Writer's Block? Let's Call It Something Else.

Christopher Fowler

I've no doubt that writers' block is real but the name covers a host of symptoms.

As someone who has been linguistically incontinent since age six I was never able to understand how some writers could complain of bunged-up word pipes. It seems such a vague condition. Block just means you're unable to write for any number of reasons. Edmund Crispin, one of my favourite Golden Age authors, stopped writing for a quarter of a century. He was a talented composer under his real name of Bruce Montgomery, besides being by all accounts such a convivial host that it shaded into serious alcoholism. Still, he finally returned with one more Gervase Fen novel that suffers by comparison with early novels, although it's by no means a failure. Did Crispin suffer a block? Did alcohol rob him of his muse? To me the idea of the hard-drinking writer was more damaging than inspiring. I'd happily raise a glass but always preferred a cup of tea. In the nineties it was fashionable for younger authors to be seen as party animals. The press tried to foster an image of me as a cad-about-town nursing a hangover at interviews, but it didn't stick for the simple reason that it wasn't remotely true. If I left a dinner it was to go to bed, not to an afterparty. That's not to say I didn't schmooze the odd journo. Here's Suzi Feay and I at a gallery opening. Suzi is a good friend and a living example of the Scorpion & the Frog parable, which makes her dangerous but a terrific journalist. In her years she's taken on virtually every literary task you can find in a national newspaper. We're the same, the early leavers at 'glittering' events. Her subject range is so diverse that I don't think she ever runs out of something to write, even if it was once to refer to my father as 'Fred West' in print (a step she admits was beyond the pale).Writers' block could be described as a loss of inspiration. Two years of the pandemic certainly reduced writers' horizons, but we don't need to travel far to find fresh influences. Alan Bennett always seemed a homebody to me and it hasn't hurt his prose. Lately, though, I've been thinking of writers' block as something else; a loss of mojo. Having to spend a great part of your life dealing with hospitals takes away a substantial amount of your joie de vivre.

Is writer's block another term for depression?

I've been delaying making decisions about writing for a while. Do I have the stamina for another novel? Hell, yes, even though treatment-induced foggy thinking tries to steal away my language and things are not going as I'd hoped, healthwise. Writing lightly is a skill, although it may not seem like one. You have to be in a Wodehouse frame of mind to lift the mood of the reader. If I do write, will the work be affected by my rapidly darkening worldview? Some of my younger readers (you get to an age where everyone is younger) have berated me for the cruel twists of fate in my novel 'Hot Water'. I never saw it as a black comedy, a satire or anything other than a straightforward dramatic novel. When I look back at it now - as you do when something is finally in print - I can see that the end chapter refocuses all you've read before. The story suddenly makes more fundamental sense. Last week another reader wrote; 'Thank you for such a tragic love story', and I thought My God, she's the first person to see it the other way around. I was thrilled by the thought, but recognised that it came not from writers' block exactly, but from a change in my attitude to writing, something I can't even see in myself. When you're stuck, refocus. The Bryant & May books require a delicate touch that I need to locate once more. To do that I have to shut the real world out. But to ensure that I still have some modicum of mojo, I've been writing a few new short stories just for fun. 'I just do it for my own amusement,' said Kenneth Williams in an old radio show. 'Obviously,' Tony Hancock replied. Maybe I'll publish them, but in the meantime I'm itching to be working with Mr Bryant & Mr May once more. But this might be the toughest case they ever have to solve; hunting down their creator's purpose and finding a way to go on.  


frank r spatt (not verified) Thu, 14/04/2022 - 16:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I love your Peculiar Crimes Unit stories, especially the social commentary that is sprinkled throughout. However, I don't know what purpose Mr John May serves other than as a sort of human bubble wrap for Arthur Bryant and an occasional sniffing after women 30 years younger than himself. He is supposedly a senior detective but he never does any more detecting that does Raymond Land. Anyway, your other characters are all and always wonderful. I'm up to book number 14 in the series and anxious for more. You are a great writer. Thanks for many hours of reading enjoyment.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 14/04/2022 - 17:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You've had a pretty grim few years, Chris, and I hope whatever makes up that block lifts because writing is what makes up so much of the person you are.
A "slim volume" of stories coming up perhaps?

