Some language cracks the shell of a thing open, so we can newly see what’s being described. And some language forms a perfect egg shell around what it aims to describe, obscuring more than it reveals. I’ve always suspected that the term “writer’s block” is an instance of the later kind of language—that it operates like a large and opaque dome, covering up whatever is really going on.
The first time I stopped writing, it was because, while driving through a nearby intersection, I got t-boned by a driver who was fiddling with their radio; they blew through a red light, hit my car, and I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, my car, reshaped like an accordion, was spinning and sliding down Hastings Street, with me inside of it, still reeling from the force of impact.
Up until that moment, I’d been balancing a couple of roles. On the one hand, I was a student, working on a Masters in Criminology, and on the other, I was a English teacher, with a precarious job at a local university. Still, even with what amounted to two jobs, I’d been managing to get some writing done.
But after the accident, that changed. I first cut down, then abandoned my criminology degree—and at the same time, I reduced my teaching load. I found myself with more time then ever, but I got less writing done.
I still wrote a little. Well, I typed, at any rate. But what I managed to write did not contain all of the words I wanted it to: I’d had a concussion and for months, I found myself forced to write around whatever [word] I was looking for, using [square brackets] to hold space for some future revision that might—or might never—come. Still, these sets of brackets operated as an implicit promise to myself, that I’d one day come back and fill in those blanks.
* * *
During the first six months of the pandemic, my writing slowed down again. I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I’d planned to. In the early months of Covid, I’d find myself staring at whatever page I was writing (or reading), only to realize I’d drifted off a while ago, though I had no recollection of where my mind had gone.
I don’t consider it writer’s block, though—simply the kind of diffused consciousness most of us have been experiencing of late, to one degree or another. External stressors—whether a pandemic, or poverty, or oppression, or all these and more—can wear anyone down, dulling even the most razor-sharp focus.
For me, all of this was made worse by insomnia.
Sleep is something I approach as though it’s one part rocket science and one part sacred ritual. But during Covid, sleep has been elusive. What’s more, it’s as if some invisible force has thinned the walls of our apartment, because I can now hear every single cough in the adjoining suite. And without sleep, writing—like everything—is exponentially more difficult to do.
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Still, I wouldn’t say that’s writer’s block—only the conditions in which I’m working.
As badly as the writing goes, some days, I still put in the chair time, even if it feels like I’m only going through the motions. Every day, I get up and sit down at the computer and put down words—however terrible the words, however wrong the order—because now and then, the writing takes off—and that feeling is just about the best one I know. But even when the writing doesn’t catch fire, it’s still important to put in the time—to go through the motions—because, here’s the thing, the motions matter.
It doesn’t matter to me if the writing goes badly, or if what I write is incomplete, so long as I write something. Sometimes, to get to whatever it is I’m after—I have to write some pretty terrible drafts. Somehow, the graveyard of drafts, the bones of former characters, the rubble of failed story lines, all of these build up—mound up—become a kind of scaffolding. I guess, for me, it’s a process that’s the opposite of attrition. The drafts I write may be terrible and temporary and adjacent to what I’m really after—but they form the scaffolding around what I’m aiming for—offering me a way to climb up and get a better view. And what’s more, sometimes, when I step back and look at the scaffold I’ve built, I can finally perceive, for the first time, the negative shape of the very thing I’m aiming at.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Anne Stone is the author of four novels, Delible (2007), Hush (1999) and jacks: a gothic gospel (1998), and her newest book, Girl Minus X. She is currently at work on a collection of short fiction. She spent her childhood in Toronto, lived in Montreal, and now makes her home in Vancouver, where she teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Capilano University.