Pursued By A Bear: “I’ve got Writer’s Block. How do I start writing again?”

Pursued By A Bear is our new advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.    

I’ve got writers block, I’ve been checking my Facebook page a thousand times a day and have cleaned my skirting boards with a toothbrush. Can you help?

You’ve got writer’s block? Is that an official diagnosis? Which tests did your GP order to arrive at that conclusion? Red blood cell count? Erythrocyte sedimentation rate? Maybe your cholesterol was on the high side?

What’s the prognosis? Can you expect a full recovery or will there be some lingering discomfort?

As far as I know, no one has ever died of writer’s block.

I rang NHS Choices just to be sure, and a nice lady named Karen assured me that in most cases sufferers of writer’s block can expect a full and robust recovery in six to eight months with minimal risk of further complications. You will need to keep an eye on your iron levels though as a particularly nasty case of writer’s block has been known to cause mild anaemia.

Actually, none of the above is true.

Karen told me to stop wasting her time and taxpayers’ money. She also advised me that I could completely clear my writer’s blockage by snapping on a pair of rubber gloves and forcibly removing my head from my arse.

I found this to be a refreshing, if slightly impolite, take on the most horrifying phrase in any writer’s lexicon.

We’re all terrified of the idea of writer’s block. But no one really knows what the hell it is.

Basically, it’s when you can’t write.

Well, you can write, but you just don’t feel like it’s very good.

Well, I mean, if you really stick at it you can probably squeeze out something half decent.

You just don’t feel all that inspired.

It’s honestly starting to feel like a bit of a chore.

You’ve tried persevering, but the last half an hour has been hell.

All you’ve come up with is eighteen first lines, none of which are particularly awe-inspiring.

And you just can’t seem to find the right font for the stage directions.

It’s exactly this kind of vague, wishy-washy complaint that leads people who don’t consider themselves writers (most normal people) to think that writer’s block doesn’t actually exist. They all think it’s some kind of weak excuse that lazy writers use to justify their lack of productive output.

And maybe they’re right.

But it wasn’t always this way. When you wrote your first play it was all so easy. The words flowed out of you like vomit from the mouth of an inebriated teenager. It was effortless.

What changed?

It’s actually very simple.

When you wrote that first play, it was an experiment. You didn’t know what the hell you were doing. You thought you’d probably never finish it anyway. It was all just a bit of fun.

When you did finish it, you were over the moon. What a fantastic achievement, you wrote a play!

Sure, it was a bit rough around the edges.

The plot didn’t really go anywhere.

It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

All the characters were pretty much the same person. You.

Overall, it was a bit shit.

So you set out to write another one. But this time, you figured you’d do the smart thing, and put some thought into it. You probably did a little bit of this before you started writing. Then you probably continued thinking throughout the process.

The second play turned out a lot better.

You realised you’re actually not overly terrible at this. So you wrote another one. Then another. And with each one, you put a bit more thought into it. You started reading other people’s plays and thinking you could write something like that. You might even be able to write something better.

And one day there came a pivotal moment. That moment you first referred to yourself as a writer.

“I am now a Writer. I’m no longer just some ordinary muppet with a pen. It’s official, I, [insert name here], am a Writer.”

You were proud of your newfound identity. It gave you a sense of status, a sense of being something more than you were. A purpose. Better yet, a calling. You were meant for something greater than the average slouch.

For the first few months you only referred to yourself as a writer inside your head. You wanted to make sure it stuck before you shared it with the outside world. They might not understand. After all, the life of a writer is a difficult one, filled with noble sacrifices.

But eventually you began to really believe it. You told someone, probably your mum, about your life-changing realisation.

This joyous news didn’t quite elicit the jubilant reaction you were expecting, more of a long, pitying look followed by a series of questions which are really just one question phrased in slightly different ways, as if your mum had somehow got the impression English was no longer your first language.

All the questions ultimately added up to; “But how will you get money?”

And that was the moment that your destiny was spelled out. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, you would become the victim of that most horrific of probably-fictional ailments, the dreaded writer’s block.

Because on that day your beautiful, all-consuming, passionate pursuit was irreversibly altered, twisted, beaten and deformed into something else entirely.

Writing became a job.

As soon as you began calling yourself a writer, it changed the act of writing from a beloved, voluntary pastime to a compulsory means of economic survival.

So now you have to do it.

All the time.

