What’s Writer’s Block?
I remember my first serious essay. My Grade 7 science assignment on “bats” was due on Monday morning. It was 8:00 p.m. Sunday evening.
“Any homework?” asked my mother.
“Oh yeah,” I said. I got out my binder and the encyclopedia and read about bats. I started putting words on paper, kind of copying, kind of using my own words. Three hours later, my essay was complete — an hour past my bedtime. My mother allowed me to finish it. I got an “A”. But definitely no writer’s block at that young age.
Throughout the rest of my junior and senior high school, I wrote more essays. Never had any problems putting words on paper.
In my first university English course, I was one of those students who wanted to write my way. Seldom did I use the template provided by my English teacher. On one paper, I got so enamored with the topic that I wrote an essay that was five times the length he requested. It took me a long time to understand why I got a C in that course (which took me off the honor roll).
I went into engineering, which really didn’t have a lot of writing. But for the few essays I had to prepare, I was never stymied: “Get it done ASAP because there’s lots of engineering work left to do.”
And after graduation, I had to write engineering reports in my workplace. Boring, but necessary. A bout of writer’s block would have meant me being replaced.
I got into politics. I was the main writer of our party’s local constitution. Did I have fun with that project!
It was teaching English as a second language in Czechoslovakia when I fell in love with language. I started consciously using the advanced grammar I learned for this teaching occupation in my own writing: “The present perfect progressive tense works better here.”
I became a part-time instructor for college for business writing. Most of my students followed my template. A three-minute read gave them an A. But a few students drifted away from the template, and their 15-minute read gave them a C. Twenty years after I finished my first university English course, I finally understood why I got my C.
I tried to become a free-lance technical writer. Terrible way to make a living. My clients were not happy with my work. But that was common with my fellow writers. After a social gathering of technical writers that dovetailed into complaining about clients, I decided to abandon this profession. But I never had writer’s block for any of my assignments.
After leaving politics, I had ideas bouncing in my head for improving democracy. In 1997, I started writing my first book — and those ideas just jumped through the keyboard and monitor, just like a prisoner leaving prison. No writer’s block whatsoever.
After more than a few rejections from publishers, I self-published my book in 2000. Despite all the optimism in my mind, the book was a commercial flop. But it did get me an internship at a rural newspaper for a social/political column. I had to frame a complex issue into 600 words. At first, it took me maybe six hours of writing to condense these thought-packed articles in so few words. But as time passed, I was spending about one hour for my weekly column. My writing was really tightening up and becoming more efficient. But I never had writer’s block.
And writing these columns allowed me to see that my first book was, well, not-so-well written. Time to rewrite it! But again, no writer’s block!
Well, the second edition did not go anywhere either. It got put back on the shelf to collect dust. But whenever I thought of a new way to express or present myself, I brought my alternative governance back from the shelf and back into public view. Despite the disappointments, there never has been any writer’s block.
In between my “versions”, I put up several inventions on my website. They also required lots of writing. But no writer’s block.
About a year ago, a fellow named Richard Gillespie from a G+ political forum recommended that I turn my alternative government from a quasi-academic approach to a piece of fiction of people working in this new system. “In this way,” he said, “you can give your readers a more entertaining read while you teach them your new way.”
At first, I did not like Richard’s suggestion. I had not written fiction, and I had no desire to write fiction. I didn’t want to learn the new skills to write fiction. I didn’t consider myself as entertaining.
He pointed to an online book called “Manna” by Marshall Brain. This book is fiction. Our protagonist is a future American worker who is automated out of his occupation. Without any means of support, he is warehoused with many other redundant workers. The state is just waiting for these workers to die off, sparing the expense of feeding them. And the food is laced with contraceptives to ensure no reproduction occurs in the redundant demographic. Then by a fortunate inheritance, the protagonist is moved to Australia. In this future Australia, as in the future USA, robots do most of the work. But the wealth generated by the robots is shared by all the citizens. And all citizens use that wealth to pursue their passions. Some just play video games or sports; some become musicians or writers or researchers; some raise big families; some design better video games or robots.
The point Richard was trying to make is that Manna’s author could have written an academic treatise about choices society has to make with more redundant workers, explaining both of the possible paths. But by turning the concept into fiction, the author not only made a more enjoyable read, he got more readers into feeling the difference between the two societal choices. A lengthy essay would resulted in fewer readers.
I was still not convinced at being a fiction writer. But as the months wore on, I started developing characters and a plot in my mind. I got help from an amateur novelist with character development and dialogue. “Show, don’t tell” he said.
In July, I started putting the story down. It almost wrote itself. Writer’s Block? Not a chance.
My novelist read the first draft and gave a few pointers. He said that I was on the right track — if education was my main goal. For sure, this story is not about my protagonist overcoming all sorts of obstacles to reach a supposedly unsurmountable goal. A plot like this would drive my readers away from taking the direct action I want them to take. It’s really not that difficult to build this new system of governance. But it’s also not a cliffhanger of a story.
I’m about half way through my third revision. My editor of 10 years is great at picking up holes in my words, sentences, paragraphs, and story. When she says: “This isn’t working for me” or asks some obtuse question, I know I have to rewrite. With her help, the story is taking on a better shape. My main challenge is finding time away from my four-year old son to write. But when I get those few hours a week, I’m a writing maniac!
There have been a few writing projects where I would rather have been doing something else. But when I put the distractions aside, I have stayed focused on these boring projects.
So when I say “I don’t get writer’s block”, I say that in two ways. First, I just don’t find myself in a state where I’m staring at the paper or monitor and nothing is happening. Second, I just don’t understand how other people ever get into that state. But again, I’m writing for fun, not for a living.