Sunday, 19 June 2011

Writer’s block and the creativity process

I had writer’s block recently. Partly because my day job was pretty intense and occupying my every waking moment. But I had a scifi story which I’d got stuck in. Instead of aliens abducting normal people, they decide to abduct the President of the United States. It had a nice slow-burn start developing his character, followed by fast-paced action as he is captured. And then… Hmm.

My creative juices ran out. Problem? Not at all. Here’s why.

When I took psychology at Southampton University, I studied creativity, in particular the work of Liam Hudson. He had a theory based on studying many creative people, including scientists who’d made big breakthroughs. What he found was that often people had an idea, which was really just an inkling. They then researched, often for years, going around in circles, unable to develop the idea to fruition, unable to get rid of their previous baggage to do with how scientists at the time thought the world worked – unable to re-write the ‘software’. The scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn also wrote about it, how we break out of one paradigm (how we think things work) into another. The way he wrote, ‘paradigm-shifting’ was like a scientific war.

So, these scientists would get the equivalent of writer’s block. They couldn’t put the problem down, it occupied their every waking moment, their wives or husbands would be going crazy for being ignored, uncomprehending of their mate’s obsessional behaviour. If you’ve seen the film ‘A beautiful mind’, where for once Russell Crowe doesn’t act himself, you’ll get the idea.

Liam Hudson calls this frustrating, relationship-wrecking period, incubation, like a chrysalis waiting to emerge as a butterfly. When it does, it is often sudden, and triggered by some trivial event.

When I fell out of Catholicism at the age of fifteen, my parachute was Zen Buddhism – not the religion-like Soto school of Zen, the other one, where you study koans, impossible questions, until your mind splits and you see the world in a new light. You’ve probably heard the most famous Zen koan: what is the sound of one hand clapping? Anyway, same principle. Butt your head against a mental wall until your mind cracks and you suddenly get it (or go insane :-).

My own cure for writer’s block is simple. I work on a different story. I’m usually working on three stories at any one time, and if I get stuck in one, I switch to another. This happened this weekend, while I was taking a break from work, on the Normandy coast. The rain helped. I walked down to my favourite French patisserie, Charlotte Corday’s in Trouville, intent on getting the President out of the mess I’d landed him in. Instead, my mind started writing another story, the third story in my ‘Hell’ series. I’d also been struggling with how to start this one, since the second story (Escape from Hell) ends with a cliff-hanger where the two protagonists are in a lethal face-off. I’d been watching ‘The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button’ on Friday night, and at the end the credits mentioned it was based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, one of my favourite books of all time, the quintessential novel of its time (maybe of all time). What Fitzgerald excelled at was deciding from whose point of view the story should be told (if you’ve not read The Great Gatsby, you’re in for a treat). So this got me thinking. I needed a new viewpoint, a new character to resolve the story. And  I’d just been reading some Scifi by Robert Silverberg, who has a great ‘voice’ (a writer’s term for the way his writing makes his characters lift off the page as real people), which gave me an idea for my new character’s own voice. By the time I reached the patisserie (I was nearly running), the first two paragraphs were sitting in my forebrain, and I quickly ordered coffee and croissant and started writing on a piece of paper. By the time breakfast arrived, I was smiling, because as writer Carol Emshwiller says, “As I start writing, I can tell by the first paragraph if I should go on with it, if I get that trembly feeling…” It wasn't just the strong coffee.

So, I broke the writer’s block, just not on the story I was working on. And as for the President? Well, he’s going to have to sweat on that alien ship for a while, as I work on the Hell story. I’m not worried for his story, though; it’ll come to me sooner or later.

So, if you’re a writer with writer’s block, what should you do? Maybe take a couple of days off, it can help. But no more. Watch some movies, walk by the sea, listen to your loved ones. Read some good fiction, either in your genre or not, but make sure it’s good writing. Then pick up your pen or your laptop, and start writing. Trust your instincts. But above all, don’t be afraid of writer’s block. As Liam Hudson pointed out, the longer the incubation period, the greater the final result.

For the 'Hell' stories, see
For my novel The Eden Paradox, see

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