Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Writer's Block and Other Bad Things

We all have our favorite music to write to and mine would have to be Sergei Rachmaninoff. His works have a soaring beauty, underscored with a quiet pain. His pieces are complex, moody and strongly rhythmic, all things I respond to. He suffered from depression and periods of when he was simply non-productive. He started with an early splash, winning a gold medal for composing as a child.

It was his first symphony that nearly did him in. The first performance of Symphony No. 1 was a disaster. The conductor butchered the piece so badly that Rachmaninoff's wife later insisted he was drunk. It was so bad, that Rachmaninoff went and hid in another room. Critics savaged him and made a mockery of his promising career. The piece was never performed again in his lifetime. And he stopped writing music. For three years.

Imagine that. One of the greatest composers of his generation--indeed of all time-- a veritable musical genius. And he just stopped. He plunged into a dark despair. A psychologist finally helped him unlock the chains that bound him and the result was one of his best known and loved compositions, Piano Concerto No. 2.

During this time of blockage, he received some great advice (although little sympathy) from Leo Tolstoy who reportedly told him something to the effect that he should "work every day, young man. Just as I do. It's the only way. Do this or you'll never amount to anything." Not terribly helpful for someone with depression, but good advice for anyone whose craft requires you to work alone.

On another note, I had a parent/teacher conference today at the school. My son is flunking the writing portion of English. His paragraphs are short and thin. Here he should be able to write 250 words on a topic, he only manages 50. Or 30. Or 25. I asked him about this, but he got flustered and said he just couldn't think of anything to say. What if it was wrong? What if he sounded stupid? What if he was just repeating himself? So instead of say something wrong, he said nothing. If you don't try to write, you can't suck at it. I expect that sort of logic from a nine year old, but I'm surprised how often I see that from wannabe writers. They talk a lot about writing and they write a lot about writing and they blog about it and post about it in message boards. Someday they will write that novel. Someday they will finish that book they started three years ago.

Tolstoy (and Uncle Jim and a host of others) have the answer to this paralyzing self doubt. The only way to be a writer is to write. You'll never know that you write crap if you don't actually write it. So what happens to the writer, one who actually does it for years and then just stops? I go through an annual writing stoppage around December and January of each year. For me, it's two parts hectic schedule and one part seasonal depression. I get caught up in the craziness of meat space and family life until I feel myself sliding towards the darkness. So I try to keep the darkness at bay by filling it up with more activities and responsibilities and lots and lots of food. Gradually, I'm jolted out of this bad place and emerge blinking into the light a good ten pounds heavier.
I'm unstuck once again and productive this week. I don't have the answer to getting out of writer's block. I just do it. The good news is that I seem to do this even faster each year. Last year was bad. It took me until March. But here we are in 2008 and I'm writing again in January.
If you came here expecting kittehs, have no fear. They will return. Writing my Friday kittehs was something I could do, even when blocked. This year, I wasn't completely blocked. I thought I was, but the truth is that I edited, beta read for people, wrote the occasional blog post and kittehed great works of fiction. Hey, I just wrote 704 words about not being able to write. And I call that progress.


Arachne Jericho said...

Welcome back, Mary--and a great I-haff-returned post, too!

The only answer to writer's block is to keep going. Ugh.

Blogging has actually been a nice way to keep in the habit of writing. Even on days when it sucks.

(And now I must go complete another couple articles for the next couple of days.)

Mary B said...

Wow, you are fast, AJ! Thanks for being one of those people who kept me going through the darkness.

~hugs, Mary

Midnight Muse said...

I find, if I'm honest with myself, I never get blocked. I do get depressed, but usually there's nothing about the writing hitting me, I just let it turn into that. I'm learning to identify the black mood, find its cause, look at it from all sides, and GET OVER IT.

Right now, even if I'm not writing in my current novel while I'm at work or driving - I'm thinking about it, constantly, and that gives me great pleasure.

If life, or meatspace, causes me to go a few hours, or a full day, without writing - I don't let it stop me from thinking about what I'm writing, and work things out in my head about plot and story and such.

I may very well suck at writing, but at least I'm sucking - not just sitting around talking about one day wanting to suck :D

Arachne Jericho said...

You're always welcome, Mary. :)


Kristine, you do NOT suck at writing. The old novel on your blog right now totally blows away many first novels. It blows away Heinlein's first novel. You are totally okay and cool and all you'll do is get better. Don't let anyone tell you different, much less yourself. You ROCK.

Melanie Avila said...

I find blogging helps me fight the block, too. I'm fortunate that I'm working on my memoir and my blog uses the same voice (mine). Makes it a little easier to keep focused.

Like MM said, writing crap is better than writing nothing. You can't edit nothing!

Midnight Muse said...

Thank you, AJ, that's a very sweet thing to say :)

Yes, I find blogging really helps during those times I feel a slowdown, or emotions are getting in the way of writing. It's very cathartic !

Mary B said...

Kittehs fix everything for me! Oh yes, they do!