When Writers Hate Words and Painters Hate Paint
I adore words. Words have been my dearest medium since my childhood in a Welsh home where the English language was king and queen. I can hear words as if they are being spoken in my ear as I read them on the page or computer screen. I swear I can taste them. If I don’t read a minimum of a few thousand of them in books every day I am fidgety and dissatisfied.
I study words assiduously and they float in my mind because they are the building blocks from which a writer fashions images, ideas, and narratives. I want to know all of them and use them in my work when I need them. The more of them I can use intelligently the more ideas and emotions I will be able to communicate. Writers cannot pour the whole of their talent into their work without a storehouse of expressive language at their ready disposal.
The vocabulary in the piece may be as simple as Ernest Hemingway’s or as complex as William Faulkner’s. Either way, each word, doing its part, must have zest. If you lack the one and only “just right” word you cannot adequately convey the emotion and its shadings, or the expression on a face as it differs in daylight or at midnight, or a beach at dawn.
What can be more painfully frustrating and galling for writers who take their work seriously than sensing there is a word that will express precisely what they want to express, but not being able to think of it and having to settle for a second, third, or fourth best word?
I maintain on shelves massive loose-leaf notebooks with bright red, orange, and yellow covers. In them I enter words I come across that I think I might wish to use at some time that I don’t currently know or do know but don’t use. The notebooks are filled with many thousands of good, useful words and brief definitions and ideas for using them.
I consult these notebooks regularly. When I begin writing something substantial I jot down many interesting and lively–“good”–words that I will work into the text. I might write down in the notebook the word “irascible” with the note–“a nice, strong, dramatic word to use,” or other nice words, “pallid,” “stipulated,” and “rapture.”
But never knowing why and never knowing when, I experience a mystifying writer’s block you’ve never heard of that overwhelms me. I’ve never heard anyone else say a word about it, nor have I read about anything like it. I’d like to tell you about it now.
It is a periodic aversion to the basis of the creators’ medium–words to writers, color and paint to painters, and music to composers. Such an intermittent malady may seem odd, but for me, odd though it may be, it is a fact. Sometimes writers hate words, painters hate paint, and composers hate notes.
Painters feel the same way about paint as I do about words–that the goal of doing this thing called art in these media is to never be caught unable to express what you want or need to express. A writer must be able to write everything down, a painter to paint everything she can see or imagine, and composers to be able to use all the means available to them to express all emotions.
When you are a magician with language as American novelist Thomas Wolfe and American poet Walt Whitman, and French novelist Marcel Proust were–more so than any other writers who walked this earth (including Shakespeare)–you have available to you all the words you will ever need to express with the exceptional skills of the trained writer, which you take for granted, anything and everything–any emotion, any idea, any situation, any image–you can hold in your mind. Nothing is out of your range, everything is within your grasp.
But at times I become so filled up and overly sated with words–thinking of them, writing them, reading them from morning to night year after year, decade after decade–that I reach a kind of maximum limit and it is futile to go on. I must be away from them.
For a while I have to be free from the tyranny of having to go through the process of translating, as though from a foreign language, every palpable thing I can see or touch or hear or imagine, or remember, and each and every mood I can feel, into abstract, impossible-to-touch symbols–words and syllables.
There is no word or combination of words ever written in poetry or prose that is as tangible and pleasurable as a kiss or a caress.
I find that it is hopeless to try to fight this mood. Nothing but frustration is gained by being heroic and hacking away at the keyboard in hopes that something more or less intelligible that can be worked into something more meaningful will mercifully appear on the screen. No, it’s best when words become abhorrent to me–to you, fellow writer–to just shut down, be patient, and wait.
I think this bottling-up happens to many writers, but they don’t realize what’s happening to them. They come to that impasse I know so well and they have no idea why or what to do next. And painters may be unable to even look at their palette and grow sick for a while of their beloved medium and need a break.
My periodic aversion to words, when the bases of my craft are repugnant to me, reminds me of the great cellist Pablo Casals whose first thought when he fell and injured his hand was a happy one–that maybe now he wouldn’t have to play the cello anymore.
Having been through this troublesome block many times, I stop writing and I stop reading and try to clear my mind of words, just as painters who have been exposed to too much color stop painting for a while.
Then, without the written word, I have lost my bearings. I am aimless. I watch TV, paying no attention, or look for someone to talk to or go upstairs and lift weights or go for a walk or thumb through a baseball magazine.
A listless evening or a day or two of seeming to have no purpose in life pass, and my passion for words returns and I am hungry to sit at the computer and watch nouns and verbs, and then their friends the adjectives and adverbs appear in a perfect order on the screen as I hoped they would.
At that moment the creator’s existence–lived in a little world of contented seclusion, devoid of glamour–seems to me in an astonishing way to be as splendid and wonderful as any life on earth could be.
I am again confident, blissful, my temporary word-aversion now gone from me. I am happy. Everything I love and can think of I then love more tenderly. I am creating again, performing the sole work I believe I was so carefully allotted X number of years in this world to see what I could do with–which may be the same feeling you have about your work.
