Writer’s Block – Technical Effects of Emotional Numbness

I’m a writer by vocation, and — having switched allegiance to the Visigoths (long story) — by trade, but — and — sometimes I can’t write.

I don’t generally believe in Writers’ Block.

In inexperienced writers, which is all of us at one time or another, the first port of call should be craft: If you are stuck then, before angsting, check you aren’t simply missing some aspect of craft, or have failed to apply the right craft. It’s hard to write a Thriller if you don’t know how they work. It’s hard to write an SF story if you haven’t done worldbuilding first, even if it’s just in your head. That’s why it took me so long to write my first novel, and why I got stuck for weeks on end. I wasn’t blocked, I was learning.

If there aren’t craft issues, or you can’t even think about craft, perhaps your brain is full because this is a bad time. Somebody said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” That’s not true. However, maybe there are no writers in foxholes. If your life has gone to shit, or the shit has hit the fan, it’s OK to address that before trying to write. Years ago, the startup I worked for failed, and I had a month or so of job hunting. Even though the hunting didn’t take much time, and I had plenty of time on my hands, I didn’t do any writing.

However.

Sometimes I — we — just can’t write, and I’ll reluctantly admit that that is actually Writer’s Block.

On the face of it, WB is wildly inconsistent. I’ve written on the way to and from… sad events, but failed to get anything done during a week off work merely convalescing from a contagious virus. Funnily enough, Long Covid has been bad for my writing, even though I have the time and window to move forward. However, it’s given me time to think and I’ve realised something:

What all the genuinely blocked periods had in common was emotional numbness.

I was either mildly depressed — e.g. because grief — or had depression-like symptoms — because health.

Now the thing is, that thing we call our “gut” is driven by emotions. When writing prose, we “feel” our way forward, making a million micro decisions.

Imagine I start writing a sentence:

The sword…

The sword what?

The sword flashed…

The sword swished…

The sword bit…

The sword cracked…

OK where do these lead?

The sword flashed in the sun.

The sword swished, struck flesh.

The sword bit flesh, cleaved bone.

The sword cracked through bone, sprayed blood.

Which is better? How do I tell?

It’s gut, instinct, feeling… positive emotion. What makes me go, “Rah!”?

And that, I think, is the core of Writer’s Block: an absence of compass. Discipline and psyching yourself up can get you to your desk, but it can’t un-numb you.

Once you realise this, you can see the workarounds, which are — undramatically — (1) Plan and pre-write to reduce the decision-making during the actual writing, and (2) Use ritual and routine to summon back your emotions.

Oh, and, (3) Heal.

But if that were a solved problem, there wouldn’t be quite so many competing self help books on Amazon.

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