“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged…I had poems that were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.” ~ Erica Jong
There are many people who don’t think writer’s block is a real thing, or it’s an affliction that can be cured by a simple prescription of BiC (“butt in chair”).
“Just set your alarm,” a member of my writers’ group told me, when I confessed that I’d barely been writing the past few months.
This was a little confusing at first, because I DO set my alarm every day in order to get my kids off to school in the morning, but what he meant of course was, “Set your alarm to go off earlier in the morning, and start writing first thing when you wake up.”
I can only imagine what my expression must have been, as I tried to frazzle out the practicalities of this advice. I am duly impressed by this individual’s commitment, that he’s able to get in an hour or more of writing every day before heading off to his teaching job. But I’ve tried the “get up early” routine, and it doesn’t work for me—I’m too naturally a night owl to do anything productive at an early hour. If my alarm goes off at 6 a.m., it’s 9 o’clock and two cups of tea before I can seriously attempt any creative work. I’ve tried it: it didn’t work.
I explained this to my eager-to-help fellow writer, but I don’t think he bought it. You can see that look in someone’s eye…not quite contempt, but definitely not buying what they perceive as an excuse you’re using to avoid working. To avoid writing.
But, I tell you, my butt has been in the chair plenty lately. Making time for writing is not my problem.
I don’t think that anyone who prescribes BiC as a cure for writer’s block has ever really suffered from it. Avoiding writing is not the same thing as being unable to write. Not having any ideas to write about is not the same thing as being unable to write. These are struggles against resistance, to be sure, and often not trivial to overcome. But they are not the same thing as being unable to write.
Here is what writer’s block really is:
It’s sitting down at your computer (or with your notebook) every day, with your half-finished story document open in front of you, every day, for an hour or two hours or whatever hours you have available to you. It’s putting your fingers on the keys and typing words, and then deleting them because they’re crap. Or copying them to a holding page because the words are okay, but that’s just not the right place for them. It’s endlessly rearranging the words in a sentence, or the sentences in a paragraph, or the paragraphs on a page, waiting for everything to click as just right, so you can move on, only nothing ever clicks. It’s getting frustrated that nothing ever clicks, so you skip ahead and try to work on another part of the story, only nothing ever clicks there either. It is walking away after however-many hours you can stand of this and not bothering to save anything because you haven’t accomplished anything worth saving.
It is doubt. It is uncertainty. It is having no faith in anything you create, and it is taking no pleasure in the act of creation. It is a constant, lurking dread that you have lost the one one shining thing about yourself that has ever meant anything.
This is what my writer’s block looks like. This is why it is so demolishing to be told, even with the best intentions, “You just need to set your alarm.”
I have been well aware that, after more than two years of unemployment, low self-esteem and a lack of confidence were having their way with my mental well-being. Writing, something I’ve always been good at and enjoyed doing, should have been the logical cure for those problems. I took a liberal dose of the BiC prescription and plopped myself in front of my open manuscript regularly, only to be continually frustrated by—as described above—a total lack of ability to write.
My inner critic running rampant, yes, but none of the tricks I tried to contain it (like getting up an hour early) worked.
Last week, when I read the Erica Jong quote that appears at the top of this post on a friend’s Facebook page, it was like a light bulb going off inside my head. And not one of your puny eco-friendly CCFL or LED light bulbs either, but a great, giant, energy-eating 150 watt incandescent light bulb that blinked at me: Fear of Judgment.
Normally, I have a pretty good backbone when it comes to taking criticism about my writing (maybe because I’ve never been too severely criticized…even the poly sci professor who gave me a D started out his remarks with, “Clearly you’re a good writer…”). Rejections are a little disappointing, but they have never undermined my confidence in my abilities. I have always been happy to show off bits and pieces of my WIP, in my blog, in my writer’s group, to anyone who expresses a half-point of interest. The idea that I wasn’t writing because I didn’t want to have to show anybody? Ridiculous!
Except…over the last two years, I have been subjected to a constant stream of negative judgments. Every time I send out a resume and hear nothing back, it is a small judgment against me. Every time I go to an interview and don’t get hired (even when I’m sure I’ve nailed it), it is a major judgment against me. I have been humbled, to say the least, my ego battered and bashed by the constant reiteration of, “Not good enough.”
How could I possibly withstand, under those circumstances, such a judgment of my heart’s work? No wonder my inner critic has gone into overdrive! If I never wrote anything, never finished anything, then I would never have to show it to anyone and be subject to the requisite judgments on its quality. Only fear has that kind of disruptive power in our psyches, I think.
A big light bulb, I tell you. Blinking.
Now, I know that this can be interpreted as yet another elaborate excuse for not writing, and in many ways it is. I’d rather think of it as an explanation, because it explains past circumstances, but I don’t want it to be a justification for continuing the behavior. In understanding the root cause of a problem, we can start taking steps to overcome it. I’ve always believed that to be true.
What I don’t know yet is exactly how I’m going to overcome it. I see two paths before me.
One, I make a cocoon for myself, a promise that whatever I write is not for public consumption anyway, so whatever underhanded mischief my Inner Critic attempts can just be ignored.
Two, I go totally public, undertake a public project of some sort which requires exposure regardless of what the Critic has to say.
Neither is 100% appealing: if my affliction were being afraid to take my clothes, then the first is like allowing myself to bathe only in the dark, while the second is like streaking across a crowded football stadium.
I’d be interested in hearing suggestions and thoughts anyone might have, perspective from your own struggles with this kind of problem. What would YOU do, if you were in my shoes?