May. 26, 2009

Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow: Why Writers Get Stuck

For the last couple of weeks I have been struggling with a scene that just won’t come. The scene is an important one. It opens the second act of my novel and changes the tone of the book in important ways. It is no throwaway transition or plot-mover. It really has to work.

I am not “blocked.” I don’t believe writers’ block actually exists. Anyway, the trouble is not that I can’t write; the trouble is that I can’t write well. Everything I type feels cliched, phony, flat. It is crap — but there is no shortage of it. So, not blocked, merely stuck.

These stalled periods are always miserable. I feel anxious. Often I can’t sleep. A morning becomes a day becomes a week with no new pages, and I get increasingly nervous, short-tempered, gloomy, agitated. I try to hide all this anxiety from my kids (I have two little boys, ages five and eight), and my wife has learned to tolerate my stuck times, as well. But there is only so much I can do: when I am stuck, it is hard on everyone.

For writers, there isn’t a lot of support in this situation. “Write fast,” people tell you, or “turn off your internal editor” or that sort of thing. That is the common wisdom.

But I’d like to suggest that being stuck is natural, even inevitable. It is a necessary part of the creative process. Lord knows, I go through it often enough.

How do we know what is a natural part of creativity? The process is only dimly understood. There is no way to see into the mind as it creates (though we can increasingly see into the brain). But creative people have always been able to describe subjectively how it feels to create, and these descriptions do suggest patterns.

In 1926, Graham Wallas presented one of the first models of the creative process in a book called The Art of Thought. For Wallas, creativity occurred in five steps:

(i) preparation (preparatory work on a problem that focuses the individual’s mind on the problem and explores the problem’s dimensions),

(ii) incubation (where the problem is internalized into the unconscious mind and nothing appears externally to be happening),

(iii) intimation (the creative person gets a “feeling” that a solution is on its way),

(iv) illumination or insight (where the creative idea bursts forth from its preconscious processing into conscious awareness); and

(v) verification (where the idea is consciously verified, elaborated, and then applied).

These stages all ring true to me. After many days of anxiety, I woke up early last Thursday, before dawn, with a sudden awareness that I had cracked the problem. It was an intimation: I knew I would solve the problem the next day. I knew why the scene was not working. I still did not know how I would fix the scene, exactly. But I was cheerful and certain I would do it. I told my wife that morning, “It’s going to happen today.” And it did. I tore up my outline and reimagined the scene in a way that made it feel more fresh and inventive to me. I am still writing that scene, but I know now that I am on the right track.

To my fellow writers, I would like to offer a simpler way to think about this process: suck, squeeze, bang, blow.

It is an old phrase that describes how a common four-stroke engine works. The piston cycles down and up twice. (1) Down, and the expanding chamber is filled with gasoline mist — suck. (2) Up, and the gasoline mist is compressed in the shrinking chamber, which makes it more explosive — squeeze. (3) The spark plug ignites the compressed gasoline — bang — and the piston is blasted down again. (4) Up a second time, and the rising piston pushes any unburned gasses out of the chamber through an exhaust valve — blow. Then the cycle begins again. That’s what moves your car down the street: suck, squeeze, bang, blow.

Ideas work the same way. Your mind is an engine. The idea is sucked in: you turn to the scene you want to write, you begin to consider it. The idea is then squeezed, or “incubated,” to use Wallas’s word. Your brain has to work on the problem and keep working on it, squeezing it, until bang!, finally the breakthrough comes. Then comes the working-out, the actual implementation of the idea — the writing.

I do have a point with this tortured, silly metaphor. Fellow writers, the squeeze — that nerve-wracking, despairing period of waiting for the idea, the breakthrough — is part of a process you have been through and will go through again and again. When you get stuck, when there is a problem with a scene or maybe the scene is just misconceived altogether, when you hit a passage in your writing that is difficult and you fumble with words for days on end — when you are really stuck — then the squeeze will be especially harrowing. You will worry, as we all do, that the illumination will never come. Don’t give up. You are stuck for a reason: your mind is working on a problem, and your scene will be stuck until the problem is solved. Remember, squeeze is followed by bang, incubation is followed by insight. This is our job. This is how we earn our ideas.

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