Writer’s block: know when to run

writer's block: we start young

writer’s block: we start young

This writer’s block thing…

My first experience with writer’s block was in Grade X. Every week, our English Language and English Literature teacher, Fr. Eugene L Watrin, SJ—I am sure that perfectionist’s soul is feasting on the Library of Heaven—set us two essays to write as homework. That particular day, I came to school essayless, after the first writer’s block of my life that I can remember had set in the previous evening. English Language was the second class of the day; the first was Chemistry. The prescribed routine for writing essays was: write a draft first, edit it, proofread it, title it and then write the final copy.

As the Chemistry teacher droned on about the fascinating world of interacting molecules and atoms, I slipped away. I wrote that essay—the final copy first and then the draft, in which I made deliberate mistakes and corrections. It was the first reverse engineering experience of my life that I can remember now, though I didn’t know it then.

I scored a 63 on that essay, and believe me, it was like the Nobel Prize for Literature or something, coming from Fr. Watrin. He was generous with the 30s, willing with the 40s and grudging with the 50s. Something in the 60s? Pure blue moon stuff. I set the record for the highest marks given on an essay by Fr. Watrin in the history of that boys-only school. I waltzed on the clouds all of a few months till the next year, when some cheating, plagiarizing creep one grade below scored 64!

…strikes even the young.

But that next year also brought along both the biggest writer’s block and the biggest achievement of my school life. The block hit when I was sitting at my assigned desk in the school library for the final round of the annual essay competition, an ultraprestigious event where the burning ambition for the boys of my school was to make sure the first prize did not go to girls-only St. Mary’s School, a 10-foot wall, a five-foot pathway and another 10-foot wall away if you had wings.

You see, the St. Mary’s girls were great for exercising your hormones on by way of taunts, catcalls, wolf whistles and love letters, even if it meant scaling walls, getting reported by mean Gurkha watchmen and having Mother Rita, the Mother Superior, rat to Fr. Leo P Cachat, SJ, the Principal. That usually resulted in a stern warning from Fr. Cachat at assembly the next morning, with promises of more dire consequences for repeat offenders. But heaven forbid that those St. Mary’s bimbos, with their intellectually inferior genes, actually beat us in anything! If absolutely unavoidable, they could take second best, third best and every other best after that, but the first best was preordained; it was meant to be. It was the birthright of the boys. And the bookies had me as the pre-contest favorite.

In the final round of the contest, we were given two and a half hours to write our draft, fine tune it, write our finished product and hand both in. The subject was given to us 15 minutes before the start button on the timer was punched; it was “What you think should be the roles of modern women at home and outside?”

For one and a half hours, I sat there blocked out, unable to think of anything to write. My brain was like a camel with a mule’s soul: the more I pushed, the less it responded.

The other finalists kept staring at me, shaking their heads and gesturing with their hands, miming the act of writing and pointing at the paper on my desk. By the time the first half an hour had passed, it was obvious they were more uptight about me than about completing their own essays.

Ironically, I finally got moving on the essay when I stopped concentrating on it and started daydreaming. I studied the books all around me, identifying those I had read, assigning plots to the titles of those I thought I hadn’t read. Sometime during that activity, I started writing. I repeated old history: I wrote the fair copy first and did the draft second. I did not have enough time to finish camouflaging the draft, but it must have passed muster, because I did.

But you can get rid of it…

I do not remember which molecular or atomic reaction triggered that essay I wrote in Chemistry class; nor do I remember which spine chiller in the library finally got me unfrozen in that essay competition. In both cases, whatever it was magic wanded that old block out of the way without my noticing it.

After school, it took me more than three decades to get back to serious writing with a purpose. Life took me along other paths in the interim. Now, writer’s block has become such a close friend my shadow is jealous. You folks know all about it, of course.

Every now and then, you sit at your desk, fire up your PC or laptop and find yourself all out of juice. For the nth random time, the block hobgoblin has struck, and you are experiencing a brown out. You try to switch to your reserve batteries, to force your brain to spark and your fingers to dance, to hit the first key in a journey of a thousand words.

You stay frozen.

Every session of this not-my-day kind is a climb up a cliff of snow and ice in a blizzard. Your mind has gone foggy, your screen remains pristine, your vocabulary is stuck at “What the hell is wrong with me?” and your keyboard remains unfulfilled. You jab at it every now and then, hoping your fingers and the keys will somehow pick up rhythm and start hustling. The only hustling is done by the delete and backspace keys.

You rifle through your old files. All the short stories you have written, and the novels you have abandoned. You scan through them, seeing if anything lights a fuse, sets off an explosion of ideas. And suddenly you are busy with self-recrimination.

“Did I write that?”

“Was I in my right mind when I wrote this?”

“Holy mother of Thalia, which reader in his right mind would want to read this crap?”

You close all opened files in a hurry. Seems like your block has not only closed the creative parts of your mind, it has also monsantoed your tastes. You did like what you wrote when you wrote it.

Before you delete the treasures that are your old files, give up.

…by moving on, leaving it behind

Writer’s block is an immovable object, and the more irresistible a force you try to be, the more immovable the block. The trick seems to lie in letting go. Wave the white flag; surrender and move away. The block is like an elusive name that tantalizes just beyond the edge of your reach. It comes to you effortlessly when you are not even thinking about it.


Try biology. Or any damn subject except writing. Go scan book spines at a library or a bookstore. Go visit a museum or a graveyard.

Get away, and have that old notebook and pencil ready.

writer's block: just let go

writer’s block: just let go

You got any other solutions for writer’s block? Let us know in the comments.

  • Great essay… except for the misogyny. 😉 I challenge you – to nanowrimo.org – starts tomorrow. Be there or be square.

    • venkyiyer58

      Holly, sorry for my dumb delay in response. Strangely, for the first time Disqus asked me to approve your comment before it got posted. Nanowrimo – sorry, not able to. Me best wishes for your participation. Misogyny: I plead guilty, but we were teenagers then. Thanks for the comment.

Writer’s block: know when to run

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 5 min