If you watch a kettle boil when making a cup of tea, you’ll notice three things. First, it’s boring, and you feel like you’re wasting time. Second, time itself seems to slow down, right before it boils. It’s as if those pesky water molecules need an extra kicking to get them to dance around more and actually boil. Third, it goes quiet before it actually boils. The calm before the storm. There’s a fourth thing, too. If you think, ‘to hell with it, it’s hot enough’, and decide to make the tea anyway without letting the water boil, it won’t taste as good.
What’s this got to do with writing and writer’s block?
Sometimes writing flows from your fingertips. I’m writing a new book, and the prologue and first ten chapters just fell from the keys on my laptop. Bliss. Then I hit chapter eleven. I wrote three pages and… stopped. I haven’t typed another word for two weeks. Writer’s block.
Am I afraid?
As a psychologist, I studied how creativity works at university. There’s something called incubation theory. Great scientists didn’t sit down one day and say, ‘I’m going to write a universe-shattering theory today.’ They’d learn everything they could, think about it until they were going crazy, and then one day, out of the blue, they’d suddenly see the answer. What was interesting is that most of these scientists had the same ‘kettle’ experience of supposedly dead time, where they weren’t learning anything knew. Like the water molecules, the neurons in their brains just needed more time to re-group, to re-align to see things from a slightly different perspective, and then, hey presto, time to write that Nobel prize-winning paper.
Back to writer’s block. What’s holding me back on chapter eleven? Basically the original way forward I had in mind isn’t singing to me anymore. I need to write something better. But I can’t / won’t write until I see that new way forward.
Some people say you should write every day, e.g. 500 or 1000 words. Doesn’t work for me. I only write when I have something to say. Otherwise I feel I’m teaching myself to write badly.
So, what do I do? Do I watch the kettle boil? Yes, and no. I sit, sometimes for a couple of hours, trying to work out a way forward, making illegible notes on small pieces of paper. Seriously, my handwriting is that bad. It doesn’t matter, because this is process, not product. I’m banging my head against this literary wall in my mind, trying to break through, so it doesn’t matter if I can’t decipher the notes later.
And I read. Same genre, someone I aspire to, though that doesn’t mean I want to copy them. And I do other stuff, what non-writers call ‘real life’. It’s not so bad. Really.
And then one day, it goes quiet in my mind. The calm before the storm. Then the rumbling. The molecules get off their asses, the neurons re-align, and a shaft of light, maybe just a glimmer, breaks through. It’s enough. I grab my laptop. I can’t type fast enough. Anyone that tries to bother me will wish they hadn’t. The internet stays off. Phones go unanswered. I write. The story pours through my fingertips.
Usually after several hours, the chapter is done. It’s rough, it will need a lot of editing, but I’m happy with it. I go make a cup of tea. And while the kettle is boiling, I think about the next chapter, and the one after, already unfolding in my mind. I know in a few weeks, or a few months, that writer’s block will be back to haunt me. Am I afraid? Nope. It’s a natural part of the writing process. It makes our writing better.
Okay. The kettle has boiled. Tea time. Chapter eleven, here we come!
J.F. Kirwan's novel 66 Metres is now available from Amazon here.