While cleaning out the garage last week, I excavated some drafts from a time -- starting in my late twenties -- when I'd contracted a serious case of writer's block. The drafts represented my frenzied attempts to write myself out of the block, which lasted at least five years (recovery was gradual, with successive false starts).
It was a miserable experience; the turmoil carried over into relationships, blighted my health and sanity, and prompted unwise decisions. But why did it happen? What causes impasses of this kind, and is there a remedy?
I don't think there's a single explanation; writers of different abilities and inclinations can find themselves bogged down. An adept writer, for instance, can suffer a failure of the imagination. A writer who has developed a distinct personal style can come to feel boxed in by that style.
In my case, the block probably resulted from limitations of method and technique. Although my technical abilities were nothing to brag about, I had hit upon an approach that allowed me, in effect, to be a better writer than I actually was. The method could be called "oracular"; I would sit at the computer and play around with words and phrases -- sometimes chosen at random from the dictionary -- until something seemed to speak through them.
One of the benefits of my strategy was that the resulting poems didn't feel like deliberately-wrought products of the ego. They didn't even feel like my work, exactly; rather, I was taking dictation from the muse, the collective unconscious, or some other source that transcended me. Since I distrusted technique and deliberation, and valued spontaneity and inspiration, this arrangement felt superior to regarding poetry as a craft, with various "nuts and bolts" to be mastered.
Writing as Ouija board, maybe...
Before long, the predictable problem arose: whatever I thought was speaking through the poems decided to stop speaking. My process no longer yielded material that was fresh and surprising; instead, it became a way to generate pages of tedious word-salad. Why did it break down like this? Why had it worked before, but not now? I couldn't figure it out.
And I'm not sure I know the answer now, either. But I think it may have reflected a misunderstanding about the role of technique.
Although I thought my approach was spontaneous, a non-methodical method, it's more probable that I had internalized a repertoire of poetical strategies and devices, to the point that I could draw upon them more or less unconsciously. Because this repertoire was narrow, the process could not be sustained over the long run. Nor was there any easy remedy; the only solution was to improve my technique, and that required a difficult slog.
Writing is part preparation and part performance. During fallow periods, we may be building up skills that will facilitate a breakthrough later; conversely, when we're experiencing creative flow, we're drawing on the resources we've built up so far. Blocks are unsatisfying and even traumatizing, but like the death card in Tarot, they can signal regeneration, or at least an impetus to try something new.
In the end, there's an insoluble dilemma: a writer must either risk the possibility of an impasse (and all the anxiety this entails) or cease to develop as a writer, choosing instead to rewrite poems or stories that he/she has written before. For writers who have built up their skills to a certain point, the second choice is probably the happier one in terms of personal contentment, though less happy from the perspective of art.
For those with a less secure command of technique - as is often the case with younger writers -- the second choice isn't feasible; the cookbook doesn't contain enough recipes.
And that can be a good thing.