Writer’s Block

Raymond Chandler would lock himself in a room for four hours every day. In that time he didn’t have to write, but he wasn’t allowed to do anything else. Not write letters, do crossword puzzles, play solitaire, read the newspaper; he could only write. Eventually boredom forced him to it.

A writer friend of mine claims there is no such thing as writer’s block, only writer’s procrastination. "Writer’s block," she claims, "has taken on a kind of mythic status for writers and wannabe writers, and become this curse or disease the hapless writer catches. Crap. It’s laziness pure and simple. Anyone can write any damn time they want to.

"If I’m having difficulty getting going I just type anything at all. It might suck and have nothing to do with what I’m supposed to be writing, but I keep at it, and before too long I’m back on track. Nothing simpler."

Yeah, but what if you start off by typing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"? What then, eh?

I tend to wander around. Right now I’m sitting in the hallway with my feet in the bedroom and my laptop perched on my knees. I’m supposed to be rewriting, but it hurts my head, and I keep getting stuck. Difficult to see a way to transform the monstrosities sprawled across the screen into elegant, or even, coherent sentences. Easier to write this.

My excuses for not being able to write today are, in order of malign impact: a hangover, jetlag, and having run out of good books to read (necessary to get the creative juices flowing). Also, cricket season is in full swing back home—Steve Waugh’s final test series coming up—and I’m in New York City which is so depressing it dries up all inspiration.

Scott reckons that were we in Sydney, I’d be getting no writing done at all cause I’d be lying on the couch in front of the TV watching the cricket (or we’d be at the SCG if there was a game on). It’s a filthy lie. I’m well able to write and watch cricket and bitch about Keith Stackpole, the world’s most tedious and annoying cricket commentator. All at the same time. If we were at home right now, I’d be writing what I was supposed to be writing.

I never have writer’s block. No matter what I can write. My problem is that while I can always write something, that something is not always what I’m supposed to be writing. These musings are dead easy. No deadlines, no editors to deal with, no pressure, no reviews. And most glorious of all, I can always tinker with them long after they’re "published" online. They’re not frozen on the printed page, all errors intact, until the end of time. Writing the articles, introductions, books that are due, well, dead, maybe, but not easy.

I really don’t understand why it’s so hard. I love writing. Since I was a child I’ve written stories, poems, essays, novels, limericks, the entire contents of a school magazine, anything at all. Once I get going, I’m fine. It’s the hours of staring at a blank screen, getting up and wandering around, tidying up, remembering that we’re out of olive oil and that I should really go buy it now, answering emails, deciding that I haven’t seen so-and-so in ages and must—this very minute—meet them for lunch, reading the Sydney Morning Herald online to laugh at the latest epic Paul Roebuck account of the cricket: "a large crowd sat in the shelter of Moreton Bay figs and children played their games as their seniors batted and bowled, ghostly figures settling ancient scores", opening up a different document and working on it instead of the thing that is becoming more and more urgent as the minutes, hours, days tick by. Then when it becomes really, truly, terrifyingly urgent, then all of a sudden I can write. Like the wind. And most perverse of all, I enjoy it.

So why do I go through this performance every time? Why can’t I just sit and write. I love writing. Why do I have to trick myself into it? Offer myself rewards and punishment? Why can’t I just write what I’m supposed to, when I’m supposed to, and thus have more time to do it absolutely right? As Justice Brandeis, or Aldous Huxley, or someone, once said "There is no good writing, only good rewriting". Or as Sylvia Kelso says "You can’t edit nothing, but you can edit shit".

Here in San Miguel de Allende after the first run-around-and-have-lots-of-fun week I’ve been writing what I’m supposed to six days a week. The most productive, disciplined period of my life. I keep having to pinch myself. And all it’s taken is moving to a different country where—other than Scott—I don’t know anyone, where we have no internet connection, where the cricket is even more inaccessible (of course, now the test series against India has come and gone, Steve Waugh’s international career is over, and I’ve missed the whole thing), where there’s Silvia (the housekeeper) removing most housework procrastination, and where we’ve taken to reading our latest chapters out loud to each other every two or three days so there’s no possible way to hide a lack of productivity.

And even so, I still can’t just start working on the novel. Oh no, first, I have to gossip with Silvia in my faulty Spanish, make sure my water bottle’s entirely full, work on a musing, draft an email, look out the window—especially if there’s a bullfight on (we can see the crowd from here, but not the gory action), fix up my web site, bite my nails. And then, as a very last resort, write what I’m supposed to be writing.

I love it.

Here’s hoping I can keep the writer’s block as micro and under control when I return to those cities chockablock with distractions for me: Sydney & New York.

New York City & San Miguel de Allende,
25 October, 2003-9 January, 2004