The OED defines the noun form of “bog” as “wet muddy ground too soft to support a heavy body.” The American Heritage Science Dictionary elaborates on this and says that a bog is “an area of wet, spongy ground consisting mainly of decayed or decaying peat moss (sphagnum) and other vegetation. Bogs form as the dead vegetation sinks to the bottom of a lake or pond, where it decays slowly.” What an apt metaphor for writer’s block: those times when you truly feel as though you are sinking in a pit of your own decaying pages, complete with stink, your mushy words rendered incapable of bearing the weight of the story they’re supposed to be telling.
“Bog” can also be used as a verb. The OED defines the literal verb form of bog as “to become stuck in mud or wet ground” and the figurative form as “unable to make progress.” Both the noun and verbs are excellent ways of describing writer’s block, further evidenced by the fact that, beset with this hateful condition, I have not even been able to write a blog post for the past week and a half. I’m even having trouble writing this post. Of writerly rants about the dreaded bog-block, there are many: from laments to denial that such a thing exists, and some even complete with handy tips on how to overcome the slump. I am going to give you a parable. That’s right–a parable.
If someone were to rewrite Pilgrim’s Progress and make the main character a writer named Author who’s trying to finish a novel, Author would undoubtedly find himself trapped in Writer’s Block Bog–most likely more than once–before he reached the Promised Land, or Polished Manuscript Mountain. And if Author were me, his time in Writer’s Block Bog might go something like this…
Author is writing a book, which takes him on a figurative journey through woods and hills and valleys–and let’s face it, there are times when some of us would rather physically tromp through briers and mire than sit at a desk and pull out every strand of body hair on our person. But I digress. Author’s journey to Polished Manuscript Mountain starts off well enough. Sure, there are bumps in the unpaved road, a thorny bush here and there, a squirrel or two running into Author’s line of sight and distracting him for a few miles, but mostly, he moves along at a good clip. He generates pages, he revises them, and he sends them off to Fellow Author, his primary reader and compatriot on this trek. Fellow Author is honest about the quality of Author’s pages, but is also full of praise. So onward, Author goes.
But one day, things start to stall out, and before Author knows it, Writer’s Block Bog is upon him. Sometimes, he sees the Bog coming a mile away, diverts his gaze to the fields beside him, hums a tune, and pretends the dreaded muck isn’t smack dab in his path. Other times, it catches him off guard. He’s walking through the woods, pushes back a branch, and there it is–the Bog.
Whether it takes him by surprise or comes as no surprise, when Author encounters Writer’s Block Bog, he first thinks, I’ll go around it. Perhaps this isn’t Writer’s Block Bog after all–maybe it’s only Shake Things Up Marshland. No worries! Author free writes, he writes list poems, he imitates well-known poems by other authors, and then he wanders completely out of his realm of expertise and writes a story about a race of lizard people with Scandinavian names who live in a village surrounded by woods filled with snowy-white fairies (yes, I actually wrote that story). But the more Author tries to tromp parallel to the Bog and find a way around it, the more the Bog seems to expand in width, until finally, Author has no choice but to step into it. Minutes later, he’s sunk knee-deep in the decay of his own rotting pages.
Author summons Fellow Author to his aid, via the carrier pigeon who sits on his shoulder throughout this journey, waiting for just such an occasion. Soon, Fellow Author arrives, arms laden with ropes and pulleys, as well as a picnic basket because Bog or no Bog, one has to eat. Author and Fellow Author have a picnic and discuss the best way to get through Writer’s Block Bog. But picnicking can be mighty distracting, the conversation veers off, and for a few blissful hours, Author forgets he’s up to his thighs in his own creative filth.
But then, the picnic is over, and it’s time to get down to business. Fellow Author rigs up an elaborate pulley system, making suggestions like, “Try free writing again, write a letter to your character, set all your research aside, and let the story dictate where it needs to go.” Good advice, and Author grips the ropes and tries to pull himself out of the Bog. He pants, he sweats, he tugs and tugs. But Writer’s Block Bog is like quicksand, and the exertion only sucks him deeper. After hours upon hours of trying, Author just can’t try anymore. He lets go of the rope and tells Fellow Author, “Never mind. It’s no use,” and he flings himself back into the Bog, intent on letting it swallow him alive, deaf to Fellow Author’s cries of, “Don’t give up!”
