It will be familiar to anyone who writes, although the point of being a writer is that you'll all express it differently. Running up against a brick wall is perhaps the most commonly-re-circulated cliche. The masochists bang their heads against that brick wall. Others think of it as hammering on a locked door, or beating their fists against it. Or they're trapped in the car on a gridlocked motorway when they want to be Michael Douglas in Falling Down. I may have made that last one up. But the point is, there are as many images for stuckness as there are writers to get stuck. And hey, isn't it ridiculous that when we get stuck we try to generate imagery for the stuckness, rather than for whatever it is we're meant to be writing about? But stay with me, because there's a happy ending.
I don't ever think of it as "writer's block" and nor have I heard more than one or two writers I know describe it that way. Peculiarly, because what is that brick wall, that door, that gridlock - if not a block?
More, I'm allergic to public discussions of writer's block. They usually help propagate the myth that writers spend more time stuck, wringing our hands, drinking coffee, mucking about on twitter, than actually writing anything. They give the impression (by which I mean it gives me the impression) that writing happens in short magical bursts interrupted by long self-indulgent spells of just being stuck. Writing as waiting for a bus, a bus on which you go one stop then wait another hour for the next one. Such discussions make writing seem to involve exponentionally more time unable to write than anything else at all. This is mythology perpetuated by writers to make it look heroically difficult, like Prometheus more in his punishment than in his producing a spark. Admittedly, writing is really hard. But you're not getting your liver pecked out by crows. Get over yourself. It's as though somehow the struggle validates the result. It doesn't.
Yes, most writing happens slowly, but more often than not it happens. There is perpetual movement, usually slow, sometimes sporadic, but you're not pushing boulders uphill. It rarely hurts at all. You're writing! This is what you wanted to do all those years! Even when it's slow, enjoy it. I wrote the present sentence on my third swing through this post, and it's just a stupid blog post. Imagine how slow work can be on something that matters!
This sometimes slow, sometimes really slow work is then gradually assembled into a form calculated to give the impression of ease. This impression does as much to put off new writers as the myths of inspiration and interminable stuckness. When stuckness comes into the conversation, I tend to find myself thinking - or saying - work on a different bit, then. There's always something you can do. The only way to get over it is to get on with it.
I write this having yesterday become unstuck. Which always happens, eventually. It took CS Lewis eleven years to come up with a name for one of the characters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but he got there in the end. I'm sure he was busy with other things for some of that time, but still, eleven years. And then he kicked that motherfucking door down - and the result was Mr Tumnus. He was in no doubt it was worth the wait.
I think of these blockages as waters lapping against a dam. Wave upon wave surges up against the problem and the dam don't give a fuck. The volume of material builds until it can surely only be a matter of time before the dam yields. And yet nothing. Lap, lap, lap. Wall.
Because for me, at least, the real blockages are never at the level of individual scenes. With those I can simply write and re-write until something seems to work. More to the point, I work on scenes with others in the room, and there's a great pleasure in working and reworking material moment by moment and watching it take coherent shape. But the volume of material could build eternally without solving the real problems. We could submerge entire countries without shifting the dam.
No, the hard part is arranging the everything in such a way that it forms an elegant whole. In such a way that all those scenes and moments earn their place and make sense in the same show. I haven't yet found a way of working on this birds-eye view collectively that isn't hell for everyone involved. In the rehearsal room, we work from inside the material and inside an imaginary audience. The big problems need fixing from a distance, from outside. Yet in attempting to fix them alone, I still keep gushing up against the dam, when what I'm really trying to do is get far enough away to see the whole thing.
Since finishing the first draft of How To Occupy An Oil Rig, I've been in that formless tide for over three months. There are a few small things to fix. We can do those in the room. More to the point, the beginning and the end have a lot about them, but the middle is shit, both on its own terms and in terms of enabling the beginning and the end to have anything to do with one another. There's some material that needs to go into the beginning and some in other places, and there are some huge gaps to fill. And the structure as it stands doesn't come close to accommodating all of these changes.
The premiere is scheduled and although it's seven months away, it's on the wrong side of the dam, and who knows how long I'll be bobbing around over here? The terror is some way away, but there is still that voice, that unhelpful voice, that says "what if you don't ever get across?"
As far as I'm concerned the millions of books on writing and structure are there to help me when I'm stuck. I want to think of the show as architecture rather than bricks and I need to look at it from as far away as possible. But in this case they didn't. Most of them are the same anyway and I just end up looking at it from a succession of small variations on the same viewpoint.
Then yesterday I watched a piece of work with a particular awareness of its own structure. No, I'm not about to tell you what it was. I don't want you looking for it when you come see the show. (Not least because it isn't there.) But walking home, I saw my own structure from a new and unfamiliar angle, and the dam yielded. It didn't crumble. There was no destruction. It was simply removed, and the water surged forward unimpeded.
I walked up the hill making notes on my phone the whole way and stood on the front doorstep in the biting cold for five minutes finishing. Twenty minutes, to clear three months' resistance. Since then, relief. This can work. Maybe even this will work. I can write for two weeks and fix all the problems. I'm writing this post out of that burst of energy, because it's nearly the holidays and I'm going to Paris in an hour, then family family family. So I'm saving the pleasure of work until the New Year, knowing it to be do-able, more, waiting to be done.
A different part of my brain knows that when I do it I'll find plenty of new problems. But for now I'm headed for the coast, and it feels fucking great.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will