To Open Myself to Possibilities

To Open Myself to Possibilities
"The word becomes an alibi." — Roland Barthes

I have writer's block. And this is how it feels: it feels like the start of a conversation—that terrific moment when you know you're going really get into something, and you can see the arguments, the relevant ideas, and all the spaces between that will fill with some newly created understanding: created between you and your friend, you and your colleague, you and the reflection of you created by your words—but the pregnant pause comes too early, and lasts too long, and then the quiet takes over and there arrives a silent agreement to change the subject. A bird chirps. You remember you are a little depressed today. The press of work clangs in the back of your mind. And it turns out today isn't the day for new ideas, but just the treadmill of the regular.

Not that writing cannot happen when life is regular. Writing, I think, needs some steadiness to occur. Not monotonous steadiness, though, because it's activity that spurs writing: things that happen that need a human mind and a human story to make them make sense; or to point out their illogic; or to speak sympathies with those who do not understand why there is pain, anguish, heartbreak, self-destructiveness amidst a humanity that pines, despite itself, for succour, relief, love, self-actualisation. Writing would not happen if it didn't need to happen.

But still, writing needs some steadiness to occur. Uncertainty is no one's good muse; and so when the weather cannot be trusted, when we are afraid of despots, when our friends are no longer our friends, when we are laid off, when people or dogs die, when we are not sure what love should look like, it becomes difficult to write. One day, these difficulties will settle into the fabric of our memories and feed the narratives we want to weave; but when we are rocked by them (or waiting on tenterhooks to be rocked by them), then the blank spaces where fresh ideas could flow instead get filled with worry, or with resolve.

Writing also needs audience, someone who needs you to write. I asked students of creative writing a very long time ago why writer's write, and the answers were genuine: for self-expression, to be published, to be known, etc. But the answer I asked them to struggle with a bit was "because someone, somewhere, needs to hear your story."

Writing can be a kind of rescue—for those who cannot find their voices, for those who are silenced, for those for whom uncertainty beleaguers them too much and too consistently to write. But they can read. And when they read, they go looking for respite, for representation, for acknowledgement, for a connection through the writer's words back to their world. Readers find themselves in the words we write, and so for a moment they can relax and know they aren't alone.

When a writer goes too long without a sense of purpose, or when a writer goes too long in a state of uncertainty, all of their conversations begin to feel like only the beginnings of conversations, and silence occupies them. The force of this is deadly.

(I feel I must acknowledge AI.) For these and other reasons, turning to generative AI writing tools is not a solution for writer's block. Writing is a deeply personal act, a commitment to personal reflection; it is a precarious act, wherein the writer balances between what word to say and what word to omit. In between the vacancy of the period at the end of a sentence and the letter that begins the next sentence there is as much ripe as rife. An artificial intelligence cannot fathom the weight of that vacancy, takes no time to consider it. Just as in conversations pauses are important, so too in writing the moment between not-knowing what to say and discovering what to say is part of the fabric of what makes writing possible. An AI cannot experience writer's block, and therefore it's not the correct tool to ply for its solution.

Writing, Roland Barthes writes, is "a horizon", "it is a field of action, the definition of, and hope for, a possibility" (Writing Degree Zero, p. 9). For the writer, letters and words are windows out upon that horizon, and the act of writing is an adventure forth into it. Writing is the way a writer discovers their world and the world—the world of others, the world of plants and animals, the world that sings between atoms as much as between galaxies. "Writing ... is always rooted in something beyond language, it develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti-communication, it is intimidating" (p. 20).

So when we describe, or try to describe, writer's block we need to think of this as a more fraught state than the words describe. A writer who cannot write, around and within whom an unpeaceful silence swirls, is a person living in a world without windows, without horizons. This is to live a life with an itch that never subsides and which cannot be reached to scratch. Writing is the means by which a writer makes sense of their world, and in some small part, the world. "It is by writing," Maxine Greene tells us, "that I often manage to name alternatives and to open myself to possibilities. This is what I think learning ought to be" (Releasing the Imagination, p. 107).

Writer's block, then, is that state in which a writer can no longer name alternatives, possibilities, in which they cannot learn the way that most best suits them; it is a space void of critical imagination.

I have had writer's block for two years now. I've waited upon the return of my voice, my interpretive stance, a conversation between me and words wherein the silences get filled with ideas I've not had before or heard before, and that I hope will have meaning for a reader or two. But the ideas fly as soon as they arrive, and they have done for many months.

Overcoming writer's block is not a matter of simple tricks, or "just starting to write." Overcoming writer's block begins when we find a window to open again; or when we decide to break open the walls around us to see the horizon.