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 voilĂ , 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.


  1. True, I've never really attributed any lack of writing to a "writer's block." In fact, I generally have all three of the problems you listed. No time, too tired, and problems with details of the story. Of course, now that I write that down... it sounds a lot like excuses.

    For me, what solves not writing is forcing myself to write. Getting past the notion that every time I put pen to paper it must be gold. I can write utter crap so long as it keeps me writing. It's not only practice getting into a groove, it also helps when I notice what I'm doing wrong in the process. If I write a horrible piece, and I know it's horrible, and I know what is horrible about it, next time I won't do those same things.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Colin. You gave me a whole new post idea.

  3. Oh good. I had a feeling that post was about the same subject. I'm glad you posted it. I feel like I'm at a point where I'm just pushing forward just to push forward. Your post on Striving for Perfection is really that next step. It's something I can lift my head up and look forward to.

    As for the time being, I'll keep my head down and nose to the grindstone. I have my work cut out for me.

  4. Colin,

    It's always hard to get to the end of that first big project, the one that is closest to our hearts. You just have to keep going and see it through, because it's worth it. You learn a lot in the process, even if that book never makes it onto the publishing stage.

    I'm still hoping that my first big project will see the light of publishing - but I'm certain it won't be the first book I publish. Hopefully by the time I've got someone asking for the novel, I'll be capable of making it the great book I've always wanted it to be.

    Find a story; believe in it, finish it. The only reasons to stop in the middle for revisions is if for some reason your characters aren't carrying the story as you want, or if the plot peters out because the structure is wandering away from the main conflict.

    You can do it.

  5. There is a scientific equation that determines my writing output: w = tm2

    Writing equals the time I can steal away from tasks that I'm supposed to be doing, multiplied by the power of the muse, to the power of 2 ('cos I'm typing really fast).

    In other words, yes, there are times when life gets in the way of fiction.

  6. Thanks again for the encouragement Juliette. It really helps. I'm hoping to actually get started on the writing part of things pretty soon here...

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  8. >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.

    Oh, yes, I made this important realization myself at some point. I gradually learned that when I found myself stuck or blanking out (or just not finding any new ideas to be valid), it might be because I made a choice to take the story in a direction it didn't want to go. Sometimes by backing up a little bit to the problem spot, the ideas start flowing again when I take a better direction.

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