People say writer’s block doesn’t exist. “Could a cab-driver refuse to drive, saying she had driver’s block?”
Well, no, but if her passengers were simultaneously shouting at her—turn LEFT, NO, turn RIGHT—she might slam on her brakes, and/or get herself into an accident.
So it’s not a block—not a thing in the road preventing your progress. It’s an internal paralysis, when the voices in your head as you write give opposite advice, so you don’t know which way to turn. Which of those voices is right? How can you tell?
Yours truly took a trip into her own brain to find out just who’s in charge at Writer, Incorporated. What follows is a series of interviews with the various voices in my head, like any perfectly normal person might conduct. It’s like Are You My Mother? but for writers.
Briana Una McGuckin, Head of User Experience:
This was the first voice to which I was able to put a face. She sits at an impressively large desk with absolutely nothing on it. As I walk into her office at Writers, INC., I find her sitting in a suit, hands clasped across the shiny desktop, smiling. She looks like me, except—
“Usually my desk is covered in crap,” I say, in lieu of greeting.
“Maintaining a professional appearance is one of my job requirements,” she says crisply. “I’m the first face you see here, as you’ve just found out.”
I nod, but I also laugh. “You get a lot of other visitors in here?”
“Yes,” she says, and she doesn’t laugh with me. “Editors, mostly. Agents. Other writers, who come in on critiques. We don’t want to waste people’s time here at Writers, INC., and we also want to make the most of all our partnerships. I’m dedicated to providing a pleasant experience for all guests and partners.”
“That’s funny,” I say. “None of the voices in my head are pleasant to me.”
Now she laughs: a rich-lady chuckle—poised and patronizing. “Well, no,” she says. “Smooth experiences are built on ruthless, no-nonsense management. Kind host, vicious supervisor.”
I swallow, because now I recognize her voice. She’s the one who tells me when something doesn’t make sense, points out the places where readers are likely to trip. She takes one look at my work, tells me I have too much backstory—or not enough setting—and then saunters away, heels clicking. “So,” I say, my mouth dry. “You’re the boss.”
“Of Writer, INC.?” she asks tilting her head. “Not at all.”
“But you said…”
“I said I’m the first face guests see. That’s true of secretaries.” She rolls her eyes. “As much as it pains me to admit it, I’m very far from the heart of this business. I oversee final copy—late-stage revisions, before the work goes out the door. I do the small stuff. Clarifying, word-choice issues, sequencing sentences.”
“You want to talk about the big stuff, you need to meet the Creative Director,” she says, and sends me down the hall.
Briana McGuckin, Creative Director:
I knock, and a muffled voice bids me come in. I enter a dark office. The news is on low, throwing blue artificial light across the back bookcase (all philosophical texts—Plato’s Republic, The Second Sex by De Beauvoir, and so on). This Briana looks more like the logo for Writers, INC.; she sits hunched over a stack of pages, one hand holding her head.
“Am I interrupting?” I ask.
“No,” she sighs, and sits back. “Actually, I could use a break.”
“You do the heavy lifting around here?” I ask, taking the chair opposite.
“Oh yeah,” she says, almost darkly. “All fiction has implications. It says something, and what it says can move people, for good or ill. So, it’s my job to look at creative endeavors through a political lens, or a philosophical lens, or… well. You get it.”
“Sure,” I say. This is the voice that frets over whether a work sends the right message, or if the characters in a story would behave the way I want them to. More, it worries whether they should act that way. Sometimes, she’s stopped a story of mine at the idea stage, because I couldn’t justify the message, or the implications, of the work. “The big idea. So you’re the boss.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t handle being in charge,” she says, pushing her chair away from the desk. “Most of what I do is… not doing stuff at all? I’m more about intention. Sometimes I just sit here for hours, considering. I judge stuff. But, you know, there has to be stuff to judge first, and that is just not my business. I took this job to make connections. To move people. I cry when a reader ‘gets it.’ Hell, I cry when they don’t. I read the work for theme, late in the revision process. I don’t want to lead. No way. I have too many other things to worry about.”
“Do you need some water or something?” I ask, because she’s shaking a little.
“I’m fine,” she says, voice high. “But if you want to talk to someone more hands-on, you should go down to the I.T. Department.”
