Literary constipation, a common condition, politely named writer’s block ( WB) afflicts 100% of the pen wielding artist population to varying degrees. Flare ups arise without warning and remain for unexplained periods of time. Psychologically, the demoralizing impact of the blank page at the end of the day punishes herculean effort with ‘the glaring white screen of failure’. The suffering is sometimes worsened by the often limp, pitiful nonsense that serves only to make everything stupider. Sentences that took hours to create deliver only shame and resultant rapid deleting.
In fitting with classic cliché, nothing is off limits for victims in the name of such artistic angst. Drink. Alternative ‘medicine.’ Physical exploration. General madness. And finally, rage. Then, of course, the inertia putters out to resigned, ambivalent “whatever” and what could have been will never be known.
Millennia have passed with famous names surviving and speaking of the devastating impact and yet science has not yet discovered the one true writerly laxative elixir. The only known
course of action to date is awareness, prevention, and ultimately, just weird tricks.
Creativity, as it turns out, cannot be forced. I have written two novels, am near the completion of my third, and have semi- plotted the scope of my fourth. Prolific, I am not. The writing, I’ve learned, never gets easier and the learning is eternally humbling. The foundation of the craft demands honesty, courage, and basic human stamina.
In the face of such an uphill path, authors of renown have conditioned themselves to form a habit, a contrived pattern for a desired return that keeps the tap running. The conditioning, however bizarre or random, plays a role in their literary output, averting the evil eye of WB. Academy Award winning writer, Aaron Sorkin admits to taking six to eight showers a day when writing a script because it helps him think most clearly. Ernest Hemingway could only write while standing up. Truman Capote required a horizontal repose for any productive output. He was quoted saying, “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping.”
Best selling author of the DAVINCI Code, Dan Brown prefers to be upside down with inversion therapy to help him refresh and
solve plot problems more easily. Hanging upside down is his fool proof method to inspired prose and concentration.
Over the years, I’ve tried various approaches with mixed success. While I’ve accepted the infinite learning curve where mastery is just down the way, a little further, a little more…. I’ve stumbled upon a secret technique that eases the pain.
When finishing my first novel, I fought through the rocky terrain of plotting the story with numerous wrong turns and horribly wasted time. My tools included contrived coincidence, melodrama, and neat three part structures. The prose was nonsense. The characters were wooden. And the plot twists that I forced on my story sent the novel further to hell with every new chapter.
So on one nonspecific, normal day, I happened to drink a lot of water at my desk. I didn’t know how to take my protagonist to the next scene and I also had to go the bathroom. I got up. I walked to the loo. I thought about what to do for lunch. I tried to remember if I had watered my plant last night. I casually considered all the mysteries of the world and every mundane issue to exist, everything except my book’s plot in the minutes from my desk to the bathroom. Directionless, my mind wandered free.
And then it happened. The moment I opened the restroom door, the answer emerged in my psyche, gift wrapped with a shiny red bow on top. Nothing could have been more obvious and I wanted to slap my forehead for being too slow to see it sooner. I ran back to the computer, business unfinished, shocked at the simplicity of something that had baffled me for over an hour.
The next day, it happened again, this time in the shower. The inventor of the bathroom writing boards knew his market. I nearly killed myself slipping on the wet floor to go find a pen.
When it happened one more time while I was in the midst of a conversation with a friend about a local restaurant’s arugula salad, I thought maybe I should consider a pattern.
Activities that unchained my consciousness from any forced direction seemed to give me everything I needed. And yet when I begged, pleaded, cried for a signal, the antennae picked up nothing. The pathetic distress signals seemed to turn me off so much that I wouldn’t even help myself.
Over the years, I’ve discovered meditation goes a step further to cleanse the clutter of an overworked brain. The open space leaves room for problem solving and answers emerge without the terrible internal negotiation. While not always perfect, the next layer in the WB aversion process includes the more obvious requirement, time.
The exhausting path requires mental clarity, however possible with tricks or music, and a willingness to sit down (or stand up) for hours to physically write. The habit, when finally established, is a conditioned space where the unconscious releases the jailbird from the dark corners of imagination and allows for true creation.
But more about the unique habits…
Susan Sontag writes first with a felt tip pen on a legal notepad before transcribing to computer. Charles Dickens took three hour afternoon walks to open the floodgates of his writing. Every writer finds a way to focus and declutter with stamina, discipline, and something random that just always does the job.
My bathroom trick has worked more times than not. My desk is perpetually stocked with bottles of water. I will always be hydrated when I’m writing, especially nearing a deadline. Like a toddler, creativity will not be told what to do. It will never respond to a rough hand and worse will spit on you with insulting rubbish if pushed against its will.
I’ve learned in fiction, if you want to play God, respect the unconscious. It’ll do the heavy lifting as long as you leave the door wide open.
Tulika Mehrotra is a DC based author with Penguin Random House. Her first two books, Delhi Stopover and Crashing B-Town are best sellers in India and released globally this year. She is journalist and speaker and is presently completing her third novel.
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Photographer Credit - Jennifer Coffey