People talk about writer’s block. The unforgiving blank page, screaming “Create, why don’t you?” while the writer sits there almost unable to move. But that’s not where the problem lies. It’s not a problem with getting started, with coming up with something, inventing or developing a story, of finding something to say.
As soon as you start begins the struggle to eliminate everything you don’t want to say.
Language intimidates because it’s just so big, hovering over us, all around us, it contains everything and connects everything to everything else if you’re not careful. As soon as you begin to work with it, it’ll take off in every and any direction it can and lead you off in directions you’d never imagined. And that’s where the block comes from. It’s the stultifying fear of an impending runaway multiplication of meanings and possibilities once words start to be put onto paper.
It’s like being given the key to a formula 1 racing car when all you want to do is drive to the supermarket. You just know all hell will break loose once you get started and no matter how careful you are, it will probably end in disaster and you still won’t have got your groceries.
Actually, it’s worse than that. There are so many ways in which language is just waiting to screw you over. Not just meaning either; that would be relatively easy. Language offers dictionaries, encyclopedias and now online thesauri and the like to lull you into a false sense of control. No, it’s not meaning in any straightforward sense that’s waiting to get you. It’s rhythm. Rhyme. Sound. It’s history. It’s other stuff readers have read. Stuff that maybe you haven’t, so you won’t even know you’ve been hoodwinked. Your writing and whatever you intended to say with it has escaped your best efforts at containment and is now interacting with all sorts of unintended references, connections, similarities and the like. It’s a kid with an internet connection. “Where the hell did it get that from?” you think, even as you do your best to keep it on the straight and narrow.
So thanks to language’s profligacy, your effort is not so much to create as to curtail. You are constantly applying the brakes, pruning the suckers, fencing off, deodorizing, bleaching and disinfecting.
Take technical writing:
“Dissolving sutures will likely kill the patient. Use permanent ones.”
Great, that’s exactly what I needed to say. It’s serious, direct, and to the point. Unless..wait:
Will likely kill the patient.
Use permanent ones.
Damn, it’s an unintended haiku.
Or how about a poignant moment:
“You must know, Marjorie, I’m not going to give up. No, I’m never going to give up on you. And I’ll never let you down, Marjorie.”
Your writing at its most intense has escaped and mated with the Rick Astley song.
“At one time he thought he could find it in teachers, or mystics, or gurus. But in years of devotion to spiritual studies the meaning of life had escaped him.”
The rogue rhythm of a limerick crept in. But at least you avoided the intrusive rhyme, which even without the accompanying rhythm distracts from the point you’re trying to make:
“We at First Bank do not take your trust lightly; it’s something we strive every day to earn. And your security is always our primary concern.”
No, no, no says language, you don’t get off so lightly. Work harder. You’re a handyman? I’ll destroy your pitch by mentioning widow replacement. Writing about a tragic fisherman? I’ll make readers consider his Achilles eel don’t worry. Now get back to your righting.
So the struggle with language’s fundamentally uncontrollable and explosive nature begins with the first sentence, when you review it to see where it went while you weren’t looking. And it continues from there, until you realize your entire first paragraph sounds like that poem about the roads less travelled, or there’s something about it that reminds you of one of the Star Wars stories, or you think Shakespeare said something similar — and probably in one line or less.
Turns out the blank page is the only point at which you’re completely in control. Enjoy it; it’s all downhill from there.