Briana McGuckin, I.T. Department:
This Briana is in a loose shirt and yoga pants, and she’s dancing at her desk. She’s got headphones on, and I know exactly what she’s listening to (Queen, “Headlong”) because it’s blasting loud enough to carry across the room. When I finally get her attention, she jumps.
“Holy shit,” she says, throwing down the headphones. “Don’t sneak up on a person.”
I didn’t, but I don’t bother arguing. Instead, I say, “You’re definitely not in charge of Writer, INC.”
“Hell no,” she replies cheerily. “I’m a grunt. But, as with most grunts, this place couldn’t function without me. I figure out where the story breaks down and why, and I figure out how to fix it so that everybody else can do their jobs. I fill plot holes, re-align character with plot and vice versa. Strictly early revision stuff—not the writing. I couldn’t ever get promoted around here, because I don’t care about anything aesthetic. My repair jobs look ugly sometimes—I use duct tape, and sometimes new parts don’t match the old ones—but, you know, do you want the thing fixed or not?”
“Definitely fixed,” I say, grinning. “But it’s a shame you’re not in charge. I think I’d like to hear more of you in my head.”
“No way, dude. I like to turn the music up.” Even as she says this, she’s reaching for her headphones again. “But maybe drop in on the Research Department. That girl’ll talk your ear off.”
Briana McGuckin, Head of Research:
I tiptoe my way into a library, with echoing marble floors and bookshelves from floor to ceiling. It’s tranquil for just a moment, and then the Briana I’m looking for comes rolling along the wall on a sliding ladder, and greets me with: “Did you know?! The term ‘limelight’ comes from Victorian theatre, pre-electricity, when they would burn lime to light the stage. Theatres were hot and uncomfortable—for the cast, for the audience, for everybody!”
“That—sounds awful. I did not know that.”
“Around the same time, set-pieces were—”
“Sorry, I’ve actually been wandering around here for a while, and I just wondered if you were maybe the person in charge? Since you obviously deal with the idea stage of stories?”
“Oh! No, no, no.” She says ‘no’ maybe ten more times, each time more intense than the last. Then: “I’m part-time. Or, I guess I’m on-call. My hours are super unreliable. I’m not here for a while, and then I’m here forever. And, honestly, I’m here when Writers, INC. is closed. I’m here when the work isn’t getting done.”
My eyes narrow. “What do you mean?”
“Like if she’s anxious about getting anything wrong or speaking out of turn, and the writing stops. Then they call me, to jump down rabbit holes. Usually I stumble sideways into stuff she didn’t even know she needed, and—”
“Wait,” I say. “She. She who?”
“Oh! I can take you to her.” This Briana scurries down her ladder, and shushes me before she waves me on. At the far end of the library a door is ajar, and Briana points. I step closer, and peer inside.
The room is small as a closet, its walls bare, with a single desk lamp lit inside. The Briana within has her back to me, but she’s close enough to touch. She’s in pajamas, and her hair is a wild, slept-on mass of curls. There’s a precarious pile of printed pages on one corner of her desk, and several open notebooks arranged around a glowing laptop. She’s hunched over, but she’s not typing. She’s saving pictures of long-haired, imp-faced, effeminate men to a folder called “Jess Inspiration.”
Knitting my brows, I open my mouth to speak, but the Head-of-Research Briana grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me back. She shuts the closet door so slowly that it makes no noise, and only afterward does she whisper: “We shouldn’t disturb the boss.”
My jaw drops open. “Her?! She’s—you think—yes we SHOULD disturb her, she’s OGLING REDHEADS.”
“Sh!” Briana waves my voice down. “See, this is why we’ve been hoping you’d come down here, and see how things work. Because you’re really asking all the wrong people for input—well, no, it’s that you’re asking us at all the wrong times.”
“I’m the problem?” I ask, eyes widening. “What does she do?”
The Head of Research shrugs. “Takes overlong showers. Paces. Talks to herself. She gets easily overwhelmed, so she…” Looking at my face, she switches gears fast: “But she’s full of hope and passion! You know: she has axes to grind, curiosities to sate—she wants to know what happens next. Plus, she loves herself. That’s important around here, nobody else really focuses on it…”
“But…” I dig my hands into my hair. “The stories need to get written, so—so what am I supposed to do to make that happen?”
“Honestly?” the Head of Research asks, wincing.
“Yes, honestly! That’s why I’m here!”
She puts her hand on my shoulder. “You have to stop asking us to interrupt her,” she says. “You have to let her tell the story.”