© 2018 David J. Rogers
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18 responses to “The Writer’s Block You’ve Never Heard Of”
I sometimes invent words just as a pleasure.If I get tired of them I draw or go for a walk.Thanks for some new ways of seeing
Hello Katherine, my friend. So good to see you stopped by. You’re so imaginative, inventing words–great. Yes, you can draw. I have no talent in that direction though our friend Janet Weight Reed tells me everyone can draw, even me.
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Well,handwriting is a kind of drawing.But it depends on if you really like /want to do it.Janet is very encouraging.
Yes, I think she’s given me good advice about drawing.
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I prefer watercolour if I can get anywhere with it but I turned more to writing as it fitted my life situation better,Doing art needs space and time which I didn’t have.And I have written thousands of posts! I never imagined it!!
About drawing,I was no good at it at school.Janet is very inspiring.The thing is that even if your drawing is not very good, the act of doing it makes me realise how little I notice normally.I am trying to draw faces and I can’t do it well/I get disheartened but it does change how I see.I am not doing it to earn an living so I don’t feel anxious about how good is bad something is.Painting makes me more aware of colours like in sunsets and nature.
I think writing a lot is very wearing even if you enjoy it so the little breaks you describe while painful may be needed while your mind absorbs what you are thinking about.Then it is linking them to older ideas.Maybe it’s a bit like dreaming.We can’t stay awake permanently.
I went to an art class and I was the worst person there.It was frightening in a way but something made me want to try it as git
I meant to write I got tired of knitting though it can be a sort of meditation and let’s the mind dwell in reverie
My backspace button was faulty. so I could not put that in my comment
I like your writing a lot.You are an inspiration,I think people in the USA are more keen to keep learning and doing things than most British people.I noticed that on a different platform a few years ago.
Katherine, you have such clever techniques for taking breaks from writing which can be so exhausting and requires such deep concentration. Next thing you know, you’ll have me knitting. I simply don’t know who is more keen in continuing life-long learning–the British or Americans, your impression sounds interesting.
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David,I am sure you adore words, you express it
in your writing.
“ … I am hungry to sit at the computer and watch
nouns and verbs, and then their friends the adjetives
and adverbs appear in a perfect order on the screen
as I hoped they would”.
I love this part.
Also I think your writing have a special touch of
magic, full of beauty and knowledge.
Marilucas, my friend, your kind words touch me. I think you too love words and love to write. I hope you find time to do it and send me what you have to say.
Good morning David…As always your posts are right on the money. I find that when I am blocked – walking, being with nature, going to an exhibition, or even watching a good crime drama:) Yes I enjoy them very much… It seems to wash the brain free of all the blocking debris. Having just returned from France from two very different regions….I sense that my mental palette is cleansed and that new thoughts and ideas are abound. Thank you so much for this post…and wishing you a lovely and productive day…..whatever you choose to do. Janet 🙂
Welcome home, Janet. How luscious to have, as you have now, thoughts abounding, though at times I’m sure you have as I often do, thoughts abounding too much–work to do, projects, readings, studies, revisions, and so on. But it’s, after all, sheer fun to be alive and have a talent and something to say.
You make your winding down days seems so pleasant, your mind unoccupied with art then. I think you have that great ability to relax. I do expect a good day for me. I am reading Proust’s Swann’s Way in English and French at the same time–a noteworthy goal.
You lived here so you know how important baseball can be to an American–me, for example. The season starts two weeks from today and I’m excited.
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Good morning David, A noteworthy goal indeed….enjoy your reading. As for the baseball season…oh yes I do know how important it is for so many Americans. It’s not just the game, but the whole atmosphere around it. Here’s a funny story. in 1967, shortly after I came to the States, I was invited to my first big baseball game in New York. Two things completely threw me. First, I asked why there were policeman on the field….they were umpires, and then when they had the seventh inning stretch – I got up to leave….not understanding what it was:) I still don’t completely understand the game, but as I say do enjoy the atmosphere. Enjoy the day and weekend ahead. Spring is springing, however, we are in for a cold blast this weekend…unusual for us, but hey ho….I will be painting, reading, etc. Janet 🙂
You make me laugh at your baseball experience, Janet, you cricket-loving Englishwoman. Imagine thinking the game was over in the seventh inning and that umps are cops. Hilarious. But yes, baseball does have an “atmosphere” made up of beautiful parks, legendary players, great games, great plays, though we fans know underneath that it’s “only” a game. When a game starts you never know if something will happen that has never happened before in the history of baseball, and when it does you look in silence at the person next to you who loves the game as much as you and say the only words that come to mind–“That’s baseball for you. What a game.”
I enjoy all your comments and also the thought of you over there at your art, wondering what you will turn out next. I hope your cold spell is not a cold spell in the sense of one of those brrrr spells. But, yes, it’s spring and nature’s and our creative selves come out of their winter hiding places. Everyone’s step is springier, as though to be alive is to defy gravity and friends call and ask, “Whad’ya want to do today?”
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Thank you and enjoy this day with a spring in your step 🙂
Thank you. Sun shining bright today.
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