Writer’s Block or Writer’s Rest

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.

11 thoughts on “Writer’s Block or Writer’s Rest

  1. Thank you for this blog, Susan. It came at just the right time for me. As a writer who replies on fleeting moments of inspiration to write her stories and novels, and is sometimes frustrated when these don’t occur, it’s good to be reminded that when our conscious minds are blank, our unconscious is busy working to fill in the blanks. I love the idea of re-naming Writer’s Block to Writer’s Rest, as well.

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    1. Thanks, Leslie. When I’m in a no-idea state, it’s easy to feel only the frustration rather than the quieter self-confidence that the rest of my brain is at work even if I can’t see/feel/hear it. Thanks for sharing some of your process also.

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    1. Thanks, Jacquie. I didn’t mention it but I wonder if the current circumstances have pushed many of us into an unusual state of non-writing. You have an impressive record so I expect the ideas will be flowing again soon.

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  2. Thanks, Paty. I was probably due for a period of “rest,” since right now I have three projects going and my brain my have been too tired to come up with something new. This long a dry spell is new for me, but it doesn’t bother me. Now I have even more to do.

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    1. Yes, Marilyn, the brain is slower, but as long as the ideas eventually show up I’ll keep writing. And right now I have enough ideas to keep me going for years, though I like best those that are fresh.

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  3. Great post, Susan! I am one who is never at a lack for story ideas. It drives me crazy I can’t write them fast enough. But I wonder if as I get older they will come slower and I will one day end up needing the rest. Thank you for a great insight into something that many writers do deal with on a frequent basis. And congratulations on this post giving you what sound like excellent stories!

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    1. Thanks, Paty. I was probably due for a period of “rest,” since right now I have three projects going and my brain my have been too tired to come up with something new. This long a dry spell is new for me, but it doesn’t bother me. Now I have even more to do.

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