During the last month or so my mind has been a blank. I haven’t had a single new idea and have plodded forward on the fiction I’ve been working on—editing and proofing—all the while wondering where I would be when this work was finished. This is called writer’s block, but I have learned to call it Writer’s Rest.
At first I called it a drought. I felt dry, used up, empty, as though I had reached the end of the line, the finish line for fiction, the moment when I retire and try something else. Photography? Embroidery? Gardening? Sleeping? I’ve been dabbling in these for years. Was one of them about to take center stage? Unlikely. I began writing as a teenager and knew at once that this was something I had to do. The desire was far stronger than something I wanted to do. It was something I had to do, something I could not not do.
Over the years I’ve become accustomed to my personal quirks and mostly learned to live with them. Inspiration comes in the form of a general idea for a short story or a novel, the vivid image of a person or a situation from which a character emerges. In the AHMM July/August 2020 issue is my story “The Pledge.” The idea came from a news report of a police chief talking about a young man from the Midwest who got himself into trouble in the winter because he couldn’t read the landscape—what looked familiar to his rural eyes was quite different in New England. The police chief’s comments remained with me until the story idea shook them into shape.
In another short story I was struck by the relatives of a foster child who tolerated him but didn’t really want him around. He showed up after school and lingered till he was sent home at dark. This seemed cruel until it occurred to me there might be a reason for their awkwardness. From that came “Just Another Runaway” in AHMM November/December 2019.
These and other story ideas show up on their own, not when I’m rattling around at my desk looking for a good writing prompt and definitely not when I’m trying to force an idea into existence. Since I’m writing every day, you might say I always have a writing prompt in progress so what need do I have for more? Well, how about the moment Writer’s Block hits?
My suggestion in this post is different. It is to think about the purpose of a month or perhaps only a week of writer’s block. While I’m fretting about coming to the end of my career, my unconscious is rearranging the snippets of life I’ve collected and looking for something interesting, intriguing, riveting, revealing. My unconscious is at work creating while I’m fretting consciously about losing my imagination to ageing or boredom or something else.
While I typed the first few words of this blog post I got an idea for a short story and had to stop to write it down. Fifty years ago I met a Catholic priest who had such a clear dislike for secular women (and perhaps women religious as well, though I can’t say) that I had to force myself to keep appointments with him and conduct the business I was required to do. That kind of experience remains with you, and as I began typing this evening, the story revolving around him finally came to me. I’ve waited for a long time for this. After fifty plus years I’m going to get that man out of my head, and in a way that preserves his offensive biases and the damage they can do.
When I’m not obsessed with it, Writer’s Block is nothing more for me than the required rest for my unconscious to work out problems and deliver the results to my conscious mind. Sometimes a number of ideas arrive all at once in an afternoon, so I spend a few days trying them out. Do they resonate with something I learned or experienced recently? Do they give me a new way of looking at someone or a particular problem? Do I feel this will lead to personal discovery and deepen my understanding of a character? By asking these questions I get deeper into the idea and discover if it will sustain attention over several pages or thousands of words. Is there a story here worth the effort? Am I drawn in deeper just by thinking about it? If the idea falls apart on closer inspection, then I’m glad to let it go. But if it rewards me with twists and surprises, then I’m glad to write out a short paragraph about it and think about when I can begin work.
My drought, or Writer’s Rest, has ended. It came to an end while I was preparing this blog post and left me an idea for a short story featuring Ginny Means, a social worker, and a novel featuring a fortuneteller who has more talent than she realizes. I’d say that’s a pretty good ending to what can be a grim time.