The writer’s happy lament; or, writer’s block as an aid to writing

This is your mind on writer's block

This is your mind on writer’s block

I have been suffering from writer’s block for a month. It’s not that I couldn’t write. I just couldn’t write anything that felt good. That, as it turns out, was a valuable warning sign. It told me I needed to think more about what I was trying to write and why.

You readers of this blog haven’t noticed, because I wrote chapters 5 – 14 of Martha’s Children back in early March. I could see that far ahead, and it was easy to write all those chapters. And then . . . nothing. I haven’t written a word since.

I knew what was happening. I had started writing Martha’s Children to solve a problem in 1969 that affected an unpublished story set in the present. I hadn’t really figured out why I was writing the story, except for entertainment. But this created a problem in the long term. The more I wrote, the more I tried myself to understand why the people in the story acted as they did, the more I tried to work out the significance of the story, and the more I wanted to provide a reason why people might actually want to read the story. On top of all that, the actual writing of the story created possibilities I did not envision when I started writing it. By the time I came to a halt in writing, I had three different endings for part 2, and I could offer no reason why any one of them was better than any other.

Something similar happened in The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge back when I was writing chapter 8, the werewolf chapter. The events in that chapter broke some of the existing conventions of the story up to that point. I had to sit back and rethink what I was doing. Ultimately, it made Dragon Lady a better story.

Sorting out a story's plot, characters, and themes feels like this

Sorting out a story’s plot, characters, and themes feels like this

So it was time to switch out of my “panzer” hat and over to the “plodder” hat, and keep it on for a while. I had to sit down and ask myself what I was trying to do with Martha’s Children, and compare that to what I had already written. And then I had to work out how I could continue the story, consistent with what had already been written, to achieve my purpose. That’s a tough process. I’ve been at it for a week, and I only finally made sense of it this morning over a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip scone.

The other piece I had to consider was what readers have said in their comments. It matters, at least to me. When you readers give me feedback that agrees with what I think I’m doing, I credit you all with the same brilliant insight I have, and go on my merry way. But when you make a comment that is critical, or even just shows you don’t understand my story on the same terms I do, or that you have different expectations of the story than my intentions, then I sit up and take notice. Doesn’t mean I agree with you. But it does tell me I’m not getting across what I thought I was saying. I have to look at how I might be responsible. And sometimes, you readers say things that give me a whole new slant on the  story, and I change the story I’m writing because of that insight you gave me.

That I go on about the effects of readers’ comments should clue you in that some of them have been ruining my sleep of late, and that I had them in mind this morning while plotting out the rest of Martha’s Children. I hope the story will be the better for that.

And this is how I feel now (with a tip of my hat to C. D. Friedrich, who died 173 years ago today)

And this is how I feel now (with a tip of my hat to Caspar David Friedrich, who died 173 years ago today)


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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7 Responses to The writer’s happy lament; or, writer’s block as an aid to writing

  1. L. Palmer says:

    The moment of needing to change direction is one of the most diificult things to overcome as a writer.

  2. Judy says:

    I kind of feel guilty. Should I have ruined your sleep with relevant criticism? Is my generally accepting mind as a reader a deterent to growth and progress!! You are a such an enjoyable story teller and I do want to read more and enjoy your growth as a writer. Nothing stays the same, there will be growth!! I am sorry to hear about the block from the standpoint that it has to be frustrating to have characters in your head and be stalled on bringing them to life the way you want. While not a writer, I can still understand that there must be discomfort..but then maybe giving birth is always a labor of love..labor being the operative word.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      “Kind of feel guilty.” Sigh. I was aiming for a deep, searing guilt that would plague one to the end of one’s life, and at least 12 years beyond. Though I was supposed to be the one experiencing it. 😉

      Though I have to admire the double-bind you’ve set up, Judy: if you don’t criticize me, I can’t grow, but if you do, you cause me to lose sleep. Blame all around. My family’s always been good at double-binds. I think we won the All-New England Crown for them three years running (and blamed the contest organizers when we didn’t).

      More seriously, part of the problem is trying to grow: I’m trying to manage more distinctive viewpoints in MC than in previous stories. This hasn’t been as obvious as it will become shortly — hint: there’s more than one reason the story is called “Martha’s Children.” So thanks for the support, and I hope you continue to enjoy the ride.

  3. crimsonprose says:

    I thank you for sharing this with us. I had sensed something was not 100%; I thought it your recent illness. I truly feel for you, what a terrible place to be in. Committed, posted, you must continue. High stress. But at the same time, as you’ve said, that is compelling incentive to work it out, to do what’s needed, to continue. A bit like life, really. My thoughts are with you.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      The recent illness . . . complicated things. It’s a lot easier to excuse disorganization and lack of productivity when you don’t feel well. And then you watch stuff pile up . . . argh! And don’t want to tackle any of it. I expect you’ve been there often enough. Thanks for the sympathy.

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