The first Wednesday of every month hosts the bloggers meeting of the Insecure Writers Support Group.
Today I'm going to talk about that most dreaded of subjects: writer's block. This is something I'm very passionate about, because I think it's one of the most misunderstood aspects of writing.
You know how it is. You want to write, but for whatever reason, you're completely unable to, not because you have too much demand for your time on other things, but because the words simply won't flow. Writers tend to find this incredibly frustrating, and why shouldn't they? Writers write. Right. They think there's something wrong with them. And that's simply not the case.
I'm here to argue that writer's block is the most useful tool in a writer's arsenal.
Pretty odd, right? But it's absolutely true. Have you ever heard a writer explain how after a certain point, a story just started to write itself? It's one of the weirdest aspects of writing, but it's also the most telling one. You can try and master a story yourself, but in the end it's the story itself that knows what it's doing, and every time you disagree, you end up with something less than what it could have been. I have a theory that the weakest stories are the ones the writer forced the most to happen, and the strongest are the ones that, well, wrote themselves.
What does this have to do with writer's block? This is the story trying to take over. And the writer just won't let it. It's essentially the writer getting in their own way and not even realizing it. It's the story telling the writer that they have to take a break. Yes, I'm literally saying that writer's block is a good thing, a necessary thing. The more you embrace it, the better off you'll be.
Because this is the point where you realize new possibilities. This is where the story becomes enriched, past the original idea and into a full-blown story. Not a series of events. A story. This is what truly makes a writer, the ability to distance their own ego from their work.
A lot of writers depend heavily on support. And this is a good thing. This is the writer acknowledging, once again, that they need some extra help. The story needs some work. Not mechanically. Okay, maybe sometimes mechanically. But whatever the case, the best storytelling is the product of acknowledging that something isn't write. It takes a humble writer to admit this.
Never take the reader's opinion for fact. Never take a critic's opinion for fact. If you've given the story the attention it needs, if you've allowed yourself to discover the authentic story, the right reader, the right critic will come along and figure out what you did, what the story did. Readers can be wrong. Critics can be wrong.
And most importantly, writers can be wrong. That's what writer's block is telling you. It's telling you that you need to step back and let the process work instead of trying to force it. Again, you can always tell when this hasn't happened. I'm not just talking about mechanics. More writers than any of us will ever care to admit suck at mechanics. Which is okay, because if you suck at mechanics but can somehow work around it, that's the story taking over, too, because the story will always know.
The story knows!
Sounds crazy, I know. But it's my guiding principle. And every time I've had writer's block, I've ended up with a story that feels more right than it did before. I've been in writer's block on the latest story I'm working on, Miss Simon's Moxie (previously talked about here as Miss Simon's About the Moxie Incident). Miss Simon is herself a significant piece of discovery in my writer's block, as I've talked about before. She's become something of an inspiration machine. A year or so ago, I was working on what has now become Miss Simon's Brute, and I'm only now beginning to see how important it is for her to be a part of that one, and why the recent idea for Miss Simon's Dime Novel was responsible for the breakthrough on Miss Simon's Moxie (and how all of them will help writing what's now Miss Simon's Doom so much easier when I get around to that).
No, I'm not trying to hook you on a series of Miss Simon books. I'm just not that good enough at marketing. But this is not a case of something that works for me working for you just because I'd like to believe so.
Historically, retelling stories has been a major part of storytelling in general. More recently, I can think of one example where tackling the same subject has led to an incredibly richness that can only be understood by taking in all of the attempts. This is another form of letting the story speak for itself, an idea that just won't go away. To wit:
Consider the classic Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day. You're probably familiar with it. His character keeps experiencing the same day over and over again. It's a terrible nightmare, but makes for a great movie.
Now, two more recent examples of this idea are Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow. I came to Source Code because I'd become a big fan of filmmaker Duncan Jones, who seems to be bursting with the same unique mindset as his father, the late David Bowie. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal, yes, keeps experiencing the same day over and over again. This time it's because he's been drafted by a military program that's using him to test out a new machine that will hopefully be able to prevent disasters. The whole experience is pretty transcendental for reasons I don't necessarily need to get into here.
Anyway, then there's Edge of Tomorrow, in which Tom Cruise, yes, experiences the same day over and over again. I finally got around to seeing this one because of all the positive chatter it received despite a rather tepid box office response. There came a point where I realized I'd seen something like it before. No, not Source Code or Groundhog Day, but The Matrix Reloaded.
What? Really? you're asking me, incredulous.
Really. This was the second movie in the Matrix trilogy. It was also the first of two massive disappointments for fans transfixed by the first one's suggestion that there's a good explanation for why life is so disappointing, and it involves lots of kung fu and explosions! Fans found the second and third films ultimately unnecessary attempts to duplicate the first one. I never saw them that way. What fans expected was to have the first one fleshed out.
And that's exactly what the sequels did. The thing is, they kind of explain that Neo's powers are derived the same way Tom Cruise eventually becomes a super soldier in Edge of Tomorrow. Cruise experiences the same events over and over again. He begins to anticipate rather than simply react. He's able to dodge what he knows is coming. Although this is not the way it's presented in Neo's case, by the second film we have that wonderfully verbose Architect explain it exactly that way.
So we end up, if we're paying attention and reading between the lines, realizing that the entire Matrix story is basically exactly like Edge of Tomorrow.
There is of course a massive difference in storytelling. That's the art of storytelling. That's why any of us thinks we have something new to say. That's why every time someone complains Hollywood has nothing new to say, or that there are no new stories, it's the silliest thing ever said. Because that's literally the story of storytelling. It's the way it's done.
And it can't happen if you don't let it. Get it?
The story knows best. Writer's block exists to help you. Get out of your own way. You'll be amazed at what results. And eventually, you'll have readers who do, too. I never subscribed to the idea that stories exist for immediate results. They are perfectly visceral things. And instant success is nice. Except sometimes the results aren't what you thought they'd be. Because you left out the most important part, the story itself. Because the story knows best. It understands better than you that the tradition isn't the enemy. You are. When you get in your own way, you'll be telling yourself that, too.
Now you know why.