Mark A. Carter - novelist: unplugged

WRITER'S block:
dark corners, and burnout

World famous Canadian Science Fiction novelist Mark A. Carter discusses writer's block: dark corners and burnout.

As I see it, there are two kind of writer's block: writing yourself into a corner, and burnout. I will start this rant with a brief mention about writing yourself into a corner. But I want to focus most of this essay on the issue of burnout since it is the more serious manifestation of the two.

Writing yourself into a dark corner and coming to a complete, unrecoverable, dead stop is for amateurs. Oops. But it is avoidable. Careful story planning long before the writing commences is the solution to this problem. Take time before writing begins to do your research, decide character names, determine archetypes, and genre, work out the back stories, determine the story curve, the turns and twists, all of the details. It is common to have more written in the way of notes than the eventual length of the story. And that is the way it should be. If you do this, writing the story will be easy and uneventful. If your notes are scant, it is a warning sign that you are destined to have problems unless you have "talent on loan from God," to use a Rush Limbaugh catch phrase. So, take heed.

Burnout is another form of writer's block entirely. Reality and writing do not mix. If anything is currently happening in your life that distracts you enough from your solitary writing existence, you will not be able to write.

If you have an impending court date hanging over your head you will not be able to write until everything is completed and done. And that could be months or years not withstanding whether you are found guilty or innocent of whatever. Like a sword of Damocles, the experience takes its toll.

If you are ill and in hospital, the commotion and noise of the everyday and every night in and outs of staff will drive you mad, as will the lack of sleep, the chiming of intravenous drug dispensers, and the knowledge that you are likely to pick up a hospital acquired infection the longer you remain there. Treat all surfaces as contaminated.

Similarly, if you have recurring appointments with specialists, as I have had to receive shots in my eye balls, these outstanding appointments and the days that are lost without workable vision the day of the appointments, blow holes in your concentration.

And if you are planning to move from old digs to new and have to pack and do all of the little things that moving requires, you might as well just box your writing too because you're going on hiatus for a few months, baby. Packing, moving, digging out, painting, putting up shelves, pictures and paraphernalia will consume you. As will domestic disasters like water pouring into your freshly painting apartment from places above, weekly fire alarm tests, the Wednesday tests of your NOAA weather radio, and even leaving your apartment and being forced to talk with the hoi polloi when you go downstairs for the daily mail. Oi.

writer's block and other assorted psychological blocks

The longer you are away from the writing the easier it gets to waste time with trivia. You may want to write but you will not be able to. Your desire will be to write every day. Your raison d'être will call to you, as well it should. And being unfulfilled, you will be tormented. But you still won't be able to write. You will question everything you ever wrote and even consider yourself unworthy. Feelings of worthlessness will consume you. You may endeavor to rewrite old material. But in your current state of mind, you will destroy it. So, leave it alone.

 
the guts of my old typewriter reminiscent of Naked Lunch courtesy of a writer's block
WARNING: Take nothing apart during this mental state of disarray. You will disintegrate it. I recall attempting to perform a minor repair on a tub chair years ago when in this condition. And the destructive tendencies that come with burnout had me unravel the chair down to its wooden frame and then knock the frame apart. Touch no clock, computer, toaster, or what have you when in this psychological condition because you are a wrecking machine.

And once depression sets in, you might even consider ending it all like Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway did, during a bout of writer's block, by toeing the trigger of his favorite shotgun; "Danger, Will Robinson!" (Lost in Space, 1967, Season 3, Episode 11: "The Deadliest of the Species;") or like Virginia Wolfe did by filling her pockets with stones and drowning herself in the Ouse River near her home in Sussex. Suicide is such a self-indulgent waste.

Perhaps knifes or razor blades, wrists, and warm Roman baths are more to your liking. Or are you a pill popper? The problem with overdosing is sometimes it doesn't kill you, and you just end up permanently brain damaged and disabled, which is a hellish situation worse than death for anyone with an intellect. And avoid taking anti-depressants to remedy the funk of writer's block. A common side effect of anti-depressants is suicidal ideation. And there you are back again contemplating, bullet, pill, or hanging, as was my case when I was prescribed Paxil for pain. Personally, I feel safer taking 3-methylmorphine.

