There’s a book by Michael Rosen called We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. If you have had anything to do with small people in the last 25 years, there’s a high chance you’ll have come across it. When faced by each new obstacle, the characters sing ‘we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it!’
I have been reminded of this refrain recently. I usually write fluently and easily (editing is more of a pain for me than actually writing), but one particular commission has been causing me a problem. Writer’s block is a well-known phenomenon – the curse of the blank page. Block can take many forms – I refer to my two main ones as ‘research paralysis’ and ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’.
I’m one of those people who want to know everything it’s possible to know about a subject. As a student, I felt very anxious about starting an essay if I didn’t feel I’d read every book and article available on the topic. This is, of course, unrealistic. Yes, research is important. Especially if much of your subject matter is historical, as mine is, it’s vital to understand both the subject and the context, and in particular to avoid the heinous crime of being anachronistic – introducing ideas or objects that didn’t exist yet in the period you are writing about. And if you are writing about living people, you need to get your facts right, and you can’t do that without research, lots of it, and using your critical faculties about what you are finding in your research.
However, the trick is to stop researching at some point, and start writing. I find this difficult! There’s always ‘just one more’ book, article or website that looks so interesting, and which might just yield that extra fact or perspective that would make all the difference to the piece you’re writing. It takes a fair bit of confidence to say ‘OK, I now know enough about this to write a robust, accurate and informative piece on the subject’. When is it ‘enough’?
If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here
This is a reference to an apocryphal tale, sometimes set in Ireland or Scotland, where a tourist asks a local for directions to somewhere and is told ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’. Mostly I enjoy specific writing commissions, but occasionally it can feel as if I don’t know where to start. Sometimes it can be about the format not matching the topic (‘write about this huge topic in 200 words’), or the style being inappropriate to the content (‘write about this complex argument, requiring lots of specialist knowledge and vocabulary, in a chatty tabloid style’). Not doing it isn’t an option – I’m a writer, this is my job, I’m being paid to do it. I can make lots of cups of coffee, go for a walk round the block, do the laundry, compulsively check Twitter, but the problem isn’t going to go away.
Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it!
I’ve developed a few strategies for dealing with writer’s block. One is to write – anything, not necessarily related to thing I’m supposed to be writing, but just writing – simply to get the writing muscles exercised and moving again. Often, something will shift and the block will be removed.
Another is to go back and re-read the brief. Have I understood it wrongly? Is there some other way of approaching this? If all else fails, can I get the reader to collaborate with me in wrestling with this topic? For example, ‘I’ve been asked to write about X, but I didn’t know where to start, so first I tried looking at it from this point of view… what do you think? Then I tried if from this other perspective… how about this?’
Having a lot of different projects on the go at once is, I find, hugely helpful with writer’s block. If one article or post is not happening for me, there’s usually something else that’s going well, and it’s amazing how often one project will provide the solution to a block in another. The human brain is an amazing thing. And writer’s block must never be allowed to become permanent. If you can’t go over it, and can’t go under it, you’ve got to go through it!