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 14/04/2022 - 19:05

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For what a gratuitous and obviously unofficial opinion is worth (very little in the scheme of things,.of course), what you're probably feeling is anxiety rather than actual clinical depression; a feeling of somehow having lost something you once had/did 'before breakfast' (probably literally) and may not get back. It's no doubt cold comfort to understand that we've been hardwired with this adaptive 'negativity bias' trait since we faced a dangerous world with spears 120,000 years or so ago. We face a different, but still discomforting world, so our brains continue to go into this defensive mode at the first hint of peril (real or imagined) or insecurity. Fortunately, whatever you're feeling is situational since you are writing short stories. The important thing is to keep writing, whether it is short stories or fanciful shopping lists. The idea is to pacify that anxious mind by making it clear that you can still write, and write well. Once this message gets through, my guess is you'll find it much easier to 'scratch' that B&M 'itch,' and we faithful will burn an exact replica of a critic (or author) of your choice in celebration. Or something like that.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Thu, 14/04/2022 - 20:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sometimes, when we want to accomplish something that matters to us, we can be our own worst enemy. So keep writing - even if it's (as Stu suggests) a "fanciful shopping list".

Jo W (not verified) Fri, 15/04/2022 - 07:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Even more supportive best wishes winging their way to you Chris and to Pete. Perhaps you can get back to Barcelona soon.
More short stories? Yes, bring them on. Xx

Peter T (not verified) Fri, 15/04/2022 - 09:41

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Reality tends to be pretty grim. Since there's no point in worrying about things we can't change, it's better to forget most of it, think of the good things and live in our own world. Now was that PG Wodehouse or Boris J?

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Fri, 15/04/2022 - 12:39

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Sometimes taking the ‘wrong’ turning takes us to a place we are glad we visited. Deviation from the planned route can shed new light when we find our way back to the original destination.
I have no sense of direction. On my frequent deviations from planned routes, I no longer consider myself lost, just temporarily mislaid.

Ukridge (not verified) Fri, 15/04/2022 - 13:23

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Wodehouse was always worrying about his plots. He sometimes asked his Dulwich friend Bill Townend to help him. The way Wodehouse wrote was just hard work and stamina. So keep going on!

Joel (not verified) Fri, 15/04/2022 - 20:46

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@ cornelia..."temporarily mislaid"...it's all about putting a good face on things, and i will most certainly use that phrase from now on when i am driving somewhere new...i always have to turn around at least once...i have experienced gifts getting stunted from lack of use, diminished, less than fulfilling...but have always been told, use it or lose it

Martin Tolley (not verified) Fri, 15/04/2022 - 22:43

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Temporarily mislaid. Reminds me of a story about GK Chesterton of Father Brown fame. He was notorious for getting himself mlslaid. One day he sent a telegram to his wife: "Apparently I'm in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?"

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Sat, 16/04/2022 - 14:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

That's a great story, Martin Tolley. It reminds me of one of my trips to London when I was walking along the Strand - full of pedestrains as usual. Three young people walking towards me stopped right in front of me. One of them looked at me with a very woebegone expression on her face and said, "Please. Can you tell us where we are?"

SteveB (not verified) Sat, 16/04/2022 - 20:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I enjoyed Hot Water a lot - I should try and write a bit more when I have time.
Glimpses of the Moon is actually a favourite of mine! Bought the paoerback (with the picture of the severed head) when it came out. It‘s a book I go back and comfort-read every 5-10 years, I don‘t do that with the others.
Keep writing Chris, it‘s good for you, and definitely good for us. Easy for me to write I know but I think it’s true.
Take care

Jo+e (not verified) Sat, 16/04/2022 - 21:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

How about a book that deals with the foggy thinking, the loss of mojo, the funny, the sad, the weird, the tedium. In a captivating way. With a big C. Use what you now know in the way only you can and don't seek the comfort of another B&M - much too easy. Obviously needs a plot but that's a detail. It doesn't even matter if it stops half way through either, could be a plus point and quite dramatic. It's got Booker Prize written all over it.

Turn a positive into a negative my nan used to say. Although when gramps was knocked down by a Co-op milk float she struggled. But a year's supply of free gold top proved her point in the end and the calcium was good for his broken legs. So take all the shit and turn it into something special and make my nan proud.

I would look it up on the internet but I do enjoy indulging in the vast knowledge of others on here -
Question: what great books were never finished? Not books by great authors who just pegged it. But unfinished great books. Although can they be great and unfinished? Does the lack of an ending prevent success?

