Lost for words: The curse of writer's block

Britain's Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, is not the first writer to admit that he has, at one time or another, lost the ability to put pen to paper, reports John Walsh

Friday 12 September 2008 00:00 BST

Whether it was brought on by the Queen's indifference to the Poet Laureate's work (something he shares with 99.99 per cent of authors, of course) or by critical reactions to his occasional public verses, writer's block is a nasty condition to suffer from.

In an interview with The Independent yesterday, Andrew Motion revealed how it had struck in the middle of his laureateship, and how he was not prepared for the isolation of the job. The "pressures and peculiarities", he said, had a rocky effect on his life. And the words just dried up. Every writer will sympathise.

For when creative blockage sets in, the blank page before you grows to the size of a tablecloth. The grey laptop screen seems to hum with malignity. You feel you have nothing of interest or amusement to impart to the world. Words refuse to shift – as they always have done hitherto – from the vast lexicon in your memory to the sentences half-forming in your brain. You can't for the life of you remember why your character X has fetched up in a Wyoming mining town when, according to the plot, she should be falling in love with her tutor in Cambridge. You have not the faintest clue how to begin the next chapter.

Some of the history's most famous, and prodigiously fluent, authors suffered temporary cessations of text: Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Katherine Mansfield. It is not a sign of weakness in artists; it may just be a sign that they are taking themselves too seriously and that the nagging self-censor in their head is telling them their last two chapters/stanzas/scenes are less than Shakespearean. Some writers are a little over-precious about finding le mot juste. "You don't know what it is," groaned Gustave Flaubert to a friend, "to stay a whole day with your head in your hands, trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word."

Poets like Motion are more susceptible than most writers. Though "inspiration" is a mostly discarded concept, many poems begin (according to poets) when a number of images, words and phrases accrete like neutrons around a central, inchoate idea. If that process of accretion does not happen, no poem. Philip Larkin, whose role as resident bard at Hull University was later held by Motion, suffered intermittently from writer's block all his life. He wrote little poetry in his final years, and complained, "I haven't given poetry up; poetry has given me up." Even as an Oxford undergraduate his writing fluency was sporadic: after Finals, he conquered his block by writing schoolgirl lesbian fiction.

The novelist John Fowles, whose books The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman were international best-sellers, spent his last 20 years as a virtual recluse in Lyme Regis, constantly working on an epic novel called In Hellugalia, of which he wrote small fragments over several years, but in which he could never progress beyond the planning stage.

The most spectacular example of writer's block, though, is that of Henry Roth, whose Depression-era novel, Call It Sleep, was written in 1934. Roth tried a second novel without success, and gave up writing to work as a firefighter, teacher and labourer. After his book was rediscovered by readers in the 1960s, he resumed writing and, at 73, began a series of novels called Mercy Of A Rude Stream. The first, A Star Shines Over Morris Park, came out in 1994, an amazing 60 years after its predecessor.

Numerous therapies are recommended for block-sufferers: keep a notebook, write as though sending a letter to a friend, go to the gym, eat apples in the bath (Agatha Christie's recommendation for kick-starting the imagination) and start writing in the middle of your story. None has been proved to work.

Just as bad as writer's block, if less common, is its opposite: writer's superfluity, when an author has no trouble summoning words but doesn't know when to stop. Instead of a blank sheet of paper, he or she ends up with a 300,000-word monster of a manuscript that hasn't done what the writer wanted it to.

Philip Hensher, novelist

Writer's block is something that comes on very naturally when the tank is empty, especially at the end of a novel. I've had periods of more than a year when I couldn't write any fiction at all but I always held my nerve and hoped that one day, in the not too distant future, I could write again. It can be a nervous experience. If you haven't written anything for 18 months it's difficult not to think: what if I never write again? There are some things you can do to create something artificial to write about. One thing I do is take the Tube to the end of the line, then walk back into the centre of London. It's hard not to find anything to write about doing that.

Meera Syal, comedian, playwright and journalist

The first [draft, when working for film or television] just flows, but the more people that get involved the more difficult it becomes. That's why, in some ways, writing a novel is easier, because it's so utterly yours, though novelists usually miss out on the benefits of a good brainstorming session. There does come a point when there's no reason to sit in front of a computer; you're snow-blind. When that happens I'll play sport, or I'll visit a friend and talk about nothing in particular, in the hope there's some process going on in the back of my brain. Or I might watch around a subject, so if I'm writing a rom-com, I'll line up rom-coms and sit down with a bar of chocolate.

Jeffrey Archer, novelist

I have never felt writer's block, even though my home in Majorca is called 'Writer's Block'. I know in my mind that I'm booked to write Paths Of Glory and a set of short stories for the next two years. But I did have some problems when I wrote As The Crow Flies, about an East End boy who makes it to Parliament. My editor had said that a writer should always get themselves in the trickiest situation possible because the reader will not be able to see a way out. So I had my character go to Australia to meet a person who would tell him everything, except he had died just three days before. I spent 11 days thinking before I found a solution.

Michael Rosen, Children's Laureate

If you get stuck in the middle of a poem the best thing to do is to leave it, which you might have to do for five years. With a poem you don't know what it's about until it reveals itself to you, which could take some time. This is, of course, completely different to having nothing to write about. To avoid that I would suggest keeping a notebook. If you maintain a notebook then, eventually, something will come out of all the collected fragments. And read. Absolutely read.

Anthony Beevor, historian

It's certainly different between historians and novelists. Novelists have an excuse, whereas historians don't. There's always other work to be getting on with. There are moments when structure, say, can present a problem, but you just have to get on with something else, and the solution will come to you in an alternative moment. There can be times when the material you're working on seems so appalling that you become psychologically depressed, but when it's going well you have to follow the winning streak, often working very late to make up for the times when it isn't going so well.

Jilly Cooper, novelist

There's a Rudyard Kipling quote from The Thorkild's Song which goes: "There's no wind along these seas,/ Out oars for Stavenger!" – and that's what writer's block is, really, simply putting one word in front of another, just as the sailors of the poem had to do with their oars. What it is is a loss of confidence. One thing that I might do if I can't write is go and back and read the synopses, all of which are longer than any of Anita Brookner's novels, and then I tend to feel a slight restoration of faith.

Kathy Lette, novelist

Writer's block sounds like a prison wing for authors who make too many puns – a punitentiary. But it seems to me that women writers don't have time for writer's block. Working mothers juggle so often, we could be in the Moscow State Circus. If I get any time between taking my daughter to the dentist and stopping my son from disappearing up the stairs with the maths tutor, I can't wait to put pun to paper. Only male authors and childless authoresses have the luxury of angst and ennui.

Michael Morpurgo, former Children's Laureate

During my two years, I was quite dormant, but I didn't fight it. I thought I would write about the process of writing instead. Once you think about it as a "block", it's self-fulfilling. The only way to manage it is say "I'm not ready to write". I don't sit down in front of a blank piece of paper without having a strong notion of where it is I want to go. I have always looked for inspiration by filling my head with the stuff of life. If I meet enough people, go to enough places, see enough films, then it works to prevent a block.

Will Self, novelist and columnist

I have never experienced writer's block. Writing is a muscular action and, like any other, all you need to do is exercise the muscles. I don't even think of it as writing – it's typing.

Michèle Roberts, novelist and poet

It's usually because I'm afraid of what I'm writing about. In the case of my second novel I had great difficulty writing about incest, but as soon as I realised what I was scared of, and tuned into that, the block subsided.

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