Things We Can Learn About Writer’s Block From Mr. Holmes

I had the chance to see the movie Mr. Holmes last weekend, and I loved it. The pace was a tiny bit slow, especially so soon after seeing the speed-of-light Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (such a fun movie!) but it suited the story. Mr. Holmes is about aging and memory, logic and human connection, but it also had so many things to say about storytelling and the power of imagination and the way we form the narratives of our lives. Despite all that, the lessons that lingered in my mind were all about writer’s block.
 
Mr. Holmes is about the beloved fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, told as if he were a real person at the end of his life. Up against the sure knowledge that he is dying, the 93-year-old is desperate to remember a case that was critical to his understanding of his life’s work. He is trying to recall it, but he is also trying to write it down. He’s trying to craft a memoir. And for much of the film, it’s not going well.
 
Here are six things we can learn from his struggle to get the words on the page:
 
1. Having a room of one’s own is useful…. Holmes writes in this fabulous upstairs study that is lined with books and memorabilia. There is a window that looks out on the garden and the grasslands that sweep to the sea. Holmes calls it his “sanctum sanatorium” and he sits here, by day and by night, working on his story. He has the space he needs for the story to come to life, which is all many people claim a writer needs… 

2. … but having an audience is more important. The narrative kicks off when a young boy sneaks into Holmes’ study and becomes an engaged reader of the work. At first Holmes is angry at Roger for the invasion of privacy, but then he immediately asks, “What did you think of the story?” Roger loves it – he’s just as curious to know how the story goes and how it ends as Holmes himself. Knowing that the boy cares, and is waiting for the next installment, motivates Holmes to get the story on the page. 

My favorite part of this set up is that the ideal audience for Holmes is a skinny little twelve-year-old boy. It might be easy to dismiss the kid, but Roger becomes a formidable colleague to Holmes. At one point in the film, Holmes matter-of-factly calls him exceptional.  The kid has a sharp mind, a curiosity about human nature, a desperation to find his own place in the harsh world, a love of language, and a keen imagination.
 
 He’s not, in other words, just any kid (which is itself a big clue for anyone designing a work of fiction – it’s never just any kid, or any dilemma, or any decision….) Holmes wants to finish the story for himself, to be sure, but he wants to finish it for Roger, too.
 
If you’re feeling stuck in your own work, try writing it for one person – real or imagined, dead or alive – but a specific one person. It can change everything.
 
 
3.  Know what your story means. What Holmes is searching for is his point – the reason this particular case has haunted him for three decades. Until he can recall the meaning of the story, the details of it elude him. There is beautiful poetic justice when he finally figures out the meaning, and the specifics of the story come flooding back to him. The same is true for all of us. Stories are meaning-making machines, as I have said many times in these pages (recently here and also here and here). You have to know your point. You have to know why it matters. If you are feeling stuck, stop working on the story itself and try to figure out your point.
 
4. Do more than write. The Holmes in this story has a fascination with many things, but chief among them are bees -- and wasps, their sworn enemies. He spends a lot of time tending the bees, studying them, learning their habits and their ways. At regular intervals, he sets down his lovely fountain pen, walks away from the beautiful thick cream-colored paper, and goes outside. He walks around. Gets some sun. Hangs out with the bees and with Roger. Treks down to the ocean for a swim. None of this is incidental to his struggle – or his eventual success at getting the story down.
 
I have long maintained that the best writing doesn’t happen when you  are sitting at your desk. It happens when you are living your life and being  open to what the world has to offer.
 
So if you are stuck, leave the work behind for a day or a week or even more if  you must. Go write something or do something purely for fun. Stop trying   so hard. Wander around. Let yourself get lost. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,  author of the powerful book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,  states that, “Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same  time... Creative individuals have a combination of playfulness and discipline,  or responsibility and irresponsibility.”

 So let go of the discipline and responsibility you feel around your writing, and balance it out with some fun. My experience is that when you give  yourself a break, you’ll find what your story was missing.
 

5. Feel the pain. In one scene in the film, Holmes goes to a theater to see a showing of a Sherlock Holmes movie – a screenplay adapted from the fictional stories that his former friend and sidekick Watson had written about Holmes’ real life cases. This is a crazy story-within-a-story-within-a-story life- and fiction-bending construction that I am still trying to wrap my mind around. All I know is that in this particular scene, Holmes is experiencing great pain on purpose. He knows that the movie he is seeing will present a false version of the story he is trying to remember – and he needs that pain, he needs to feel that aversion, in order to move forward. It’s brave – and it works. It’s a great reminder why writing is not easy. You feel many things you may not want to feel when you are deep in a story. But you have to feel them if you want to succeed.
 
Writer’s block is not one solid state of paralysis. It is, in fact, a process that involves the interplay of memory, imagination, and the mundane realities of real life. There are layers that must be unlocked, and you can never be sure what’s going to be the key. But to get past it, you can’t just sit there at your desk, torturing yourself with the fact that you are not writing. You have to seek a solution. You have to take action. 

Holmes eventually remembers the case, and writes the story, and solves the riddle of what had been bothering him. It’s a moment of profound beauty and relief, and it is followed in the film by a moment of terror that took my breath  away. In just a few moments, it’s all the best and worst things for Holmes,   and afterwards, he is completely transformed. End of story.
 
Story is, after all, about change. For a writer, one of the changes we seek is to  become a person who has written, who has done it. Before we get there, we  imagine that this change will be wildly transformative. The truth that Mr.  Holmes so brilliantly captures, is that it is.