Hazel Jackson (not verified) Sat, 16/04/2022 - 22:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

What about the ones that got away, from Bryant and May's Casebook.? Cases that leave the readers with some unresolved or open questions at the end. Things we can ponder over and discuss in future.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sat, 16/04/2022 - 23:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Jo+e Jo --- actually quite a few novels were left unfinished by their original (and famous authors) including Dickens' 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood,' of course, Jane Austen's 'Sanditon' and even (according to the experts), Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales.' Now, it may be that perhaps other than the 'Canterbury Tales' the rest here (and others) don't qualify as 'great' under your brief. However, whilst perhaps not precisely what you have in mind --- it's generally felt by the cognoscenti  that Robert Louis Stevenson's novel 'Weir of Hermiston' would have been his masterpiece had he been able to complete it. The fragment he did write was published. The same is also said of American author F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Last Tycoon,' which was 'prepared' for publication posthumously by writer and critic, Edmund Wilson. There well may be others that a quick review has missed.

Peter T (not verified) Sun, 17/04/2022 - 08:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Folks, let's cheer up a bit. We aren't on the plane to Rwanda, yet. Happy Easter.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 17/04/2022 - 13:41

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@Peter T Peter --- just don't attempt to kayak or canoe across the Channel.

Jo+e (not verified) Sun, 17/04/2022 - 21:26

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I knew about Edwin Drood but not Weir of Herniation. Thanks Stu

Paul C (not verified) Tue, 19/04/2022 - 09:08

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Hope the writer's block (or whatever the mysterious thing is) lifts soon

Talking of unfinished books, I like The Assassination Bureau by Jack London (completed by Robert L Fish, author of Bullitt) and Into the Night by Cornell Woolrich (completed by Lawrence Block author of the excellent Matt Scudder series).

Craig Brown's completion Kyril Bonfiglioli's The Great Mordechai Moustache Mystery is the best one I've read - Brown is true chameleon and it's hard to tell who wrote what

Alan R (not verified) Wed, 20/04/2022 - 10:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've been thinking about this blog for almost a week. What can a master craftsman do when his ability to produce his normal work changes. Changes forced upon him by circumstances. When he feels his skills are diminished somewhat and worries that his current or future work is of less quality than his previous work.

"If I do write, will the work be affected by my rapidly darkening worldview?"

If the objective is to continue producing work as it has always been, this may not be possible. But the skills developed over many decades may need to be pointed in a new direction determined by the changes in circumstances. If a "rapidly darkening worldview" is the way forward, then use the existing ingrained skills to explore this, rather than embracing the doubt and fear that what has been, is no longer possible.

The 20 B&M books have developed a huge relationship between the author and his readers but I must say I really enjoyed Hot Water as a black comedy - in the older style of Psychoville and even Spanky and enjoyed Hot Water as much if not more. If this is a result of a darkening worldview well bring it on.

The story is why we read. It's not all about grammar or language use. This is an important part of the mastercraftsman's skills, but in my experience, it's the story I remember. And the ability to develop and deliver a story may well change, but the ability to tell a story never does.

A recent blog described the author's long wait in the hospital waiting room. The story, the observations and the descriptions really touched me. I still remember the story. If this piece was written within the new worldview - I'll take that - and wait impatiently for the next Hot Water. If the changes in the author's worldview result in a new approach to the writing style, I can't wait to see the result.

Christopher Fowler Wed, 20/04/2022 - 15:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Dear Alan -

Thank you so much for posting this. You raised a very good point about the writer/reader relationship. I see things rather piecemeal and tend to forget that many of us here go back a very, very long time, as I did in turn with my favourite authors. Hopefully, the third volume of memoirs will see that 'darkening world view' finding chinks of light in some of the gloomiest spots!

Jan (not verified) Wed, 20/04/2022 - 19:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hiya Chris
This tablet has been mended. Read most of this piece but in the end became dazzled by them sparkly trousers.
I had to stop and refocus myself - don't get fed up Mr F I've sent you a book. Jan

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sat, 23/04/2022 - 22:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry I've been away and when I have been online I seem to never finish a thoug....

Unfinished classic:- The Iliad by Homer, it doesn't start at the beginning of the war and ends with Achilles still alive. How many cases did Watson and Holmes elude to. The Giant Rat of Sumatra has since been retold many times usually referring to the Matilda Briggs.

Writer's block can be many things, becoming bored with the story/characters, fear it's not good enough to mental health issues and even just can't be arsed. Ennui and apathy are sometimes bed fellows, I remember trying to write an article but no matter how I began it it was always wrong, or rubbish usually both, looking back at it now, the start was more than good enough. The project went on hold indefinitely by the editor/organizer, I just went back to it again and I've rewritten the beginning and it's much better, sometimes writer's block can be the subconscious realising you can do better. Funny old thing the brain.