From The Smart Set:
It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up one morning to find myself unable to write creatively. For months, I could eke out a story or group of poems, but all attempts at another novel arrived stillborn, exhausting themselves after a few thousand words. My father suggested I had a form of postpartum depression, that seeing my first novel in print, and therefore out of my hands, was too much of a shock, temporarily. I didn’t have the heart to tell him this had been going on for years.
I finished a decent draft of my novel in 2015, made revisions based on a publisher’s interest in 2017, and sold it to him later that year. The editorial process spanned 18 months, but I had plenty of downtime between rounds of edits to work on something new. A colleague inquired about just this at one point, mentioning, “I hear you’re supposed to have a draft of the next thing by the time the previous book comes out.” I smiled, nodded, and assured him I was on my way.
That year, I even tried NaNoWriMo.
Soon, the stories dried up, followed by the poems within a semester. I took an online “poetry salon,” recycling work I’d set aside for the lean months. For a flash-fiction workshop, I generated a few thousand words, most of them rescued from earlier failures. After spending 500 dollars on these two courses, I had yet to spur myself into action. By the time the first box of copies of my novel arrived, the climate in my mind had grown hostile to new growth.
Around this time, I reread my copy of Richard Ford’s “Goofing Off While the Muse Recharges,” which I’d discovered almost 20 years earlier and had used as cover to justify periods of inactivity in graduate school. Bemused by his friends’ discomfort with fallow periods, Ford crows, “I have made a strict point to take lavish periods away from writing.” He defends his choice by arguing that “I’ve never thought of myself as a man driven to write. I simply choose to do it, often when I can’t be persuaded to do anything else.” Even as an MFA student with limited experience with Ford’s oeuvre, I didn’t buy this. I knew he wasn’t Simenon, Balzac, or Stephen King, but he couldn’t create Frank Bascombe as a diversion between baseball seasons. Later in the essay, he quotes Henry James’s admonition that one must fill one’s “well of unconscious cerebration,” though I doubt the famously-prolific James did so by taking off as much time as Ford does.
. . . .
The publication process hasn’t helped. Someone who read my novel as soon as it came out tried to commiserate with me when I confessed my frustrations by saying, “given a chance, people will always disappoint you.” This has been the case more often than I would like to admit. Some of those I’d given advanced copies to, out of friendship and gratitude for their support, haven’t read it; most of the universities I attended, not to mention the one I work for, have responded with indifference; acquaintances tell me one day, animatedly, that they’re reading it but avert their gaze days later, having either abandoned it or disliked it by the end, I don’t know which. Many have responded kindly, posting glowing reviews online, but what writer remembers those in light of rejection or the revelation of unexpected petty grievances?
Link to the rest at The Smart Set
PG can understand burnout, but isn’t sure if writer’s block is a variant or something different.
Legal writing is its own genre, one with some relatively strict rules concerning forms (how you cite statutes and cases, etc.), but litigation documents are written to persuade and, while some judges will say attempts to appeal to their emotions are a waste of time and paper, PG’s approach assumes that the judge wants to feel like he/she is doing the right thing, so PG essentially tries to show the judge a pathway to the right thing bordered with precedent, rules and statutes that assure the judge that no one will accuse her/him of ruling on the basis of emotion rather than law and fact.
(Yes, PG noticed that was quite a long sentence, but he was on a mental roll and didn’t want to stop. It may be his only mental roll for the day.)
Mrs. PG, the author who PG knows best, typically takes a bit of time off between books, but she says writing is generally good for her mental health and enjoys it while it’s happening.
PG suspects that, at least in some cases, writer’s block is related to an underlying mental illness of mild or extreme severity but he is anything but an expert on the topic.