Some writers take never having a dry spell as a point of pride. “Oh,” they’ll say, smiling faintly with disdain, “I don’t get writer’s block. My imagination is always flowing. Writer’s block is really just unwillingness to work.”
My imagination is always flowing too. Right now, I am happily imagining those writers slowly sinking into a bog. They don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late. Their cries of despair warm my withered heart.
The thing is…I used to be one of them. I used to be smug. I was sure I would never have a dry spell. The stories were everywhere, right? They were, metaphorically speaking, ripe fruit hanging from the branches of a highly symbolic tree, just waiting to be picked. All I had to do was reach out and take them.
There are many reasons the metaphorical story fruit may vanish from the symbolic branches. Hell, there are many non-reasons too. Inspiration doesn’t need a reason to disappear. But I’d like to focus on one of the fruit scourges many never imagine will be a problem. I’d like to talk a bit about what happens when a life-changing event comes along and, well, changes your life. What you may not realise at the time is that it can also change your writing.
My mother started exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease a few years before her diagnosis in 2011. In movies and TV shows, Alzheimer’s is often portrayed in the early stages, with a character maybe forgetting a few words every once in a while, or in what the writers imagine are the late stages, with a character sitting at a window and staring blankly out of it for hours. The truth of the disease is much more complex and messy. I felt as if my mother were being taken away from me piece by piece. Horribly, as the disease consumed her, it also seemed to consume my memories of her as she had been. I still have a hard time remembering my mum before Alzheimer’s. She turns up in my dreams sometimes, but she’s gone in the morning.
The seven-odd years of my mother’s disease comprised the longest dry spell I had ever suffered. It wasn’t a complete dry spell—I wrote comics and music in that period, and I did work on novels and novellas—but it was a time in which the stories seemed to dry up. I couldn’t finish a novel. The stories had beginnings but no endings. I would go for a walk, and instead of spending the walk dreaming up stories, I would find that my mind was a roaring blank. All the old stories, the ones that had occupied my imagination for years and that I had been sure I would get around to writing one day, seemed suddenly flimsy and juvenile.
This was all happening as what would become my first published novel was slowly working its way through the submission, acceptance, and publication processes. It felt sometimes as if Weave a Circle Round would be the last novel I would ever write: as if the stories were gone forever, just when I desperately needed them. I spent a lot of time in tears. I was losing my mother, and I was losing my creativity.
It’s hard to see the cause of the dry spell when you’re right in the middle of it. It took me until some months after my mother’s death in December of 2016 before I even realised that my grief and my writer’s block were connected. I’m pretty sure it was the realisation itself that started me writing again. I went back to a novel I had failed to finish during my seven-year drought, started from scratch, and wrote it all the way through. As I did so, however, I discovered something else.
Somewhere in those seven years, my writing process had changed.
Before my mum got sick, writing was easy. I would sit down at my computer, the world would disappear, and the words would flow out onto the page. I could write a novel in a month and a half. Now the writing was coming in fits and starts. I kept having to go back and rewrite chapters. One chapter needed to be completely reworked three times before I could move on; I later rewrote it twice more. I got to the end of the novel, but I had to delete the entire climax and try again. The story seemed to be fighting me. The words wouldn’t obey. Where I’d once soared on the wings of poesy, now I was hacking my way through a swamp full of spiky, thorny words that wanted to hurt me back.
I discussed this with another writer on Twitter at one point. She was going through some devastating grief of her own and was struggling to come out of a dry spell. It was, she said, going slowly: she still hadn’t finished anything, but she was inching along, writing two novels at once, something she had never done before in her life.
Maybe, I said, you’re now the kind of person who writes two novels at once.
It was a lightbulb moment for both of us. Maybe we were both different people now. Maybe being a different person meant you also had to be a different writer. And maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
It’s possible I’ve been struggling so much with my new novel because I’ve been trying to write it as if it’s one of my old novels. I need to grab a clue from my beloved Samuel Taylor Coleridge and approach my writing as someone who has made it all the way through the Ancient Mariner’s story and come out the other side sadder and wiser. The dry spells caused by traumatic life events aren’t fun, but they may just be trying to tell us something.
So if you find yourself in this position, don’t just sit there silently plotting to boil cheerful writers who never ever have writer’s block in oil. Think about why the dry spell is happening. If it’s just a random visitation from the Writing Gods, so be it, but if you’re locked in a futile struggle with the ghost of your old self, pause a bit and try to get to know whoever you are now. The writing process isn’t the same for everyone, and it may not remain the same for you throughout your life. You may eventually find you’re the kind of person who writes two novels at once, or who needs to rewrite huge swathes of the story multiple times, or who approaches characterisation differently, or who needs stricter deadlines, or who has developed an unexpected love affair with enormously long sentences, or who suddenly does more subplots, or who leans towards science fiction instead of fantasy, or who is more interested in picture books than novels, or who has an overpowering urge to produce a musical about bees. Get to know the person you are at the moment, and listen to what she has to say.
You never know: someday, she too may be the kind of writer who soars on the wings of poesy.
Kari Maaren is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and academic who has no spare time. Her first novel, the Andre Norton-nominated Weave a Circle Round, was published by Tor Books in 2017. She has a completed webcomic, West of Bathurst, and an active one, It Never Rains, and she has produced two CDs, Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off and Everybody Hates Elves. She is fond of time travel and titles that begin with “W.”