Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More on hypergraphia and writer's block

After my post called "Insanity and Creativity" was featured on the SF network site "Red Rocket Station," I had a few interesting comments there, most of which said something like the following:

Hypergraphia? Can I please have some?

Really, I don't think these people want hypergraphia. I mean, the Marquis de Sade apparently had hypergraphia, which is why when people took his quills away he found all kinds of awful ways to keep writing. Hypergraphia is an obsession with writing, where you'll write on anything, with anything, just for the feeling of the writing and the words coming out.

What I think these people really want is to avoid writer's block.

Janice has a great post on writer's block on her blog, here. Maybe she and I are just fortunate, but we never feel like we have writer's block - at least, not per se.

For me the question of not being able to write boils down to three major factors.

One: having no time to write
This is not writer's block. I get frustrated because often I'll have thoughts flying through my head but I won't have a moment to sit down alone at the computer and actually get them down. Sure, sometimes I use a little notebook. Mostly - and my friends will attest to this, Janice particularly - I corner someone and talk my ideas out. Talking ideas out helps me to solidify them, to test their relevance to what I'm writing and see how they fit into the story structure as a whole.

Two: being too exhausted to write
This happens, far more often than I'd like. I get so underwater with all the other demands of my life that the words just go to sleep. Often I'll think of sitting down to write, and then decide other priorities have to come first. And then something unexpected will happen. And then it will be the weekend. And then the kids will have the day off school on Monday or something. And pretty soon I'll find that I haven't written for days. It takes a while before I can wake up the system after that. So I edit. I read what I've written. I read what other people have written. I take a Ridiculously Close Look at something. All of these things help to wake up my drowsy Muse.

Three: being stuck on a story problem
Okay, so let's say I'm writing along, and suddenly I run out of things to say. The scene, which seemed to be going so well, just peters out. Or the novel starts losing momentum. That's when I know that something is wrong. It's not writer's block, because it's not something that's wrong with me. Something is wrong with the story. I call this a story problem. Generally speaking, a story problem turns out to be a question I haven't answered properly. Maybe I don't really understand the main character's state of mind in this scene (this is why I'm fanatical about writing in chronological order). Maybe I don't understand the motives of the peripheral actors in the scene. Or maybe I haven't really thought through how the logistics need to work. It's always something practical: some detail I've missed, or some angle I haven't considered. Usually the problem isn't even in the place where the writing started to get slow. Two days ago I got stuck writing a conversation between two people on page 224. After lots of thinking and several conversations on the topic with different people, I realized that in order to solve the problem, I had to go back to page 208 and think through every detail of my main character's state of mind, specifically, what models she was using to understand her situation and how and where these changed and developed. Once I could track that, I could go back and understand how she would interpret something in the tricky conversation. And voilà, today I'm starting on page 232.

Mind you, I believe in writer's block. I wouldn't say it doesn't exist. But I would encourage you to think through the reasons why the words aren't coming out right now. If it's no time to write, take notes and go back later. If it's exhaustion, take your time and do other things to wake your Muse up rather than banging your head on your notebook or computer. If it's a story problem, use whatever means you can - research, conversation, brainstorming exercises, structural revision, etc. - to address the issue, making sure not to blame the problem entirely on the area where it occurs, but to look earlier in the manuscript for possible sources of the problem.

Then maybe you won't need those hypergraphia pills that someone was asking me for.