The contents of Writer’s Block Bog begin to creep upon Author’s waist, his arms, and suddenly, he becomes irrationally outraged–not at Fellow Author or even at the Bog, but at Manuscript. Manuscript is behaving like a moody teenager: uncooperative, pouty, malicious, and secretive to the point of vindictive, and frankly, Author has had enough. This anger acts like a shot of helium that lifts Author out of Writer’s Block Bog. But the trouble is, it can’t take him to the other side–it can only land him on the Banks of Denial. But at least the Banks are dry land, and so there, Author goes. From the Banks of Denial, the sound of Fellow Author’s voice is a distant whisper, and even his own anger seems to have burned itself out. He begins to strip tree bark and fashion it into bracelets, and for a while, he pretends he isn’t Author, but only Man, and there’s no such thing as Manuscript.
The amount of time Author will spend on the Banks of Denial varies. It could be hours or days, but soon, a vague fear will begin to gnaw at the back of his neck. Because what Author knows, even while he sits on the Banks, seemingly content with his bracelet weaving, is that the things we give up, we do not usually give up instantaneously–giving up is a slow fade. More often than not, a man doesn’t mean to stop walking, to stop writing. But one day of neglect leads to another, and then another, and before he knows it, it’s been months or maybe a year since the thing has been done. It’s tempting for Author to stop moving forward, to build a hut on the Banks of Denial, to rest for a few days or weeks like everyone else in the world, and after all, what’s one little break matter? A time of respite in the middle of the journey is one thing, but laying a foundation on the Banks of Denial can set him on the crest of a slippery slope.
The ironic thing, of course, is that the Banks seem safer than the Bog. The Banks of Denial are home to spirits that whisper things into Author’s ear like, “Your stories don’t matter. Nothing you write is going to change the world. It doesn’t make a difference to anyone whether you finish this book or not, so just stay here and be content with an ordinary life.” Those whispers sound like truth, a truth that, right now at least, Author wants to believe. Because when faced with Writer’s Block Bog, believing that his work doesn’t matter is much easier than believing that it does–because believing that it does means he has to step back into the Bog.
The thing that’s remarkably and frighteningly easy to forget about Writer’s Block Bog is that it will not be encountered only once. Already, Author has come upon it many times. He knows this because, looking through his travelogue, he reads accounts of the previous times he’s found himself in the Bog, and lo and behold, he got out. He’s even made it to Polished Manuscript Mountain before (how did that happen?). But each trip into the Bog feels like the first time through, and each labored step tells him that he will never get out.
But remember that fear gnawing at the back of Author’s neck? If he opens his mind to it, he’ll find that it is actually his friend. It reminds him that, no matter how much he may wish it at times, he is not just Man but also Author, and for him, these two are inextricably linked. It has always been this way, and it will be this way all his life. If he stops the journey and builds a hut on the Banks, tries to make a life spent fashioning tree bark bracelets, it’s not as though Manuscript will walk away and find someone else to complete it. It will hover in Author’s mind forever, sometimes quiet and sometimes loud, but always making noise, interrupting his days. To be rid of it, he must write it, and that is all there is to it.
So what’s Author to do? One day, he gets up early, packs his things, and takes that first step off the Banks of Denial and back into the steaming mess of Writer’s Block Bog. He will close his eyes, and he will chant to himself things like, “It’s a slow fade, don’t stop, just keep typing, don’t look back, this story wouldn’t have come to you if it didn’t matter, wouldn’t have come to you if you couldn’t write it.” Because in the end, all the tips and tricks for getting through the Bog, all the quirky descriptions by other authors about the evilness of the Bog, all the time spent railing at it or staring at it, avoiding it or trying to go around it–none of this will actually get Author through it.
The only thing way to get through Writer’s Block Bog is to keep walking. Walk, and listen to Fellow Author cheering him on from the sidelines, and pray that after hours and days, maybe even weeks, he will find himself free of the decay and back on dry land, on the other side of Writer’s Block Bog and once again on his way to Polished Manuscript Mountain. And while he can hope that dry land will come sooner rather than later, even hope that afterwards he’ll know better for next time, the only thing he can really ask for is to continue on his journey. May he walk the path to Polished Manuscript Mountain, and may he walk it well. And may there be, on the other side, a trail leading to yet another Mountain, and another, and may each winding and treacherous path make him, if not wiser, then a bit more patient and enduring than the last.