Though a lot of folks smarter than myself have argued, one way or the other, as to whether or not "writer's block" actually exists, I tend to think it does. Not the least before I periodically suffer long fits of it several times a year.
Its the kind of thing that makes you feel some real ennui, because I'm the kind of person who has said, aloud if not to a person, that all I really want to do is be allowed to write. If its true that we're all given one thing at which we're better than everything else, I think mine would be writing. This is not to say, of course, that I'm better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Nabokov, or you, or R.L. Stine, or anyone at all. Its only to say that of all the things I try to do (sleep, occasionally exercise, talk to people, do math, balance my checkbook, connect with someone or something), writing is the one which I do with the most success, which is: maybe a little.
Why then, do I find it so easy not to write? Why am I so good at finding other things to do? Why have I spent over four hours trying to beat a boss on "Bloodborne" this week, but hardly any on writing?
Part of it is, and I don't think this gets said enough, that writing is miserable work. Its scant rewards -- a moment of inspiration, a nicely tuned sentence, a bright idea -- are easily overshadowed by its terror, boredom, and loneliness. The writer can easily lapse back into a middle-school version of themselves, wondering why no one understands them. It might be better, which is to say less risky and less painful, to simply not write.
As ever, I turn to the wisdom and succor offered by horror films and novels, where writer's block is as sure a recipe for death as teen sex is in a slasher. In many of these movies, writing is the only way to survive.
Consider The Shining, the Kubrick film rather than King's novel. Both concern a writer trying to write something important, but the act of writing is better depicted as a scary act in the film. It the novel Jack abandons his play, an artsy slice of life about a boy's school, and begins to write a sprawling non-fiction book about The Overlook Hotel and all the bad history that went on there. In the film we are never exactly sure what it is Jack is trying to write, only that he has failed big-time. We get the sense it might be a novel, but Jack is pretty vague about it. Nevertheless, we see that he has produced a nice stack of pages, enough to merit pride in any writer. But then it turns out that maybe, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, CA, "there's no there there":
This is surely one of the scariest scenes ever set to film, especially for writers. Because what it captures so well is the moment when you realize that what you've written is complete shit. Of course, what makes this particular scene so queasily powerful is that Kubrick's Shining gives that discovery to Wendy Torrance, Jack's wife. As we all know, the only thing worse than the stomach sinking feeling of knowing that something we've worked hard on has not turned out well is the doubly stomach sinking feeling of someone else realizing it for you. The film is not just the story of a "family going insane together", as Kubrick once said, but also the story of a man realizing that he's not cut out to be a writer, and that the best career option still open to him is to become the flesh avatar of a bunch of vengeful spirits, some of which are themselves probably failed writers.
I think it partially explains why he is so easily distracted from his writing, and so eager to take on his new role as family murderer. Its the same reason why some small, perverse part of me hopes that we do end up going to World War III with North Korea, China and Russia. Because if we did, I would very probably be off the hook for not having written a great novel by now. After all, writers like Norman Maclean only got their first book out at seventy or so, and had we not suffered the onset of nuclear apocalypse, well, I might have actually done it. Its not my fault, I could then say, it is world history's fault.
These are themes that the almost scarily prolific King works with reasonably often in his stuff; see also Secret Window (the film, especially), Misery, 1408, and Bag of Bones. They variously explore what it would be like to not be able to write, to be forced to write something you're just not that in to, finding out that the premise under which you have written for years is false, and suffering severe writer's block while missing the significant other, now dead, who served as a kind of muse for you. That King himself is one of the most successful writers of all time seems not to have blunted his anxieties in this regard.
But my favorite horror movie about writer's block isn't a horror movie at all. Not exactly, anyway.
In the Coen brothers' 1991 comedy nightmare Barton Fink the titular character played by John Turturro, a nebbishy writer of "important" literature about salt-of-the-earth types in late 1930s New York City is recruited by Hollywood to become a studio scenarist. When he arrives he finds that has been contracted to write a run of the mill wrestling film, something about which he knows nothing, despite his best intentions of representing the common man onscreen. He checks into a large, rundown hotel in LA and begins to (try to) write, with the help of his next-door neighbor, a gregarious salesman who used to wrestle and who turns out, in the end, to be a serial killing yokel named Madman Mundt. Along the way he finds a foil in a Faulkner-esque novelist himself afflicted with writer's block, whose authorship of his own works comes into question. It is, above all, a story about writers who, like Jack Torrance, seem to think and talk about writing more than they actually do it.
Check out these two scenes. In the first, Fink tries to explain, in very patronizing terms, what he wants to write about. In the second, Goodman's Madman Mundt, a distorted mirror of the "common man" Fink purports to want to represent in his writing, reveals his true nature, and Fink's failure to understand his subjects.
In the second, Goodman's Madman Mundt, a distorted mirror of the "common man" Fink purports to want to represent in his writing, reveals his true nature, and Fink's failure to understand his subjects.
Note the not-particularly-subtle infernal subtext, which seems to suggest that writing (or more specifically, trying to write) is a species of Hell.
Jack Torrance and Barton Fink are two cautionary tales about how shitty is is to be a writer. The first captures the feeling of realizing that your text is nonsense, and the latter captures the feeling when you realize that your whole project is maybe better suited to someone else. Both are feelings that anyone who has ever seriously or semi-seriously tried to write will no doubt find familiar.
It seems significant that there are so many horror (or, in the very least, horrific) films about being a writer. Certainly more than are about painters, musicians, milkmen, insurance agents, or video store clerks. In fact, if horror films are to be believed, writers have casualty or insanity rates only slightly lower than, say, vampire hunters or Vatican-dispatched exorcists.
This may not be helpful to most people, but I tend to manage my anxieties with the help of horror films and books. And it is both comforting and terrible to know that even the Stephen Kings and Coen Brothers of the world are, if not struck with them, are still concerned with the same anxieties as experiences as those of us who struggle just to put pen on page.
And remember too that it could always be worse. Writer's block, however miserable, can be overcome. But when you start considering killing your family, don't listen to the voices urging you to pick up that axe or take a slug of ghost booze. Seek help instead.