Undine and I are revisiting old posts, and a lot of us are working on summer writing projects, and I like to start the day by reading something inspirational (and, okay, web-procrastinating a bit), so I read this old one of hers: http://notofgeneralinterest.blogspot.com/2009/03/writing-is-fun-starting-is-hard.html

The comment about not believing in “writer’s block” any more than in “carpenter’s block” struck me.  Hard.  Because some of my relations are carpenters, builders, and contractors, and they do run into such problems.  Okay, they’re not “blocked” as in “unable to pick up a hammer.”  If I said to one of them, at a not-working point, “Could you put together this bookshelf that fell apart when the movers knocked it around?” he could do it.  But they do have periods when they’re faced with a set of materials, a space to fill, a type of thing that needs to go in that space, using those materials, being functional in such a way . . . .

That’s not blocking, that’s a design problem, you say.


So consider that the writer, too, may have a design problem.  Or an organizational problem, or a significance problem, or an originality problem, or a perfectionist problem.  All of these are solvable problems.  Once we recognize that there is a solvable problem, we can find ways to solve it.  Sometimes that means writing something else, or going about our business until something shakes loose, or staring at the blank page and thinking.

I’m reminded of Comrade PhysioProf’s process, which involves a lot of putting off writing while he thinks, and which he vigorously defends (you can find bits and pieces in the comments of some of the writing group threads, here and on other blogs, but I don’t want to take the time to find the bits now).  It works for him.  He recognizes when the back of the mind needs time to work.

So, if you’re blocked, don’t beat up on yourself.  Think of it as carpenter’s block, as a design (or similar) problem, and think about how to solve that problem.


6 thoughts on “On “Carpenter’s Block”

  1. Raise your hand if you needed to hear this today? (Hand up!)

    My children are keeping me from any serious work. I’ll be lucky if I get one thing written this summer. And then when they are in bed, I sit down to the computer and nothing happens. I am so depressed and it’s only the THIRD DAY. Whannnn

    1. If I ever knew anything about your kids’ ages and abilities, I’ve completely lost track, so this suggestion is worth exactly what you’re paying for it. Could you institute 30-60 minutes of “writing time” for all of you during the day, maybe after some more vigorous activity? Theirs could be coloring or Mad Libs or some sort of create-your-own-adventure story, and then when the time is up they read their creation to you, or you all share what you’ve done.

      In fact, I wonder if you could make your own mad-lib-adventure stories by downloading old children’s books off Project Gutenberg, replacing some words with blanks, and then letting your kids fill in what they think happened or what would be funny.

      It always takes time to adjust to a new routine. You’re three days in. Your focus and ambition are admirable (I’m still in awe at the overnight screenplay), but sometimes we just need a few days to figure out what’s going to work in a new configuration.

      1. Eldest is 9 with severe ADHD, and due to a medication snafu, he’s off meds at least until tomorrow. Honestly, I’m not sure I can tell a difference between the medicated and unmedicated kid. Maybe we should just take him off meds entirely. Anyway – that’s a separate issue. He’s a tornado, essentially. Then youngest is 5 and while he’s very smart, he’s not really independently reading yet. He recognizes a lot of words, but needs someone to aid in his reading. That said, he’s an excellent self-entertainer. He could swing on the swing set for an hour and be content. Eldest needs more supervision and reminders to do XYZ.

        I could just let them watch TV and play video games all day, but that inevitably leads to fighting, not to mention that it’s bad for them. And then, there’s the whole “I need a drink, I need a snack, I need a this, that, etc.” Eldest is old enough to handle these things, and I let him. But then every time he gets something, he makes a colossal mess, which then I have to either clean up or supervise clean up, because he doesn’t do a good job. It’s irritating.

        Anyway, I have them doing one chore a day, 20-minutes of “reading” time (Eldest reads whatever he wants, but for youngest, it’s working on writing letters in an activity book, which he loves, but also needs help with), they have to straighten their rooms, and then spend some time doing either something creative (drawing, etc.) or playing outside. Then, when all that is done, they can have screen time. All that crap takes some supervision, but it makes for less fighting. The last few days I’ve been up until 1:00 a.m. doing work. I guess that’s going to be the summer plan. Sigh…

  2. “Think of it as carpenter’s block, as a design (or similar) problem, and think about how to solve that problem.”

    With a hammer?

    And do I apply it to my laptop? Or to my skull?

  3. I like the idea of thinking about design problems. I often put in filler so I can keep going. Yesterday I wrote and highlighted “[this paragraph needs a final sentence]” and “as a result of these things, XXX”

    I just opened the file, and I fixed the final sentence, and I’m sort of clear about what I need to say where I wrote XXX. But each of those allowed me to fiddle with other parts of my design. But when I was working on this section — and introduction, which I find always particularly gnarly — one problem was solved by reversing the order of the paragraphs, and suddenly it made sense.

  4. Dame Eleanor–thanks for the link and for resurrecting that post. You’re absolutely right about thinking of this as a design problem and that a lot of the work is going on in the background. The image of carpenters standing there to figure out what they will do next puts that background work in perspective.

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