Oh, the Irony (or, Writers Block as a Greek Tragedy)

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I am always a little scared to use the word irony in a sentence. People who know the true meaning of irony seem to get awfully angry – or at least sickeningly patronising – when somebody uses it the wrong way. Poor old Alanis Morissette. So I generally try to avoid it altogether.

Nevertheless, I am feeling a little brave today. Irony, according to the Oxford dictionary, is the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect; a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result; and a literary technique (dramatic or tragic irony), originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character's words or actions is clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character. I think my situation falls within the realm of the second definition. Maybe. To be honest, I don’t really know.

Anyway, what I was going to say, and please don’t crucify me if I have this wrong, was that isn’t it ironic that the day I sit down to write a post about the nonexistence of writer’s block, I have writer’s block? Well? Is that the correct usage? Hm. Actually, don't tell me. I'm sensitive like that.

My intended denunciation of writer’s block was inspired, in part, by Phillip Pullman’s damning dismissal of it:

Writer's block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber's block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don't want to do it, and you can't think of what to write next, and you're fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don't feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn't find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!” he said.

Writer's block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren't serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they're not inspired as when they are.

He’s not the only one. Cyrese Covelli says: Writer's block doesn't exist...lack of imagination does. Warren Ellis opines: Writer's block? I've heard of this. This is when a writer cannot write, yes? Then that person isn't a writer anymore. I'm sorry, but the job is getting up in the fucking morning and writing for a living. My favourite tweeter Steve Martin jokes: Writers block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.

Harsh, yes? I think I needed to hear it, though. "Writer's block" evokes the idea of a kind of ailment; one which is out of the writer's control and can only be overcome with time or, as Pullman says icily, inspiration. I think these writers are right when they say that writer's block is an excuse concocted by failing, depleted wordsmiths, whose self-doubts are quelling their creative spirit. Clearly, it is something that needs to be conquered, if I ever want to succeed as a writer.

As superficial as it may seem, however, I suspect that I would feel a whole lot more inspired to write if I were being paid for my troubles. If writing were, as I hope it one day will be, my vocation. Maybe if I were, if not financially compensated, well-regarded. Honestly, I think it would be enough to be instilled with some sort of confidence that I was on the right path. Some assurance that my efforts are not for nothing; that they are leading somewhere worthwhile. 

That is why, I think, aspiring writers tend to be at their best when they are locked inside a little bubble, spurred on by a sudden spark of inspiration that envelopes their being, shielding them from their self-doubts. As much as I write for the love of writing, it often seems fruitless. Which doesn’t make me want to stop writing altogether, but does hinder my completion or commencement of things because, let's face it, it is scary to think that I am expending all my time, energy and passion going about things the wrong way (if there is such a thing). So that is why I continually search for inspiration, trying to look for a sign, attempting to find something unique and brilliant inside of me, which will set me apart from all the rest.

And here I can use the third definition of irony, which is that of a Greek tragedy. I am the character, you are the audience. Reading this, you are all thinking, "So, aspiring writer, here is your problem in a nutshell: You cannot write, because you want to be a writer, and you are not." The solution is, obviously, to write. Argh! 

I think the best advice I have ever received is from Susan Maushart, in an interview I conducted for this blog. Her advice for aspiring writers: Write as if it were a job, not a hobby (or it always will be). There it is: the key. Whenever I feel myself becoming paralysed by writer's block, I should place myself under a delusional spell. Imagining that writing is my job. Imagining that I don't have an exam tomorrow or a shift at work in an hour. Imagining that people are reading my writing. Imagining that I am being paid hundreds of dollars to write a column. And maybe one day, my imaginings will come true.

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