I only started having problems with writer’s block when I hit my 30s. Most writers know the symptoms all too well. Do you have a fantastic idea for a story but just don’t know where to start? Do you find yourself staring at a blank screen for hours? Do you feel like a failure and doubt whether you will ever be able to write anything of worth again?
I had an epiphany when I realised the true source of the problem: that I didn’t need to write. I had a fine job that paid the bills. Writing was a bonus extra – fun, but in no way essential. I thought of writers who have inspired me. Young Philip K Dick (who I tweeted as) lived in squalor – a leaky house full of mice – and he hated the idea of a standard 9-5 job so much it pushed him to write to pay the bills. Kurt Vonnegut was similar: he desperately wanted to quit his PR job working for General Electric and knew his only escape was selling cynically targeted short stories to mass-market ‘slicks’.
This led me, a number of years ago now, to crystallise my first piece of advice for aspirational writers:
Find Your Need
Find your need, and once you’ve found it, put it in front of you. Literally put it in front of you. Staple your energy bills to the front of your writing journal. Blue-tack The Guardian’s ‘Top 100 novelists’ to your wall (you need to be in there). Take a photo of the rejection letter from that pompous editor you need to prove wrong and save it to your homepage.
But that’s not enough. How many fantastic, inspirational quotes do you have up in your house? Dozens? Maybe hundreds. But how many do you actually remember when you need them the most? How many demand your attention and drive the change in you?
It took me years to realise that the content of your need isn’t the thing that matters. In your troughs your ‘I-Can’t-Do-It Self’ will always find reasons to doubt your need. Do you really need to write to pay those bills? Will anybody really judge you badly for playing squash instead of slogging away at that story? No, what matters more is the form of your need.
A quote is just a flimsy scrap of paper or a flash on a screen. So is an overdue energy bill. So are these words. Your need must be physical, tangible and unavoidable.
These meditations drove me to my second revelation:
Grow Your Need
I have green fingers and my houseplants mean a lot to me. I got my brainwave when I was walking around my flat one day, putting off writing, about to water my favourite plant, a fiddle leaf fig called ‘Figlet’.
Feeling shame and self-contempt, I caught myself thinking: what right do I have to water this plant, when I haven’t even fulfilled my own basic needs as a writer? I can remember the day well – an arid, lethargic day in August when Figlet really needed the water.
I took Figlet and plonked him right by my writing desk, his limp dehydrated leaves brushing my forearm as I wrote. I promised to myself then: I will only water this plant once I’ve written 1000 words.
That turned out to be a great writing day! I was pumped about my new method and I hammered out a 1700 word short story about a cow who acts abominably but has no remorse. I filled up my watering jug and savoured it glug-glugging into Figlet’s pot.
Not only had I found a need, but I was growing it
It wasn’t long before I had a bad week and I felt awful for that fiddle leaf fig. As his sad leaves withered and yellowed, I knew I needed to write. I didn’t want to but I needed to. For Figlet’s sake.
Remember: need always trumps want.
So I glued myself to that damn desk and stared my demon right in the eye for hours and hours until the words came. The words turned into a short, prize-winning promenade play about the changing uses of road-side telephone boxes.
How thirsty my little Figlet was! As I got into a daily rhythm and my creative outpourings grew, so too did my treasured plant. I could see him by my desk every day: this physical manifestation of my hard toil. I was both nourishing Figlet with life-giving water and nourishing the world with my ideas.
I fantasised about what the fruits of my future labour could be: a quirky radio play sprouting wild orchids, a post-apocalyptic novella irrigating a neat line of gooseberry bushes, a full-blown sci-fi trilogy gushing like a waterfall into a lush rainforest.
What Figlet taught me
But was it really enough? No. Sadly, Figlet died. I had to hack him up to fit him in the compost bin. This was a real low point for me. Not only had I failed to stick to my writing schedule, but I’d let a perfectly serviceable plant die in the process.
Let’s unpick this. I’m proud that I had the discipline to let Figlet die (this meant I was true to my art). But I was frustrated I didn’t have the willpower to keep him alive.
The method had to change. The stakes just weren’t high enough. The death of my plant was not painful enough. I could just pop to Homebase and buy another one (I did).
I was wrestling with this issue when my best friend in the world, my wonderful 5-year-old Dachsund, Peter, came to nuzzle at my lap. It was then when I had the eureka! moment I’ve since talked about at so many motivational speeches across the world. It was this that led me to amend my second piece of advice: Grow Your Need, Using a Pet. You probably know this by the catchier line:
Feed That Dog!™
These were the three words that saved my (creative) life. I decided at that very moment that I would refrain from feeding my dog, Peter, until I had met my writing quota for the day. It was non-negotiable. If I wanted to procrastinate or accept less from myself, I’d have to do it looking Peter in his sad, hungry eyes.
So my need was right there in the room with me, panting hoarsely with his tongue out, gazing up at me adorably, licking his parched lips, and sometimes literally begging me for food.
It may sound crazy, but it works. It’s the method I still use today.
If I write, he eats – and boy how he eats! And on the days I take the easy option, he waits at his bowl until it finally dawns on him that nothing will come. I say to him, “I’m sorry Peter, but your master has not met his need today, so nor will you.” It’s tough for both of us, but I sense that he understands.
Some acquaintances of mine have raised the suggestion that this is in some way cruel or inhumane. This is a good place for a reminder: you will always hear negative voices on your struggle. If you take them too seriously, they will sabotage your dreams.
Instead, listen to just some of the millions of people who use the Feed That Dog!™ method from across the world:
“I feel so motivated when I hear my puppies whine. I don’t let them suffer. They gorge themselves on meat after I’ve written a good chapter.” – Geoff from Barnstable, UK, who has two golden Labrador pups who are helping him to write ‘a local council version of House of Cards’.
“You’ll never look back! Be cruel to be kind.” – Sally from Kamloops, Canada, who is writing a saucy forensic crime thriller with her Chihuahua, ‘Speckles’.
“Although there is a legal requirement to feed your dog every day, I’ve not heard of many instances where this is actively enforced.” – Paul from Bromley, UK, who dedicated his first novel, ‘The Taste of Gravity’, to his three former dogs.
People often ask me how I feel now that Feed That Dog!™ has become an international sensation. Let me simply describe a moment from earlier this evening, walking around my local streets here in London. I saw a guilty dog-owner walking a slow, gaunt dog with clearly exposed ribs. I felt proud because that is a person who will certainly be up late writing tonight. Who knows, maybe they’ll write the next ‘Game of Thrones’.
So what am I going to do now? I’ve just finished this article – 1500 words! Peter is here and he looks famished. I’m going to Feed That Dog™.
DISCLAIMER: This post is for educational and inspirational purposes only. You are responsible for your pet’s needs. I am a high-concept sci-fi writer and motivational guru, not a medical or veterinary practitioner.