“First there is no idea. Then there is the flickering of an idea. Then there is a fully realized idea. And then finally we have a physical artifact which we can hold in our hands. We have a book. We have a painting. This, to me, is a magical act. Any act of creation is a magical act.”
— Alan Moore
No, silly, I’m not talking about the magazine. I’m talking about the phenomenon, the illusory construct, the belief system that keeps some from writing. I’ll say it here and now: I simply don’t believe in a writer’s block, I’ve never suffered from one, and I never will. Where a typical coke-nose may say: “I can quit whenever I want,” I’ll put it in reverse: “I can write whenever I wish.”
Now, right off the bat, here’s the paradox. Despite claiming not to believe in a writer’s block, I’ll have to define it somehow, or at least explain in some detail (as those italicized words above won’t do). However, this is inherently problematic because it’s not like defining simple objects, like a chair or a table. Instead, we’re dealing with something intangible, a concept, an idea. And it’s precisely those intangible concepts that tend to mean different things to different people. Nevertheless, here’s a broad definition that I’m sure most can agree on:
“Something that blocks an artist off from creating art.”
Taking this into consideration, it becomes clear, at least to me, that it’s not really the definition that we should be focusing on, but rather a set of questions that we can ask about this definition. Bear in mind that the answers to these various questions will also differ from person to person. (Of course more questions could be raised, so consider yourself invited to add to this list.)
- What is this something that blocks the artist off from creating art, and why?
- Where does it come from?
- How can the artist deal with this problem?
- Does the writer’s block even exist, or is there something else going on that artists might mistakenly label as “writer’s block”?
- Should the artist submit to it?
“But Casper,” I can hear you think, “if you’re going into this, in this much detail, trying to help people on their way, aren’t you acknowledging its existence?”
Well, no. Not exactly.
Firstly, I’ll only go so far as to acknowledge that some people out there believe in its existence. Although it is a fact that those people believe in it, this doesn’t mean that I have to believe in it. It also doesn’t mean that—because they believe in it—it actually exists. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from scouring my mind in meditations, studying literature, and even observing interactions between people, it’s that we sometimes tell ourselves (and each other) lies. Trick ourselves (and maybe others) into identifying with a false belief system, and putting it onto our egos, like we might put on a t-shirt or a pair of trousers. Usually it’s not intentional, sometimes we’re not even aware. But ideas have a certain power to them. The moment you let something into your head, you allow it to take root somewhere, to take on a form, to develop into a belief. This doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, but let’s stick to the context. Trust me when I say you don’t want the false belief system of a writer’s block to occupy your mind. Never. It’s just so utterly useless and only holds you back.
Secondly, don’t call it a “writer’s block”, as if that’s a universal label, or even an external force keeping you from writing. Always try to figure out what exactly is going on, and don’t be afraid to call it by its name. (Distraction? No inspiration? No energy? Something else?) Calling it a “writer’s block” means you’re identifying the inability to write with a specific term, whereas it doesn’t always have to be the same thing you’re struggling with. And different problems require different solutions. Once you figure out what exactly is keeping you from writing, you can do something about it. This, by extension, means that whatever’s going on is only temporary. However, always giving it the same label can cause some people to believe it’s a lasting problem, or even one and the same thing, while that’s simply not true.
Thirdly, never use the term as an excuse to procrastinate. If you don’t want to be an artist, do something else. (Though this sounds rather blunt, don’t let this statement demoralize you. It’s okay to take some time to figure out for yourself what it means to be an artist. You have all the time in the world.)
So what is blocking you off from creating art? Why do we use the term “writer’s block?” Well, the truth is that all these questions (and especially the 5 that I’ve written above) warrant some discussion. To provide a brief answer in a single sentence (“It’s just a belief system!”) means that we’re oversimplifying the whole thing. Despite the writer’s block itself—as a universal entity—not existing, the problem of people believing in it is very real. In order to solve this problem, it has to be understood. To understand, we’ll have to take a hard look in the mirror, and a plunge into the depths of our minds. This can be confrontational. But if there’s one thing I do believe in—it’s you.
Let’s just not get ahead of ourselves, and take this journey one step at a time.
Before anyone out there gets the wrong idea, I want to drop this disclaimer. Firstly, I suppose that—although I’ll mainly be talking about writing—this really applies to any art-form, whether it’s visual or written or musical or otherwise (because aren’t they all ways of telling stories?). Secondly, by no means do I intend to tell people what to do, or offer an easy fix, or even explain how to overcome a writer’s block. You see, I’m saying I don’t believe in it in the first place. If I were to explain how to overcome a writer’s block, I’d have to assume that it does exist, and I have to allow myself to experience one, and then overcome it. That’s, simply put, a line that I shall not cross.
