Attack the Block

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This blog was originally posted on January 23, 2013.

The question took me by surprise.  We were about halfway through the semester, and I’d finally figured out the rhythm and patterns of my 10:10- 11:40 Techniques of Fiction class.  I’d come in just before class started to a roomful of students talking and joking with each other.  I’d try to say something pithy to get us started, then remind everyone what we had read for the day—typically, two student stories to workshop and one story by the likes of Faulkner or Cather or Baldwin.  I’d say, “Let’s start with the workshop—who’s dying to go first?”  The student authors would exchange glances, both shrug slightly, and then one would finally speak: “I’ll go.”  This was business-as-usual.

But on this day, I walked into the room and, before I could make any type of witty remark, a student said, “Can I ask a question?”

“Sure,” I replied, settling into my seat.

“What do you do when you have writer’s block?”

As I said, I wasn’t expecting this question.  This is an intro-level class.  Writer’s block, it seems to me, is something people develop when they’re further along in their writing careers, surely.  And what’s more, I wasn’t even sure writer’s block really existed—too often, I think writers use “writer’s block” as an excuse to do something—anything—other than writing.

So I led with that observation.  “I don’t really believe in writer’s block,” I said, noticing that the entire class had stopped their side conversations and were listening to me.  “I’ve found that when I have ‘writer’s block,’ it’s usually because there’s an article I want to read in The New Yorker, orRaging Bull is on TV, or there’s beer in the fridge, or I want to hang out with my wife.  In my experience, writers claim to be ‘blocked’ when they feel like being lazy.”

An honest answer, but an unsatisfactory one.  I could tell by my student’s expression that this wasn’t helpful.  Judging by the expressions on the faces of some of her classmates, I wasn’t helping them either.

“I assume you’re asking because you feel like you’re blocked?” I asked.

“I just don’t know how to get started on my next story,” she replied.  I noticed some other students nodding, heard a few “Yeahs” too.

I was actually relieved to hear this.  A sophomore’s anxiety about getting started, intimidation by the blank screen, is a different problem than “writer’s block,” it seems to me—or at least writer’s block as I understand the term.  The idea of writer’s block sort of affirms the belief that writing is all about inspiration, being touched by the muse.  That’s the sort of belief that I want to disabuse my students of—I don’t want them thinking that there’s something mystical about writing, that it’s something they either can do or can’t, depending on the whims of some supernatural force that may or may not anoint them.  I want them to understand that writing is hard work, and sitting around waiting for the story to present itself to you so that you can transcribe it is about the best way to not be a writer that I can think of.

Having trouble getting started, though, is a different matter, I think.  Particularly when we’re talking about student writers.  I rarely have trouble getting started these days, but I remember a time—not too very long ago—that I struggled to come up with something to write about.  These days, I have the opposite problem—I’ve got a ton of ideas, and not enough time to write about them.

How did I get to this point?  I wondered to myself.  What did I do that made it easier to get started, to face down the blank screen and create art?

I talked about sitting down at the computer, without distraction, and just pushing ahead.  Forcing yourself to get started and trusting that you’ll discover what the piece is about as you go along—even if that means eventually going back and seriously revising (or even completely trashing) those first few sentences (or paragraphs) after you’ve figured out what you’re doing.  I told them about a former classmate of mine, who always started with what he thought was the most interesting moment or idea in his story or essay, even if it belonged at the end of the piece, and who then would go back and write the beginning if he needed to.  I talked about my experience in screenwriting classes, which taught me the value of working from an outline sometimes—sometimes, it’s easier to begin a journey when you have a map in front of you.

Most importantly, I think the key to finding inspiration, I told my students, is in paying attention to the world we live in.  I don’t just mean go to the mall and people watch—although sometimes that works.  I mean taking the time to notice the stuff you frequently overlook in your day-to-day life.  Look at the trees that line the sidewalk you travel every day to get from your dorm to the dining hall.  Listen to the sounds that surround you—birds calling to each other from across the quad, laughter coming from someone’s open window, the faint sound of “All Along the Watchtower” coming from one of the fraternity houses down the street.

I like to regard much of my life as research for a hypothetical essay or story—that way, everything I do can be considered “productive” in some way, even if it’s just drinking a glass of wine with my wife in our porch swing—who’s to say I’m not going to write about this experience?  When you regard your actions and interactions as potential material, I told my students, it’s downright impossible to find yourself “blocked.”

This seemed to make sense to them, but I feel like this is something that I want to revisit with them as we get closer to the end of the semester.  I’d be interesting in hearing from readers of this blog: How you deal with the issue, either with your students or in your own writing?

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About the Author
William Bradley’s nonfiction and commentaries on nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including The Missouri Review, The Normal School, Brevity, College English, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the Assistant Editor of the magazine River Teeth, and he teaches at St. Lawrence University.