Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Flashing Yellow Caution Sign of Writer's Block

Writer’s block is a popular topic. Visit any writing-relating web site and you’ll find something on the subject. Googling the term returns close to two million hits. Clearly, the inability to make our words behave properly is a common affliction. Sharon Lippincott at The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing recently wrote about it in her post, “Write On.” As I wrote in a comment on Sharon’s blog, I’ve learned that writer’s block is like a flashing yellow caution sign for me: writing danger ahead.

Writer’s block arrived in my life when I was on the second or third draft of my book, The Department, my account of 20 years behind the scenes with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Until that point, working on my book was consistently the most fun I had every day. If you’ve been swept away by the rush of a writing high, you know what a wonderful feeling it gives you. When my muse left town, I was in the middle of chapter seven. No more rush, no more joy, no more words. My muse left no forwarding address.

In my prior career in law enforcement, there’s only one answer to the question of an undone task: work harder, work faster, work longer. Cowgirl up. And this was how I attacked my first serious case of writer’s block. I no longer wanted to run to the computer in the evenings, but I sat down anyway and did my best to squeeze out a couple hundred words. This became an unpleasant exercise that involved lots of hair pulling, cursing, and backspacing. Eventually, I abandoned my full frontal assault and re-read my book from page one to try and unravel why my muse had left. I read somewhere that writing about your writing – or in my case, writing about not writing – can help you overcome obstacles in your work. I began journaling about the book and the mysterious block. By doing this, I began to understand why my writing had skidded to a stop. I realized that the events I described in chapter seven held serious underpinnings for the rest of my book, and that I had more emotional connections to that particular period of time than I’d realized. I also saw that the pacing of the book needed to pick up at that point to correspond to the spiraling, runaway train feeling that my career acquired. By slowing down and re-examining my direction, I realized I had to make changes.

After that, I thought I was done with writer’s block. When it returned as I was slogging through the proposal package, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. Who gets writer’s block on a proposal package? Wasn’t that like getting writer’s block on a memo? When I sat down to work on it, I felt that I was drowning under the immensity of the proposal’s components. A synopsis, an overview, a chapter by chapter outline… the first three chapters as perfect as I could get them… it was almost as icky as doing my taxes, only it was taking much longer. As the months passed and I barely chipped away at the thing, I decided I had a good excuse to shelve it. I had too many pieces due right away to devote much time to the book, anyway, so I just accepted that I was stuck. I began to wonder if I would be one more person with a book manuscript moldering in a banker’s box stuffed in the back of a closet.

Months passed. Over the summer I sent my manuscript around to some friends and family, hoping to reinvigorate the project, and I got back a unanimous response: “We love it! But it needs more.” That was when I realized how valuable the writer’s block had been. I had learned a few things after the proposal muse went MIA, like how to ask people questions about their comments. More importantly, I understood what people meant when they gestured widely and said, “You know, more, just more of what you have here.” I’d read innumerable manuscripts from other writers who needed “more,” that extra texture that paints the three-dimensional world in your head. It’s a nebulous, hard-to-pin-down quality, but I knew what my friends were talking about. When the proposal first ground to a halt, I only had a glimmer of understanding about More. Writer’s block, it appeared, had once again prevented me from charging ahead before my book was ready.

Today, the proposal package is back on the front burner. I’m working on More and marveling at how perceptive my subconscious is. The flashing yellow lights of writer's block have sent me in a new direction, one I'm hoping is free of slow-downs. But if I see those flashing lights again, I know what I have to do: Hit the brakes. Pull over for a while. Find a new road.
Photo courtesy of Margan Zajdowicz at

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