Recently I read a wonderful Q&A with a critic called Gwee Li Sui who, when asked about Writer’s Block, replied: “I don’t think anyone can be a writer without having it; it is likelier that one is so busy doing other things that one doesn’t realise that that’s a writer’s block. In fact, most people spend all their lives with it: it is why they never get down to writing.”
I’d never thought of it that way. I have Bad Writing Days, of course – days when I am just bumping up against my own mediocrity and not having any fun, days when I write some stuff and then look at it and feel stupid and delete it all. Some days I don’t manage to make time for it at all and those days make me crazy, though not as crazy as the days when I feel I’ve made poor use of the time I did have. But writer’s block? I imagined a blank screen or page, a blank mind, no ideas, no story, no words. I’d never had THAT, I thought. But maybe when people talk about writer’s block, they are just talking about those days you don’t get down to it. Maybe we were using the same words for different things, like when people say “love,” or “God,” or “fine thanks,” and you think you know what they mean but in fact they mean something so different from what you would mean if you said those things.
That Guy is the only person in our family making a living wage and he is pretty busy with that, but on weekend mornings he takes the kids out while I go to a café and write. He has his own work to get to (it’s not a leave-it-at-work kind of job, but he loves it so don’t feel bad for him) but he gets that this is my Thing and I need a bit of uninterrupted time in which to do it. So the other day, I put my computer in the bag and made my escape while Younger Boy shouted after me “I WANT YOUUUUU” and Older Boy shouted “Kill him! Kill him!” a propos of what I do not know or wish to know. I walked to the café and then… I just kept walking. I walked for over three hours, down to the beach and along it and back through the city. I stopped in a café to get a snack and a coffee but I didn’t sit down. I didn’t take the computer out of my bag. I didn’t feel like writing.
And when I got back it was hugs and chaos and all of us choosing our dragons because we were apparently going STRAIGHT into battle and QUICK MOM LET’S GET THEM and That Guy managed to say to me briefly “Did you have a good morning?” and I said “yup,” and then he told me all the terrible and hilarious tales of HIS morning with the boys and I did not tell him: Actually I just went for a walk.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell him. I can take a break, or a walk, if I want to. If I had said, months ago, “I need two mornings off a week to just have some time to myself and space to think,” that would be totally valid, of course. But what I said was, “I need time to write.” So I felt oddly ashamed of my walk, because time is, for both of us, such a precious commodity, and I make such a Big Fucking Deal about my writing and how I Need More Time and how precious my Two Writing Mornings A Week are, and the fact that I had squandered one of those mornings, 3 hours plus, on just letting my mind and legs wander seemed so wasteful and self-indulgent somehow. It’s not like I was having epiphanies, or thinking about writing or the story. I had nothing to show for it.
Maybe I had writer’s block? And maybe it’s not always a bad thing. Maybe I need writer’s block to make me do something else, or rather, to make me do nothing. Time, when it is in short supply, becomes so precious that it feels like its own kind of currency. You start to think that if you are going to spend it on something, it really has to be something worth spending your precious minutes on. Doing nothing becomes as wasteful and shameful as buying a bunch of useless, stupid crap when you are broke. It feels terrible, and the time you had is gone and you can’t get it back.
But doing nothing shouldn’t feel like a waste of time. Or rather, time should sometimes be wasted (as in, spent freely and carelessly) without anxiety or guilt. Another out-of-context quotation from that Gwee Li Sui interview (which is fabulous, did I mention that?): “Kids should have both time and poverty to ask, ‘What am I doing here?'” And grownups need that too, maybe writers in particular. Time to wonder and wander. (Ahem, not the poverty part, necessarily – his point is about pocket money, not making a living).
In fact, I ask myself quite regularly “what am I doing here?” when both kids are screaming and accusing each other of heinous misdeeds and we have to find the favorite dinosaur buried somewhere in this huge sandbox and I know who I want this character to be but I’m writing her wrong and can’t figure it out and I still haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and there is this REALLY interesting article someone linked to on twitter and if we don’t leave RIGHT NOW we’re going to miss the bus and oh gross did my two-year-old just eat a woodbug and seriously, what am I doing here? But the nature of the question and the possibilities for self-realization are very different, depending on whether you are staring at a plate of spaghetti tossed across the sofa or walking barefoot along the beach where the sand meets the water. The latter case is, I propose, more likely to produce a fruitful kind of self-questioning.
I wish I could close by saying that the next time I sat down to write I was stunningly productive and realized that the walk I’d taken was in fact crucial to my writing, part of a greater process, and that I now see those three hours were well-spent after all, but in fact all I’ve done since the walk is write this blog post. My walk was just a long, lovely, solitary walk, time unspooling behind me.
So, OK. I went for a walk instead of writing and I’m calling it a good thing. Here is to writer’s block: doing nothing, producing nothing, expecting nothing of yourself for once and letting go of some time like it’s not running out to just look at the water and eat a chocolate chip cookie and think.
Yours, wondering what I am doing here (munch munch slurp),