Whatever you are toying with, forget about it. Writer's block does indeed pass. You do have worth. Your writing is not as awful as you imagine in this wretched state. What you need is exercise; food, and by food I means fruit, vegetables, and lean meat; fresh air; sleep; and vitamins. And stop eating gluten. How gullible are you to believe that gluten free is really free of gluten. It's all advertising word games, baby. Eat gluten and you will continue to be physically sick and mentally blocked. You've read it here. So now you're no longer ignorant. Don't listen to sound advice and you're just plainly stupid. Oh well ...

"Experience teaches only the teachable." - Aldous Huxley

And watching the idiot's lantern is not the remedy. It is so dumbed down that you have to be stoned to watch it. It is visual anesthesia for the masses. Steer away from it. It will only make you more depressed. Specifically do not watch the news. Everything is propaganda. News is all about perpetual crisis, disaster, politics, sex, and violence designed to distract you and to emotionally upset you to the point of denial so you can join the hive mentality, get plugged in, and waste your time texting like the other happy, happy and oblivious campers out there. But who can write in that anesthetized mental state?

Check occasionally to see if you're still sane. If you've just written a manuscript repeating the backwards word: REDRUM, like Jack Torrance did in Stephen King's The Shining, you may have a problem.

 

REDRUM REDRUM REDRUM
 

Ask a friend for an opinion on your mental state or seek professional help. The voices in your head don't count. And stick to a schedule. Get out of bed every day. Make the bed. Shave. Take a shower for God's sake. Eat. Go for long walks. Get a haircut. These things will help.

As Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: "Don't Panic." Don't fight burnout writer's block. It occurs when it occurs as much as writing happens when it happens. You can't plan for it. You can't force the writing. Well, you can. But it will be shitty. Look at TV. It's full of it. My point is: embrace the block. Consider it an unplanned mental vacation. Get some sun. Smell the roses. Live a bit of life. Go to parties. Indulge in the stupidity of everyday conversation about people, politics, and the weather. There is no faster remedy to writer's block than the boring beyond belief hideous banality of conversations with fashionistas and glamazons at snotty art show openings, Friday evening cocktail parties, and Saturday afternoon barbeques. The intellectual vacuity of the gals at these galas may well shock you out of your morass and send you running back to your creative writing with renewed zeal. It's worth a try.

If you want to get back on the road to writing once again, select the music for your next writing assignment and play it over and over until it awakens your temporal cortex and your writing voice returns.

During these times of burnout, I fish the internet for photos of anything and everything. I have no agenda. I don't know what I'm looking for. I just look and let the links carry me where they do. And every once in a while I hook something that inspires and motivates me. If I may make a suggestion: I have always been inspired by the paintings of the masters. Perhaps you might be too.

So, if you are blocked and can't write your short stories or your next novel, avoid the indulgence of depression and do something to keep busy. Make notes on your next project. Build a morgue of photos. Or do something absolutely unrelated. Buy wood. Cut wood. Build a fence. Have a hobby that you fall back on during periods of writer's block. Play with those electric trains. Grow a tomato plant. Cook. Whatever. Keep busy and stay calm because adrenalin is the enemy of creativity. Know that the block will pass in its own sweet time. It is a refractory period, a necessary recovery time that the brain demands after intense creative endeavor. And it happens to us all. You are not alone. So, don't sweat it. Embrace it.

Yes, that's me writing.

 

Novelist Mark A. Carter writing

I know it's an occupational cliché, but I have been known to shut myself off from the world while in this state, go unshaven, and walk around for months within the confines of my small apartment, in my pajamas, blue housecoat, and slippers. It appears as if I'm doing nothing, frittering away my time watching movies on DVD, searching the internet, essentially wasting my time. I even get angry and frustrated at myself for not being a writing dynamo all the time even though I realize that it is impossible. Everybody eventually burns out. But I also know that a refractory period provides the fertile mental muck from which my next novel will spring.

After a period of play, and my play often means designing and building a new high voltage power supply for numerous helium-neon laser tubes that I have kicking around in my electronics junk boxes, it hits me that writing would be easier than my complex notion of play. So, I begin.

When your brain is sufficiently recovered, the switch will flip. You can't force it. It will happen when it happens. But it will indeed occur. Your thinking will suddenly illuminate. And you will go to town once again.

Read: Eye Candy
Fiction Bubble
Journal Infernal 
Killing Characters
Writer
Writing Tips

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - novelist

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