When Writer’s Block Would be a Welcomed Change
July 24, 2013
You may think the title of this blog posting is just a clever play on the phrase “Writer’s Block”. Well, okay, it is. But it’s also the name I made up for a unique category of writer’s block that I have recently come to recognize as a distinct and common condition. In fact, writer shplock may actually be the most prevalent and insidious form of writer’s block out there. So I thought I would share with you some of my observations and thoughts about this debilitating and frustrating affliction.
When most of us think of writer’s block we probably imagine a writer sitting before a typewriter (a typewriter?) or a computer frozen into inaction by a lack of creative inspiration; facing a stubborn plot twist that just won’t reveal itself, searching for a clever turn of phrase that won’t come to mind when needed, or dealing with the dreaded blank page that stares back defiantly, daring them to defile it with something other than uninspired drivel.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making light of this paralyzing condition. It’s very real, very disabling, and something every writer will experience at one time or another. But I should only be so lucky to be that far along. I wish my mind freeze would occur as I sit poised, ready to type, or as I mull over the events or characters in my story. Nope, for me, writer shplock precedes that time-honoured state of writerly inaction. It occurs well before my pen approaches paper, even before my fingers hover over the keyboard prepared to hammer out some literary brilliance. For me, writer shplock occurs long before I can actually claim to be writing.
Before I reveal the details of this condition, maybe I should first explain the word “shplock”. It’s a made-up, onomatopoeia word that conveys the notion of some enormous, shapeless mass that engulfs one and prevents them from doing anything. Like quicksand, it reduces one to a state of helpless inaction that only gets worse as one tries to fight it. Now, I can’t speak from personal experience, but I would imagine that being trapped in actual quicksand could be a pleasant experience were it not for the grim realization that you were about to meet your doom by drowning in a pit of wet sand. If not for that it could be cozy and womb-like as you are increasingly embraced gently yet firmly, as it were, in a big, squishy hug. In fact, you might actually find yourself lulled into a kind of lazy reluctance to resist. That is until for whatever reason you feel the urge to get out whereby the surrounding goo reveals its true nature by resisting your every attempt to escape its grasp. That’s what writer shplock is like. As soon as you try to overcome it, as soon as you decide it’s time to move on and get something done, you discover just how trapped and helpless you really are.
Okay, with that out of the way, here it is. Writer Shplock is the condition that reduces you, the writer, to a state of stultified inaction when the dawning awareness of all the truly important jobs that need tending imposes such an overpowering sense of guilt upon you that not only can’t you write, but you can’t do anything. You are frozen in place by the weight of all that “guilty work” demanding your attention and efforts.
We all know guilty work. Our lives are surrounded by it. It’s all the big jobs that have been piling up for months, even years. And although these tasks are currently being ignored, and probably have been for a long time, they still make us feel guilty for not tending to them. For me it’s the cluttered basement that needs cleaning and remodelling. The rundown backyard, badly in need of landscaping. The weathered deck that needs power-washing and staining. The two-car storage closet that bears the clutter of twenty-odd years of family life and needs clearing out to make room for, well, a car. The lifetime of family photos that need organizing and scrap-booking. Too many tasks to mention. As sad a picture as this may paint about the way I live, don’t be too quick to pass judgement because we all have our lists of guilty work.
By definition, true guilty work is not easily dismissed. It’s not like chores which are a snap. Most chores can be dispatched in a couple of hours or less. But guilty work can’t be dealt with that easily. They are tasks best described as “projects”, each of which will take many hours if not days or even weeks to complete. Work you know that, once started, will keep you from your precious writing for a long time.
Our lives are filled with guilty work. As a retired college teacher, I have amassed an arm’s-length list of guilty tasks that need doing, that demand doing, that assault me each morning as I get up, shouting for my attention as I pass by them like desperate, neglected prisoners clamouring for mercy from their dark, crumbling cells. Help me! Help me!
Guilty work generally accumulates due to other priorities like careers and families. It’s often only after these commitments wind down that most of us finally get around to all that guilty work. But that is also the time in life when many of us decide to devote our valuable time and efforts to those personal activities that we didn’t have time for when we were younger and otherwise obligated.
You see, the sad truth is that writing, for a retired and unpublished author like me, is optional. Despite what my friends and family say in support of this activity, my writing is a luxury. It’s a hobby. I know it, and my friends and family know it. It’s an unspoken rule that writing is what I am free to do after all the real work has been taken care of. At least that’s what my conscience tells me every time I sit down to write. For that’s when the ponderous guilt of not doing the important jobs swallows me like mental quicksand, preventing me not only from writing, but from undertaking any of those big jobs that I know will take days and will keep me from my writing. Its a catch 22. I can’t write because I feel guilty for not doing the real jobs, and I can’t do the real jobs because I feel guilty for not writing. In short, writer shplock.
I know this to be a real condition because whenever I put any significant distance between me and those demanding jobs, making it simply impossible to address them, I can actually write. I wrote quite a bit when I camped for a few days outside Victoria, BC last summer. And I got lots of writing done recently when my wife and I took a vacation to Sedona, Arizona for a couple of weeks (more about that in a followup blog). On those occasions I did not suffer any shortage of words – the writing easily flowed. No writer’s block, and definitely no writer shplock. All because the guilty work was too far away to effectively distract me, drag me under, and pin me down.
