The light itself

Issue 1/2008 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

What should you do when writer’s block strikes? Lie down and wait for inspiration to return, Petri Tamminen suggests

All autobiographical depictions of writer’s block are fundamentally flawed and false. If you happen to be suffering from writer’s block, these accounts make for painful reading.

The wittier, more carefully crafted and closely observed an account the writer gives of his affliction, the more gut-wrenching it feels. It’s like treading water and preparing to drown and having to listen to someone in dry clothes standing on the deck of a ship recalling a close call he had back in the seventies.

On the other hand, when you’re suffering from writer’s block everything annoys you. Good books seem overwhelmingly good, so much so that you realise you can never achieve that level of greatness. Similarly, bad books seem so overwhelmingly bad that you wonder why anyone bothers reading books and realise that it’s pointless trying to write one.

Wallowing in swathes of writer’s block-induced self-pity, the only things you can bring yourself to read are depictions of other people’s suffering. It’s very comforting to read about Ole Andreson. He is the former professional boxer in Hemingway’s The Killers who lies in his room facing the wall and waiting to die. If he leaves the room he’ll be killed. He’s not planning on doing anything about it. He’s been lying there all day. He is ready to die, but he can’t bring himself to leave the room.

Ole Andreson is the depiction of writer’s block. Hemingway continually flirted with this motif. Sometimes it feels as though every time Hemingway talks about death, he’s actually talking about the fear of drying up, and whenever he talks about love he’s talking about how work has been going well.

Clearly I’m not lying in bed staring at the wall waiting to die, but have managed to drag myself in front ofthe computer for a moment, which necessarily makes this depiction of writer’s block bad and externalised. I’m not writing from within the subject, I’m not capable of being in direct contact with that terrifying emptiness, rather I resort to describing the state with anaemic expressions like ‘that terrifying emptiness’.

In fact, the expression is so anaemic that it very nearly sends me back to bed to stare at the wall and wait to die.

The reality is that writer’s block isn’t emptiness. It’s more like a din inside your head, the screams of shame and fear and self-hatred echoing against one another. What right have I to have written anything in the first place? I have nothing to say!

Who gave me permission to be so bad? Nobody!

The critics will really enjoy tearing me to pieces!

They can’t tear me to pieces when there’s nothing to tear to pieces! And there wont be anything! Ever!

Maybe I should drink myself into a stupor. Would that make me write something? Hardly!

Maybe I should move to Canada. They won’t want people like this in Canada either!

Maybe I should get myself a real job. I doubt I’d even get one! I’ve never done anything but write! And badly, at that!

A month is a long time to lie in bed staring at the wall waiting to die, whether you do it literally or figuratively. Sometimes you can lie in bed for a year. I’m sure someone has lain there for ten years.

When you’re lying there it’s not about years. It’s about days, each slowly slipping away towards evening, and the next morning a new day of slipping begins, another whole day without words, without the profession you once thought you belonged to.

The gradual slipping away often comes with a variety of tricks to motivate yourself: you can order and threaten yourself, curse, pity and reward yourself. But as long as words are missing it doesn’t matter what you do, the block still feels like a phenomenon of physics, utterly inescapable. Every thought seems three­-dimensional, like a ball, and every sentence like a line into which you have to try and fit the ball. It won’t fit. On days like that you can barely write a note for the kitchen table. Going to shop. Went to shop. In shop. It doesn’t work.

In my experience, recovering from writer’s block is hard to define after the fact. If I you could pin down how you did it, you ought to be able to recover by simply always using that same recipe.

Physicists claim that the Big Bang didn’t occur inside a given space or emptiness into which a point of light suddenly appeared. The light itself was all there was. And once it exploded and began spreading out, it didn’t extend into some pre-existing empty space, but what was extending was all that existed.

It may be a touch self-indulgent to compare the light flickering inside a writer’s head – the glimmer of hope, a new idea – to the birth of the cosmos, but in a writ­er’s own tiny universe the comparison certainly holds water. This is approximately what recovering from writer’s block feels like. When an idea appears, it feels as though it too is born into nothingness, and when it begins growing it too seems to be the only thing that exists.

Translated by David Hackston

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