Once upon a time, I lived in Prague, in a part of town known as Smichov, long before I had to learn how to beat writer’s block. Before I even knew what it was, actually. Smichov was famous for three things: the Tatra plant, abandoned just before I got there in 1993; Staropramen beer (still considered by many to be the finest pilsner in the world and responsible for at least ten of the excess pounds I carry around today); and, home of the Bertramka, a villa where most of Don Giovani was written by Mozart.
It was the latter that actually inspired The Amadeus Net. I kept imagining Mozart haunting the same shops, parks and pivnices (pubs) as me.
My first novel
If you haven’t read it, my debut novel is about how a sentient, utopian city named Ipolis helps keep an immortal Mozart from being revealed by an investigative journalist. (There’s also robots, a depressed Canadian diplomat, a psychotic painter, and a megalomaniacal British soldier of fortune.) While I lived in Prague, I outlined the story and wrote the first ten thousand words. I don’t know if many of those words made it into the final draft, but they were important part in my development as a writer.
During that year, I also wrote two plays, a handful of short stories, and a bunch of nonsense I had broadcast on the Czech National Radio service. I wrote in my journal daily. A document that shall never see the light of day, but which kept me writing, even when I didn’t feel like it. It was a formative year: I decided to become a playwright and novelist, rather than a journalist.
And over the next few years, I continued to write. Not at the pace I do now, but I had steady progress. I finished The Amadeus Net. I got tremendously lucky (I now recognize) and an agent agreed to represent the manuscript.
Then the tap just stopped flowing. I knew I had to get another book ready, as a follow up to my first novel, but the words . . . they weren’t there. I hope you never experience the panic this kind of block can cause. It’s a full-blown existential crisis for those of us who consider ourselves writers. If I can’t write, then what am I? Some kind of meat blob that used to be a narrative machine, but is now a waste of carbon?
Looking back, I blame it on a toxic mix of postpartum depression and hubris: I had an agent. Ooo, I must be a genius. I’d worked for so long on the draft of The Amadeus Net I was having trouble getting my mind out of that story. I had tons of ideas, but every time I sat down to scribble, words wouldn’t go on the page.
Clawing my way back and learning how to beat writer’s block
I’d like to say that time passed and it just ended, but it took actual effort to break through the barrier. My mother gave me a copy of The Artist’s Way – a kind of new age self-help book for wannabe artists – and I worked through it. For the most part, it wasn’t that useful, but there was one step that literally saved my writing career. (Or pretensions to it.)
The book asks that you write daily in a journal. What you write didn’t have to be good. It didn’t even have to be coherent. The book just demands just that you spend the first part of every day after you get up writing.
At first, it was just painful. I wrote banal crap about how I liked clouds. One morning I was so bereft of words, I just scrawled: “I dreamed I could write” again and again. Seriously, it was weeks of garbage. But slowly, the junk flowing out my pen turned into sentences I could admit weren’t vomitous. Slowly, the words came back. And by the end of the six weeks, the stories started to flow again.
Like magic – the kind that requires intense effort over a long period of time – I was no longer one of Pratchett’s Californians.
And it was about then the agent and I parted ways. But that’s another story.
The next book I published after vanquishing writer’s block was Marvellous Hairy, a goofy, mad tale about a surrealistic novelist being turned into a monkey. And, of course, you may want to read some of the books that came after that, which can be found here:
P.S. The New Yorker has ten tips for how to beat writer’s block too, check them out! Good stuff.