In Praise of Writer's Block

This piece was written in Autumn of 2020, but I found the experience described in it so useful that I've left it here as a reminder to myself, and anyone else who needs it.

On March 6th, 2020, I sat on the train from Cardiff to Leominster and wrote my last poem. 

The previous evening I’d given a reading at the Chapter Arts Centre, and afterwards met many interesting people who all held out their hand for me to shake, then withdrew it again with a look of mild, abashed panic. “We’re not allowed to do that anymore, are we?” they joked, then leaned in close to talk to me anyway. 

It was a strange evening, the day the second and third cases of Corona Virus were discovered in Wales, both in Cardiff. We felt silly for what precautions we took; sat around a small table afterwards reassuring each other that it would be a long time yet before anything changed. A week later I cancelled a research trip to Cornwall and closed the little library where I work one day a week.

The poem I had written on the train sat undisturbed in my notebook. I have asthma; government advice was for me to self-isolate until the third week of June. Those twelve weeks stretched ahead, strange and unknowable and full of promise. I had such plans: in that time, I reasoned, I could finish a first draft of my novel. I could round out the collection of poems I was working on, neaten it up and send it off early to my editor. I could finish the essay I had started the previous week. 

Each morning I walked in the quickwind sun on the hill, my dog scaring up pheasants from the verges, and the views unfolded for hazy miles in all directions.  The hill was empty.  I felt such amazing potential.

But then I would go back down to my house to disinfect the delivery from Sainsbury’s item by item, wipe down the door handles I had touched while bringing it in, and the cupboards I had leant against after carrying a box. By the time everything was safe that potential was wrung out of me: Dettol is the enemy of creation (I decided).

Days ticked by. I perfected necessary routines. No writing came. I could not concentrate.

At first, of course, I panicked. There was so much time, but it was passing so fast. I felt wasteful. “At least now,” people kept saying, “you’ve got plenty of time to write.” But I couldn’t. Every time I heard that phrase a little spike of panic shot through me. In my head a single phrase repeated endlessly: if not now, when?

Days ticked by in a rush. No writing came. I could not concentrate.

I walked on the hill and spring opened around me. Swallows arrived, and then swifts and yellowhammers. Lambs sun-bleached among the new spears of bracken, and gradually something wonderful happened: I stopped panicking.

I decided, in a rush of reckless relief, that I would stop trying to write. I decided to embrace my writer’s block.

Writing is a skill made up in large part of observation. When we learn to write we are learning to observe, and to pick out which details are pertinent, which details are the ones that tell the story. As soon as I stopped trying to write – vowed, in fact, not to write at all – my observation skills kicked into overdrive. 

My world had contracted to a small one, a simple one, but I trod every inch of it and mapped it in my head like a master cartographer. 

I heard the mice beneath the mat of last year’s auburn bracken, where it leans against the crumbling wall. I heard the raven call across the hill to her mate. I was privy to small domestic stories that had taken place in my house before I moved in: the painted-over pencil grooves that marked a child’s height year on year, the broken tile replaced at an angle in the bathroom. I saw where a hedge had once cast shadow, and left bluebells growing in the sun as the only evidence it had been there.

I itched to write it all down, but I didn’t. It was enough to see these things, and to acknowledge them. Not everything, I thought, needs to be a poem. I walked the hill each day and came down rich with the world.

After a week or two I became aware of a second effect. I might not be writing, but I was constantly thinking about it. I thought about poems I had written over the last year, and how they might fit together as a collection. I thought about that collection as a whole, and where the gaps were that would need to be bridged with new work. I thought about my novel, and about the problems I was having with it, most of all. 

They were not new problems. They had been there from the first chapter, waiting in the wings. The more I had written of the novel the more urgent it became to solve these issues, but the more I avoided doing so. I felt utterly unequal to the task.

But now I found myself working through them in my head: naming them, making lists of options, weighing those options. I would sit reading by the open kitchen window in the evening, while the house martens and swifts sliced the sunset air, and suddenly be struck by some new solution.

Everything was inspiring and inspiration became something plentiful and joyful and cheap, not some rare thing to be hoarded. I wrote nothing down and I forgot ideas and none of that mattered. I felt more creative than I had in years. 

We have, I think, romanticised the idea of writer’s block, put it to use as part of our identity. But what we call writer’s block is not a block at all. It is a shift in process from external to internal, from conscious to (partly) subconscious. It is a response to factors not under our control, and it can be one of the most surprising, galvanising, energising elements of our practice, if we let it.