Writer’s Block and Reclaiming the Concept of the Muse

I teach for a living. Not English, obviously. However, I do teach writing technique and one of the most effective sessions I deliver is on understanding writer’s block. The thing is, writer’s block comes in two forms: technical writer’s block, and the other kind. I believe that writer’s block isn’t always a bad thing, providing it’s the right kind of block. But, what is the right kind?

When I teach about beating writer’s block, the session is designed to remove technical writer’s block, and it’s worth understanding that before we move onto the other and more interesting kind. When I teach creative writing, I get people to experience technical writer’s block by giving them the following instructions:

“You have 90 seconds to write a six line story. This story can be about anything. However, it must have a structural arc: a beginning, a middle and an end. It must be compelling and original. In fact, it must be the best story you have ever written and that I have ever read. On top of that, it must also be error free. So every sentence must be grammatically correct and without spelling errors. You may not use note paper. You must not make any revisions or corrections on the paper. Any revisions or mistakes will result in automatic failure. Do not make a mark on the paper unless your sentence is perfect. Your time starts now.”

I then provide a loud countdown as they try to write. I repeat the rules for the exercise and stress the need for both brilliance and perfection, as they struggle to get ideas onto the page.

So far, no one has ever completed the exercise and 85% of people get to the end of the 90 seconds without ever making a mark on the paper. Or, in other words, they get to experience writer’s block.
From this experience, we then pick out some of the major causes of writer’s block. These causes are:
• Perfectionism (wanting each sentence to be perfect as it goes onto the page)
• Wanting the story to be both compelling and original before developing it
• Having “anything” as the range of possible choices to write about
• Tight deadlines
• Knowing that your work will be judged
• Fear of failure

Technical writer’s block is caused by a combination of these stressors. It happens because it’s not possible for the mind to both create and hone a story at the same time. The mind can’t create characters, create a story, follow a story arc and deal with the form and structure of good writing in one process. The problem with the blank page is precisely that it is blank; you have everything to do and nothing to throw at it.
In fact, just telling a person they can write about anything is often enough to spark off writer’s block. If you want to mess with a writer’s head, give them a short deadline and tell them they can write about anything they want. 90% of the time that instruction alone will grind them to a halt.

The solutions to this kind of writer’s block are:
• Give yourself permission to write badly, knowing that you’ll fix it later
• Start your process by making notes, doodling, mind-maps or creating sketches
• Write a seed crystal scene (a scene that inspires, from any part of the movie)
• Do development work on your characters in notebooks or in spreadsheets
• Collect photographs of locations or people who seem to relate to your story
• Use notecards to develop and play with your plot
• Only sit in front of a blank page when you have a mass of material to work with
• Write each draft knowing it’s going to be rewritten
• Write without editing
• Edit as a separate process

So, that’s it then. Writer’s Block banished forever. Huzzah!

Er… no.

Even if you do all of the above, providing you’re writing with any kind of integrity, eventually you are going to experience the other kind of writer’s block. And, it is this experience I really want to write about today, because rather than being a failure of technique, this kind of writer’s block is something else. Something interesting.

Good writers have instincts. Often the nurturing of this instinct is the only thing that separates “someone who can write” from someone who is “a writer.” If you have that instinct you’ll know exactly what I mean. Not everyone does. It doesn’t mean they can’t write. It just means their approach to writing will need to be technical and mechanical, rather than having an instinctive layer that allows you to side-step convention.

Writers used to talk in all seriousness about their muse. A divine being who granted the gift of creativity to the writers she loves. For them, writer’s block was a symptom of their muse’s displeasure with them. It was if inspiration had literally walked out of the door. This may all sound like romantic nonsense, but if you substitute “writer’s instinct” for “muse,” it may become clearer and sound slightly less irrational. Even if you’ve done all the prep in the world, when it comes to putting the words on the page you may still find yourself unable to do it. However, rather than being a technical failure you can push through with a writing sprint, something more important may be happening. Sometimes, rather than being a failure of technique, the inability to put words on the paper is a message from your muse (writer’s instinct) that something isn’t right with the project. Rather than pushing through and ignoring this feeling, sometimes you have to do the opposite. Sometimes the right thing to do is to stop writing, to step away from the page and do something else.

The best way to understand this is to imagine the writer’s block is an actual person shouting “STOP! I HAVE A MESSAGE FOR YOU.” If you ignore that voice, you won’t get the message. The biggest danger for the writer in these moments is not the inability to write, it is that if you ignore your writer’s instinct it may just stop talking to you. That muse metaphor doesn’t look so silly now, does it? Just like a person, your writer’s instinct needs to feel that it’s being heard and that you respect it.

I had precisely this experience just a few years ago. I was in the middle of a gun-for-hire rewrite. I was asked to insert a new character into the film to give a part for the newly attached producer’s wife. I was also asked to cut down the number of locations in order to scale back the budget. So, on one side, I had a producer who had wanted a lot of revisions; on the other side, I had an investor who had already signed off on the previous version of the script. I had done half of the rewrite and then ground to a halt. For a month I been unable to progress the script any further. I just couldn’t get one single word on the page past the mid-point. Every time I stalled the deadline, the producer would ring me with a list of suggestions. Suggestions that should have helped, but which just drove the project deeper into the hole. At the time, I couldn’t figure out the problem. All I knew is that I couldn’t get the words onto the page and that whenever anyone tried to talk me through the project it made things worse rather than better.

This block lasted for nearly two months. Two months of me going over and over the fifty pages I already had, hoping that by reworking those, the door would open for me and I’d be able to push through to the end of the project. By this stage, the only thing I wanted was to be done with and rid of the project. I genuinely hated the darn thing.

And then it happened, my epiphany. Instead of trying to fix the script, I walked away from it. I sat down and just ignored the crap out of it. By stepping away and assiduously not trying to fix the script, it gave a chance for my muse to get a word in edgewise… and what she said was this, “You hate this script, it feels compromised, and you hate yourself for writing it.”

This single fact, that I hated being committed to a rewrite I didn’t believe in, had ground my creativity into the floor. My muse had taken a look at what I was writing and decided “Not with my help, you’re not.” And then she’d sulked.

Once I knew this, the solution to the problem was pretty simple. I just stopped playing the game. I called the producer and told him that he’d get the script by the end of the week if he stopped giving me notes and let me get on with it. And then I gave myself permission to write scenes I could stand behind, regardless of what impact they had on the project. As a result of this, the front end got a radical overhaul in about six hours, and then there was no stopping me. The completed script hit the producer’s desk four days later. I delivered a script that I was happy with.

The script never became a film for a million tedious reasons. It’s perhaps telling that when someone says the word “producer” to me, I hear the word “road block.”  But that’s a story for another post, or maybe one best not told at all.

As a modern and rational skeptic the idea of a muse always struck me as a strange affectation. I suspected that it was a notion strongly linked with writers who also had substance abuse problems. I don’t see it that way anymore. There is definitely an unconscious aspect of me which has a better sense of what to write and how to write it than I do. Tuning into that “muse” seems to me no less important to a writer’s development than learning how to spell. A skill I have also failed to master. In an age where we teach everything as if it can be reduced to its component parts it is difficult to appreciate the role a state of consciousness, or perhaps a willingness to surrender rationality, can make to a creative process. The metaphor of a capricious goddess whose affections are transitory and out of our control is perhaps the most useful we have at present. Something I need to remind myself every time I sit at the typewriter.