All I intend to do with these essays is explain my personal take on writing itself as well as the writer’s block phenomenon. Explain why I write, how I write, and why writing is like magic. Explain why the writer’s block never got me, and never will. When all is said and done, all I can hope for is that this outlook will inspire someone—you—to start questioning the idea of the writer’s block phenomenon. To start scrutinizing the notion in more depth, and challenge it, and find out why you’re suffering from it. Hopefully this will lead you to finding your own answers, drawing your own conclusions, because I can’t do this for you. This is something that we all have to face on our own, in our own time, in our own minds, like any other mental battle. I’m just trying to point you into a direction. From there on out, it’s all you. It has always been.
I’d like to pose two questions. The first question is directed first and foremost at myself. We’ll get to the second one later.
Why do I write?
In order to answer this, I’ll have to go back to the beginning, so please bear with me.
As a kid all I really wanted was to lose myself to stories. The ones my dad told me for bed, making them up on the spot. The cartoons I watched on television. The tales from the storybooks. Batman: The Animated Series episodes, pretty much on repeat. Thunder Birds. Star Wars. Hell, even Harry fucking Potter when that first book dropped way back when. I never just sat quietly, simply listening or watching or reading. My imagination was expansive and wild enough to put me there, with the characters, and live the story. Afterward, I’d find myself sitting in my room on the floor, playing with action figures and LEGOs and whatnot. It didn’t matter what it was, all these completely different things could mix and match. And I wasn’t simply banging them against each other, either. In my juvenile mind, anything was possible. Batman went toe to toe with Darth Maul; LEGO characters protected their block fortresses from the giant Action Man; the Power Rangers went on epic missions to save the universe from Decepticons and Bionicles. Any and all combinations were possible, there was no such thing as rules. It was just me, my toys, and my vivid imagination.
Soon, I began to draw my own characters, and made up stories around them. I’d even cut them out and turn them into custom-made, two-dimensional, paper-thin action figures. Additionally, I created my own comics. Meanwhile, the books I was reading were becoming more difficult, more profound. I went from the one fantasy novel to the other, and when I was 12 my parents gave me a book of short stories by Stephen King. The title of this book was Skeleton Crew. Feeding my imagination with these twisted little tales, and with the Lord of the Rings movie adaptations fresh on my mind, the urge to once again come up with my own stories became irresistible. This time around, though, I knew I’d have to record them somehow. So I sat behind my computer, and began writing my first fanfic, long before fanfic even was a thing. It was called Omikron, for some reason, and while it featured original characters in lands of my own design, it was pretty much a blatant Lord of the Rings rip-off with Hobbits and Orcs. But I didn’t give a shit. I was 12, I had Microsoft Word, a keyboard at my fingertips, a blank page, and an idea. It was the best toy I’ve ever had.
Fast forward to age 16, where I subscribed to a forum-based role-playing game, akin to an online video game, except we wrote everything down in prose, meaning the graphics could be as spectacular as our imagination allowed. But really, I was just looking for a place to share my hobby with other people. And to be honest, it was on this forum where I learned writing techniques, wrote stories with others, and received and provided feedback on the writing. This collaborative environment gave my hobby another boost. For the first time people told me I was on to something. That my writing was more than just a forum post describing the actions of my characters. I started to experiment with different styles and voices. A simple game developed into a true love for the craft, and before long I began to dream of my own original work.
When I was 17, I devised the Known World of Ara’Delva, my own fantastical universe, inhabited by desperadoes fighting magicians against a Spaghetti Western backdrop. (To this day I gladly keep returning to it, adding to it, expanding it.) And as I continued to grow up, the passion for storytelling blossomed into a lifelong romance, a marriage. Something that wakes me in the middle of the night, and makes me reach for my notebook to scribble down thoughts, fueling my dreams as I go back to sleep. Something that gets me up the next day to work on my manuscripts, and get new publications out. Something that drove me to apply for final editor at this magazine, and now drives me to write these essays.
So, why do I write? Because I want to express myself. Because I enjoy sharing ideas. Because I’ve been telling stories all my life. Because I want to show the world who I am, and what I can do. Because I’m in love with it. Because it’s my mission, my calling, my life’s purpose. Because I’m a writer, and it’s what writers do.
Now it’s your turn. Ask yourself this. However hard it may be.
Why do you write?
As I said in the introduction, we will be taking this journey one step at a time because the whole issue of a writer’s block is too complex to put into a single sentence, or even a paragraph. I have planned several essays that each deal with a different aspect of the craft of writing itself, and of the writer’s block phenomenon. Now that I’ve told my personal story to introduce myself and this series, we’ll get a little more practical next month (but not any less personal). One of the most common complaints that I hear, related to the writer’s block phenomenon, is that of lacking the inspiration to write. Therefore, next month’s essay will be about inspiration. In addition, I’ll talk about what the writing process is like for me, and what I do when the words don’t come out due to a lack of inspiration.
Hopefully, in the meantime, you’ll consider the question I asked you at the end of Section 3. Take as long as you need. It’ll help. Trust me.