Writer’s Block is Just Over-Thinking


I was reading recently that Anthony Burgess called his wonder-work A Clockwork Orange a “mere jeu d’esprit” written in three weeks for money, “too didactic to be artistic” and otherwise wishing he had never written it because of the misunderstanding of others.

Oh come now, Mr. Burgess, you must know how beloved your book is!

I take A Clockwork Orange as a model for my discussion today on something I am regularly a victim of: over thinking.  In considering Burgess’s work and the things he said about it, I think we are firstly informed of the level of this man’s talent for writing fiction.  To pen such an intense and original book, a true “novel,” in such a short period of time and to such great notoriety, makes obvious the ability some writers have for commanding language with virtually no effort (compared to the rest of us, no doubt).  And whether Burgess truly intended this book to be a “game of the spirit” when he sat down to write it, or whether he intended it to be a serious novel and was only later shocked by the power of the story and wanted to diminish some of the furor, it is arguable for the rest of us that this book is rare and unique among literary works and deserves all of the attention is has received.  For me it is one of my top five favorite novels.

For the sake of my argument today let’s consider that Burgess, a la Coleridge, wrote his novel under the haze of inspiration and without the intense, metal-on-metal grind that the rest of us tend to go through when composing our  manifestos.  Let us consider the process as if there had been little-to-no thinking involved.

Romantic as a notion, the ability to write fluidly and without interruption of thought or planning is something writers rarely experience, and those moments comprise a “sweet-spot” in the composition experience similar to what other performers experience when unburdened by the distracting awareness of what they are actually doing.  I imagine this is what film actors do when behaving in embarrassing ways in front of a camera.

This freedom to express is no doubt what Hemingway intended when he purportedly instructed that one should “write drunk, edit sober.”  Drunkenness, after all, is a condition absent of inhibition.  Absence of inhibition is freedom to be creative.

I certainly am not advocating drunkenness as a regular state of being, but the awareness that we can benefit from, oh, call it a lack of awareness, is a valuable condition for writing.  All we really need do, however, is simply not think so much.

For the better part of this fall I have been discussing pursuit of publication of a novel I finished last summer.  This 320 page literary story was supposed to launch my career in letters and fulfill an intention I’ve had since I was ten years old.  It has a message, it has twists and sub-plots, and sex and violence and even humor.  It also has, perhaps more than anything, a top layer of iron and a bottom layer of stone, both rigid with thought and pedantic intention, and between these two layers the life of the story has been ground to dust.  Gold dust, maybe, but dust only.  How did this happen?

I over-thought it through-and-through.

After some very helpful criticism of the manuscript by a respected colleague with a writing and editing background of his own, it become clear that I was too timid with my protagonist, and that the story is more interesting from the perspective of a side character than from the view of my protagonist.  Further, and more importantly, despite almost ten pages of character development and background, I used little to none of the interesting traits of my character.  His true nature never came through because I blocked it.  I stayed coldly conscious of what I was saying about him, and because he was a man in a position of high respect and public profile I refused to let him be human, refused to allow for his natural deviance.

When I look at the writers I have admired over all of these years: Burgess, Lawrence, Miller, Updike, Salinger, O’Connor (Flannery), I see wild freedom and a skillful ability to be engaging and even shocking without being distasteful.  And even if there were moments of distaste it only made things more interesting.  How did they do it?

I am willing to bet that more of the books I love were written as a jeu desprit than even the author realized at the time.  When these writers sat down I can only imagine that they wrote with abandon, without inhibition, or at a minimum with what Tobias Wolff once told me for him was writing “prayerfully.”  That is, in a dream.

To return to my own book, and in re-examining the character I had intended to write from the beginning, a new opening line came to me, and with a whole different story.  The story I had intended to write the first time.  I didn’t “think” about it so much as I just asked a question: who is this character and why should his story be written?  And then the story came to me the right way.  The drunken Hemingway.  I can edit sober later.

Ok, great, don’t think when I write.  How do I do that?  I hope you’re asking this question because I am about to explain what I think works.

Do you remember that moment of inspiration when the line of dialogue came to you?  When the last line, or the first line of the poem appeared in your head when you were in the shower, or doing dishes?  Remember the scene, the idea, the personality or dialect that turned you on?  That’s the starting point.  Yeah, obvious, I know, but this is why writing things down when they come to you is a must.  We have to keep a record of our inspirations because otherwise, I promise you, they will fade, and even if we remember the general spirit of the idea the core will be gone.  And beyond writing down the core ideas that come we must also write our character histories.  This is old advice, but the more we know about our characters going in the easier it is to “write what we know” because we don’t have to think about it.  It would be irresponsible for me to ignore the fact that thought does have a role on writing.  Of course it does.  But keeping the dream state as near to the surface as possible limits inhibition and allows the story to come through.  This is why we must write quickly, without edit, until the story is down.  Page one to page two hundred.  After that we can think, plod, edit, change, align.  The hard thinking comes after the “game” is played.  Makes sense?

Ultimately we all write according to our style and what, when and how it works for us.  But I believe that writer’s block is just over thinking.  Hopefully you never experience writer’s block.  If you do, maybe you, like me, are thinking too much.  If so draft something outrageous for your character and see if it fits.  At the least maybe it will break up the block, allow you and your character to share a laugh, and then get back to drafting the dream.  I hope so.

Now get to play!

I’ll visit with you again next week.



4 comments on “Writer’s Block is Just Over-Thinking

  1. adm22 says:

    David Foster Wallace has his protagonist in “Infinite Jest” muse on the sweet spot while on the phone flinging toe nail clippings into a basket as he clips them. Since reading that, I’ve thought it a pretty apt image for being “in the zone”. Doubtless this is where our stream of consciousness writing stems from – the attempt to paradoxically force a letting go. Be glad that you have such a colleague to give you their honest opinion! Keep on letting go!

    • emperort says:

      Thank you, and thanks for the reference to Wallace. I love the sweet spot. The experience of it gives me a jolt of recognition and a sense of joy that such moments still visit me.

  2. Catie A. says:

    I dreamed I helped get your book published and then I missed seeing/talking to you in the cafeteria at school today. Thinking about you my friend, stay optimistic…

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