Whether you’re inspired or not.

And it’s beginning to feel like a bit of a grind.

This is the hideous reality that most normal people face every day of their lives. It’s called work.

How do they all cope in this awful situation?

They put their heads down and think of the money.

It might go against your delicate artistic sensibilities to think this way, but let me break it down for you in simple terms.

If you’re precious about writing and allow yourself to succumb to writer’s block, you won’t write anything.

This means you’ll never earn money from your writing.

If you are currently lucky enough to be a full-time writer, this means you’ll have to find another means of economic survival… yes, I’m going to say it… you’ll have to get a real job.

And if you’re currently writing in your spare time with the hope of making it a full-time vocation and quitting your miserable daytime existence as a barista/telesales robot/corporate drone/cheap prostitute, the same applies. If you don’t write, you’ll never make money from writing, and you’ll never change your situation.

Of course, putting your nose to the grindstone is a lot harder when you don’t have a boss. There’s no foot on the back of your neck holding you there. You’re free to endlessly browse the internet, iron the curtains, vacuum the dog, shampoo your scrotum or run naked through the woods whenever you like.

As humans, the one thing we hate the most is feeling we have to do something.

Even if it’s something we ultimately want to do.

We’ll do it on our own terms, when it’s convenient for us, thank you very much.

This is why bosses were invented, and factories around the world began churning them out in their millions. Because we need someone to force us into doing what we really know we should already be doing.

As a writer you are essentially self-employed. No one’s going to look over your shoulder for eight hours a day as you tap away on your laptop in bed. Unless you have an unusually attentive spouse.

If you’re just feeling a bit unmotivated and find you’re struggling to find the willpower to keep going with a project my advice would be:

Find yourself a stick and a carrot.

I do not mean this literally. Unless you’re genuinely afraid of sticks and hopelessly in love with carrots.

As you’re unlikely to find a boss who will work for no pay, why not train an animal? You can pick up a ferret or a parrot from any good pet shop, and simply train it to attack you whenever you stop typing.

Alternatively, impose sanctions on yourself like America did to Cuba back in the sixties. Make your writing area a restricted zone, don’t allow any nice imports, and force all visitors to fly in via Canada.

Or, build a robot arm and programme it to slap you round the back of the head every time you turn to look out the window.

There are an infinite number of punishments out there, don’t be afraid to get creative. Although, with your terminal case of writer’s block that might be a bit of a challenge.

As for the carrot, I don’t imagine you decided to be a writer because you despise the act of stringing words together. Try to always see the fun side of writing. Yes, it’s a job now, but it’s a job you wanted to do because you love it.

If writing itself isn’t carrot-like enough for you, just keep telling yourself that when you’re a gazillionaire author pumping out remarkably mediocre and heartless airport novels, and sapping ten billion I.Q. points per minute from the collective brain of the nation, you’ll never have to set foot in that coffee shop/call centre/office block/brothel again.

Or consider another career.

If you really genuinely feel something other than a lack of motivation is stopping you from writing, whatever it may be, there are ways to avoid this kind of rut too.

When I first started writing I found it fun and effortless. I felt completely free to write whatever I wanted and attacked every project fearlessly. I never thought about where the play was going or who my audience was, I just wrote it. And oddly enough, I think I did some of my best work this way.

Since I began taking writing seriously I’ve found myself asking a lot more questions. Is this going to make sense to anyone else? Who would pay to see this? Is there a theatre on earth that would put this on? And inevitably, this makes the whole process feel like a regular job.

You might as well book yourself a quarterly appraisal and start plotting your daily output on a graph.

So I came up with a simple system that would get me writing like I did in the beginning.

As part of every project I set aside time for planning before I start writing. In this time I ask all the above questions and more. Is there a market for this play? Do I have a theatre in mind? Who would be my audience? Does this story have enough mileage in it for a full length play? Does this story need to be told? Has it been told before? What’s different about it?

And the most important question of all: Am I interested enough in this story to finish it? Because if you’re not interested in the story it’s always going to be a struggle.

By getting all of these questions out of the way first I free myself up to be creative and enjoy writing the actual thing without constant doubts cropping up. You don’t need to plan the entire plot or write detailed character profiles (unless you feel that helps you), the main thing is to build up some momentum. Get yourself excited about the play and simultaneously banish your doubts before getting down to writing.

And always remember, writing is the fun part.

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