Many a writer will have experienced it: sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, blinking at an empty screen, and waiting for words to come. They have come in the past, so you know they must be there somewhere, and even as the minutes trickle by without much progress, you sit, doggedly, behind your desk until the words will prompt your fingers to move. But the words don’t come, and you just sit there, minutes, hours, days, you sit there, but nothing happens, nothing moves. You try various tactics to make the words flow again, by reading other things, and then not reading other things, then looking for any means of distraction, then looking for no distraction at all (it must be a concentration problem, right?). But it’s not concentration, and it’s not lack of vocabulary or writerly knowledge. Because you have been struck by that awful affliction, generally referred to as writer’s block.
‘Stymie’ is a funky little verb meaning ‘to prevent or hinder the progress of’. It was originally a golf term, referring to a state in which ‘an opponent’s ball blocks the whole’. Where it came from before it was a golf term is uncertain, though there is speculation amongst etymologists whether it might not derive from the Scottish word ‘stymie’, denoting ‘a person who sees poorly’, in turn derived from ‘stime’, ‘the least bit’. I admit that I am more or less literally copying this description, and fail to see much of a connection. And either way, the potential original word ‘stime’ is itself ‘of uncertain origin’, so we’re stranded anyhow. But even though ‘stymie’ appears to be a linguistic orphan, it surely became a successful one, as from 1902 onward it received its more general definition of ‘block’, ‘hinder’ or ‘thwart’, outside the context of golf. Let’s hear it for orphans.
As a faithful reader of my blog may know, I am currently working on a novel, and at this point I’m afraid that it’s not working. Why it’s not working, I am not entirely sure. I admit that I am feeling uninspired, as my mind-numbing student job fails to give me much input in the mental department, and does not leave me much time or energy to write in the first place. It is also possible that I have arrived at the infamous ‘I-hate-this-bloody-book-why-did-I-ever-write-this’ stage, which is generally not conductive to good (or any) work. Apart from that, what seems to stymie my progress is that I am simply stumped on how to solve some bigger plot problems. In a first draft, this does not matter so much yet, but I have arrived at a point in which I should critically review pretty much everything in the book. I admit that there are very big holes in it as of yet, and, if not entirely stumped on how to solve them, I can’t come up with any solution which completely satisfies me. Being the perfectionist that I am, this is quite the conundrum.
I cannot technically say that I have writer’s block, because technically I am writing this blog post, so my well of writerly inspiration must not be entirely dried out. One might say that ironically, the drying out of my writerly inspiration is giving me inspiration to write about the aforementioned. So it can’t be writer’s block; I believe that indeed, it has everything to do with the project I am working on. Another thing many a writer might recognize: you have a love/hate relationship with your book. At this point I’m about ready to chuck mine out of the window and watch with savage pleasure how it tumbles down onto the road, to be shredded by a startled driver. But no, that’s too simplistic too. I don’t hate my book. I think it has some things going for it, but what is stymieing me at this point is that there are more things I am dissatisfied with than the things I really like. I think the book is not bad, but it’s not good enough either. Perfectionism again.
It has been suggested to me that it might be healthier if I could focus on something different. Shake things up a bit, get rid of the roadblock stymieing me. It’s mostly psychological anyway. And I do think it might, but I’m quite OCD about leaving a project in the middle of it. I don’t like reading two books at the same time either. Strictly monogamous, you might say; I need closure with one project before I can get started on the next. Again, this is all psychological, which is another hazard of the writing profession: you cannot be easily thwarted by technical malfunctions (even if your equipment fails, a pencil and a piece of paper aren’t difficult to get by), but what is often getting in your way is your own mind. My mind being the capricious fickle entity it is, I might have expected that this would happen at some point. And I hope it might solve itself over time (when the circumstances change), but in the mean time I am annoyed with myself. But more on annoyance later.