I can hear you saying, ‘Well then, get out of your house more often and go somewhere else to write’. Don’t think I haven’t tried that. The trouble is, despite the distance, I can still hear all those nasty tasks calling to me – burdening me with their demanding little cries for attention. And that’s because I’m really not that far away. They know it. And they know I’ll be returning soon. They’re smart that way.
Now, I realize that, at this point in the blog, I should be pulling a rabbit out of my hat and offering you, my trusting reader, a golden solution; some tried-and-true technique that I use and, by extrapolation, that you can use to overcome this crippling condition that we writers face. But, alas, I have no such solution to offer. Sorry. I continue to fall victim to the misery of writer shplock most days, and I suspect that many of you do as well.
How do you know if you are experiencing writer shplock? How does it differ from the more familiar writer’s block? Well, for one thing, with writer shplock your head will still be full of writing ideas. Ideas and creativity are never lacking when you are a victim of writer shplock. On the contrary, the buildup of ideas makes the condition all that more infuriating because you know you’ve got something to write, you just don’t have the proper conditions under which to write it. I have notebooks and digital files absolutely brimming with good ideas, but still my writing happens only sporadically. Given the right circumstances, once freed from the obligation of completing all that guilty work, writing (though not necessarily good writing) simply gushes forth. You see, it’s guilt that brings on writer shplock, and that’s what distinguishes it from writer’s block.
So just how is one to deal with writer shplock? How does one learn to be selfish enough to assertively say to all that guilty work “Too bad. I’m gonna write today. Get someone else to take care of you”? How indeed?
There are, of course, many false cures for this condition. Ironically, the ones that treat the guilt are the least effective when it comes to writing – tending to chores. Chores are easily dispensed with. We’ve all experienced it. You are sitting at the keyboard, paralyzed by writer shplock, overcome with guilt because you know you should really be dealing with all that guilty work. So, in a moment of guilt-driven motivation, you get up and wash the dishes by hand even though you’ve got a dishwasher. Or you Swiffer the hardwood floors. Or you make the beds, walk the dog, or put out the garbage. You run a few errands. Or you write a blog post about writer shplock. Whatever may be appropriate to your situation. But even after you’re done, despite any temporary sense of accomplishment, the guilt persists. That’s because the big projects still remain unfinished, and that sobering awareness continues to weigh you down.
Other so-called “cures” simply mask the condition. These are all deceptively pleasant diversions. Eating. Shopping. Exercising. Watching TV. Answering emails. Any of this starting to sound familiar? Browsing the Internet. Updating your Facebook status. Playing yet another round of Fruit Ninja. In other words, killing time. All perhaps worthwhile and, for other reasons, satisfying activities, but just not helpful for overcoming writer shplock.
In fact one such diversion can actually make matters worse. Researching your story. I admit that I often fall prey to this false cure. When faced with the inability to write, I will often pick up a novel, or a book or magazine about writing, or I’ll browse the Internet in search of new ideas to consider for my story, kidding myself into thinking that I am once again being productive. But any good ideas that I may come across will now be added to those I already have, thus compounding my sense of guilt for not actually sitting down and writing my own book. See how writer shplock resists any attempts to escape?
For those of you who find yourself suffering the agony of writer shplock, I assure you that you are not alone. This is a very real and very disabling affliction borne stoically by those of us who live modest lives that do not include maids, servants, nannies, grounds keepers, cooks, handymen, or personal secretaries. The guilty jobs in our lives know that we alone are their appointed caretakers and that we are bound by obligation to serve and service them. In short, they have us where they want us.
Writer shplock is not a new condition. I suspect the oft-lamented writer’s need for a “room of one’s own”, or the proverbial “secluded cabin in the woods”, or even Thoreau’s escape to Walden Pond, have less to do with achieving solitude and silence and more to do with escaping the pesky, immobilizing voices of all that guilty work calling to them, haunting them, and clogging the flow of their creative juices.
Some people appear to be immune to guilt. Politicians, used car salesmen, and bestselling authors don’t seem to be affected by it, so I would suspect that writer shplock is not an issue for them. But the rest of us must somehow learn to deal with it, overcome it, or cope with it by sheer will or lunacy. We have no other choice.
After many years of attempting to write a novel, I have resigned myself to this situation. So long as there are big jobs that must be done, my writing will continue to creep along at a snail’s pace. So far my novel has been a work-in-progress for 14 years and I suspect it may take another five or ten years to complete. I just hope I can finish it while I’m still able to read the computer screen, before my arthritic fingers prevent me from typing, and while I still have good ideas for a story.
Come to think of it, once I eventually move into a senior’s facility someone else will be responsible for all those pesky maintenance tasks and I’ll be free to do as I please. So, hey, I guess I do have a solution to offer. Just wait for the luxury and freedom of old age and hope the old body, mind, and creative spirit hang in there until then.