Writers’ Block

I have writers’ block. It’s not that I can’t write anything, it’s that I can’t finish it.

I have at least a dozen essays ranging in degree of completion from a bare skeleton or a couple of paragraphs to three-quarters finished. I even have one that’s finished but just doesn’t seem quite right. It needs revision, but I can’t work out how to revise it. It seems it might be easier to throw it away and start again.

Each essay was started in a rush of enthusiasm. The words poured onto the page. But the torrent gradually slowed. In each case I finally realised I had written myself into a corner. I had raised too many questions, or bypassed issues that were too crucial. Or what had started out meaning to be a cool analysis had ended up being too passionately opinionated.

It seems to me that there are two polar opposites of how to approach writing.

One is to just write intuitively, whatever words come into one’s head, and see where it leads.

The other is to meticulously plan the structure, mapping out the points one wishes to make by a skeleton of headings and subheadings. Then fill in the detail.

With the latter, one can get good structure, but it sometimes lacks heart.

The former – the ‘stream of consciousness’ approach – has heart, but often ends up in a blind alley, with nowhere to go. Or it can end up lopsided, with 500 words spent on one viewpoint and only 100 on the alternative with which the essay seeks to contrast it. Does that matter? I don’t know, but it seems to.

You can tell from the third paragraph of this essay that most of my recent efforts have used the stream of consciousness approach. This one has too. Perhaps if I keep it short enough it won’t get lost.

I’m pretty sure the best approach is somewhere between those two poles. There needs to be some planning, but there also needs to be spontaneity. It is striking that balance that I find so difficult. Things always seem to want to lurch towards one or the other of the extremes. It can be quite dispiriting.

Am I being too self-critical? I read many, many essays and non-fiction works and most of them seem to me to be poorly written and in most cases far too verbose. Even with David Hume, whom I revere, I sometimes find myself thinking ‘what was the purpose of that paragraph? Haven’t you already made that point?’

Perhaps most essayists write from stream of consciousness, and just don’t worry much about whether they are being as clear, ordered and succinct as they would ideally wish.

But like many people, I am my own harshest critic. Perhaps the difference is that, if I am reading something written by someone else and find it is not grabbing me, I infer that it may be my lack of concentration that is the problem, rather than a lack of writing quality. But if it is something I wrote, then I am to blame, whether it’s poor reading or poor writing, so I may as well blame the writing, and I do.

Well then. I shall post this essay, as a heartfelt expression of my annoyance, and then stumble off to look at the jumble of my mixed-up writings to see if anything can be salvaged. There’s always the possibility that they could be of posthumous interest as what they call ‘fragments’. After all, Heraclitus is known only from his fragments, and some of Nietzsche’s and Kafka’s interesting ideas are in their fragments. I am not Heraclitus, nor Nietzsche nor Kafka, but maybe if some relation or associate of mine becomes extremely famous, my fragments might attract the interest of their biographers.

In the meantime, here is a fragment to create the illusion of momentum. Perhaps that will be sufficient, via some sort of placebo effect, to generate some genuine momentum that will save those poor languishing part-finished essays.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, May 2014