Friday, March 18, 2011

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galactic Writer's Block

Last week it was Douglas Adams' birthday.
It happened on March 11, to be precise, and I wouldn't be surprised if at that anniversary moment somewhere in England a man was lying down in front of a bulldozer trying to prevent his house from being demolished. At the same time he was scheming how to slip off to the pub for a pint just before the entire planet is blown up...

As for the rest of the world, I'm sure some of us took notice as well. Adams was a writer and a successful one with books in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series selling over 15 million copies and continuing to sell to this day.

Douglas Adams was less successful at living his life as a long, sustained series.

A native of Cambridge, England, he moved to the palm studded west coast of America in the 1980s. He died in Montecito, California, of a heart attack while working out a private gym in 2001. He was 49.

Something that interests me about Adams was that he didn't much like to write. It started with churning out the original BBC radio scripts of The Hitchhiker's Guide. Adams was often still writing just hours before the actors had to record an episode.

Our well loved, beat-up,
former library copy
Still, he did well, leading his readers on a Monty-Pynthonesque romp through the nether regions of outer space,  highlighting humanity's absurdity along the way. Adams dared to suggest that:
  • The most important thing a space traveler carries is his towel.
  • The answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything is "42."
  • The third worst poetry in the universe is written by an ugly, pompous species called Vogons. Their poetry is so bad that to be forced to listen to it amounts to unspeakable torture that will cause any enemy to confess and give up all his secrets.
  • The very worst poetry in the universe has been written by Paula Nancy Milstone Jennings of Sussex, England who died when the Earth was destroyed because it was in the path of an hyperspatial space lane that was being built.
I came to Adams' work rather late. I was looking for entertaining material to read to our son at bed time when he was around nine years old. A friend, who is a computer programmer, had been reading Adams' "five book trilogy" to his daughter and so I thought, Why not?

Soon my favorite character was Marvin, the perpetually depressed and irritable robot. Marvin was a sort of tin Eeyore or silicon chip Henny Youngman who said things like...

   "I've been ordered to take you down to the bridge.
    Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask
    me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job
    satisfaction? 'Cos I don't."

When people had ideas about how Adams could make a lot of money if he would only rewrite his radio scripts in book form and sell them globally, he had difficulty disciplining himself to sit down and put the words on paper.

According to Adams' lore, his editor had to lock Douglas in a hotel room for three weeks to force him to finish So Long and Thanks For All the Fish.

With this I can sympathize.

It can be much more fun to read books than to actually write them. Or to spend delightful time planning and thinking about the writing of one's books.

Even writing something less extravagant than the marathon of a composing an entire book can cause one to rebel.

It's time for another blog post? And it should be ready today?

If you should ever find yourself "stuck" as writers like to say (we're never "mired," just "stuck") and unable to write anything from a novel to a love letter to a memo to your boss, here at The Van Winkle Project we've been passing time compiling a useful short guide to overcoming your writer's block.

The first step is to realize that you've landed in a mental and emotional space that is equivalent of a uninhabitable planet. We call this "Planet Frozen Muse." There is no likelihood that you will be able to rehabilitate this planet by warming it up, sowing seeds, etc.

Instead, you must remove yourself from the planet ex post haste and return to fertile fields elsewhere in the writing galaxy. To stay on Planet Frozen Muse is to be condemned to never write more than a few words of unbearable Utter Drivel.

So how do you lift off from Planet Frozen Muse? You read the "guide" and learn techniques and useful information that can help secure your freedom and get you writing again.


Adams, Douglas: Successful writer who died not writing but doing sit-ups at the gym. It is debatable which might be the more painful way to perish.

Writing: The act of heading in the possible direction of Utter Drivel (see below) and (if you're lucky) missing it entirely.

Writer's Block: [ ? ]

Paper:  The bright white dwelling place of every brilliant thought and marvelous character and inventive thought you'll ever have, demanding only that you squint hard until you see characters start to form on the page. Then you trace over them and voila!

Pen: A tool with a pointed end that is useful for pricking oneself until blood pours forth. Painful, yes, but the blood gives you something to put on paper. Now you're writing! (See "Walter Wellesley 'Red' Smith, quotes by.)

Cafe: A place where some writers are known to order drinks and sit at a corner table and quietly write. (See Paris, 1920s.)

Bar: A place some writers frequent, order drinks, and never write. (See any airport, 2011.)

Coffee: A beverage found in all known corners of the writing universe with the mysterious property of  causing the imbiber to write words without having to press as hard on the pen or the keyboard; at its best a sort of cruise control for the wordsmith.

Muse: May manifest itself in frozen or liquid form depending upon circumstances beyond one's control. If encountered in frozen form you are at risk of  writing Utter Drivel (see below); apply blow torch immediately and hope for lift-off.

Drivel, Utter: An oversupply of words already written, and therefore redundant or cliche; or words that never should have been written in the first place. Writers must alertly avoid Utter Drivel which masses in layers like asteroids belts. Colliding with Utter Drivel will surely doom any writing project as it sucks all the oxygen and life out of it.

Loathing, Pure: What every good writer feels for his or her early or failed drafts. Utter Loathing is a ready-to-hand blow torch. Direct toward one's words or frozen muse and BURN...

Book: Someone else's success. Almost always depressing. If the book is very good, it shows the would-be writer how far there is to go before becoming an John Updike or an Annie Dillard. If the published book is Utter Drivel, it reminds you that if you wrote this badly no one would ever publish it, so what is going on here?

Time: A critical item for success. Almost never will enough of it be taken by bad writers which leads to lightweight or poor literary productions. (See Drivel, Utter above.) Good writers always want to take too much time. (See Adams, Douglas  above.)

Keyboard: A series of Chiclet-like plastic, springy thingies with alphabetic characters on them that when pressed randomly generate horrible writing and when pressed intentionally, more often than not, generate Utter Drivel. A keyboard should never be trusted.

Delete Key: The master control switch that allows one to leave Planet Frozen Muse in a flash. Using this key in conjunction with "Select All" will remove all traces of Utter Drivel and immediately launch one in new directions. (See "Restaurant" "Bar" above.)

Justin Bieber: Person with odd surname in the early 21st century about whom too much Utter Drivel is being written. All writers should use force field protection in presence of J.B. U.D. to avoid contamination of thought processes.

Rave Review: Whatever one's mother and one's friends always say about your writing. Imaginary website where you have nightmare visions of capable critics posting their honest opinions of your best-intentioned work.

Short Story or Poetry Contest: Opportunity to submit one's writing and a $20 fee in order to fund someone else's writing success.

Sanity: Rare among first-rate writers who seldom or never frequent Planet Frozen Muse. Sanity may be an ideal quality if one wishes other people to be around you, but it will get in the way of one's writing like a locked escape hatch.

Van Winkle Project: A frail, outer-galactic writing vessel of the variety "blog" which at least twice a week has successfully (so far) dodged Planet Frozen Muse, but its pilot's hands are white from gripping the wheel and he just requested another cup of coffee be brought to the bridge while muttering beneath his breath, "Don't panic!"

- V.W.


1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on surviving the first six months of blackout - and thanks for pecking out this nice recognition of the genius of Douglas Adams.