibility. It’s crap when Romeo blames “Love” for making him kill people, it’s crap when Proteus blames his tongue for slandering his girlfriend, and it’s crap when a writer blames a mythical block or muse for a lack of productivity.
What I do believe in, though, is a writer getting lost in the forest.
It’s possible to be incredibly productive, to be working every day, and yet to not actually get anything done from an end-result point of view. Despite hours of trekking and searching, thinking you’re on to something, you might have no luck at all in finding the right path. Dead ends will plague you, not just in the dramatic way of cliff faces and sudden ravines, but the simpler and altogether more probable way of realising the path loses definition and gets reclaimed by wilderness, leaving you just as much in the middle of nowhere as you were before. You can end up going around in circles, landing on the same point and again and again, despite how little it’s doing for your narrative. You might find lots of things — but none of them get you where you need to go. That shrubbery sure is interesting, but it’s not advancing your plot. There are a lot of trees, but you can’t see the forest for all of their branches smacking you in the face. Maybe you wander across a fairy ring. Do you step inside and find inspiration? Or does it muddle your brains and lure you into a pointless tangent? Maybe you trip up and end up in a swamp, inundated by ideas, but ideas that are rotting, stagnant, thick and heavy and sucking you down into their murky depths.
Yes, it’s easy to see this as another metaphor spiraling out of control; yes, it’s another way for a writer to romanticize her everyday tasks; and yes, writers do seem to experience a nigh-uncontrollable urge to construct narratives out of anything in life.
But the difference here is agency. You’re the one doing the wandering, and it’s up to you to find your way out of the woods. It’s not always easy, and sometimes it can take quite a while even to realise that you’re lost — especially because it can feel so good while you’re experiencing that placebo effect of false productivity.
Hopefully, eventually, you break the cycle and can step out into the clearing again, where you can organise your plot into neat, cogent patterns and solve whatever problems you’ve created for yourself. The only one who can get you and your story out of there is you. And isn’t that better, than blaming it on some block that suddenly falls out of the way, or than giving the credit to an ephemeral muse who deigns to revisit you? Isn’t it better, aren’t you stronger if it’s your own doing, your own triumph?
Now — is the moodling worth it? Are those tangents and sidetracks and wandery mountain paths worth it? The romantic view says yes, of course, it’s all about the process. The pragmatic side of me says — no. Not always. Sometimes spending time in those metaphorical woods is every bit as wasteful and self-indulgent as playing Civ V while streaming 18 straight episodes of Chuck. (Just as a, y’know, hypothetical for instance). If you’re still in the early stages with no pressure on you, then getting lost isn’t so bad and might lead to worthwhile discoveries, but if you’re staring down deadlines with other people counting on you, it’s time to drag yourself out.
Personally, at the moment, I find myself in a bit of a thicket. I’ve tried several approaches and made a series of attempts to get out, and yet I keep finding myself in some of the same snarls. So it’s time to try a different technique — retrace my steps, perhaps, get back to the last point where I thought I was on-track, and find my way out from there. Look at the outline. Look at the character arcs. Look at what the story needs and what a reader will want. Look for the gaps and the weaknesses.
I know the path exists. It’s up to me to find it.