Before I give you my secret to curing writing block, I’m going to start out today’s post with a test. There is no right answer but the truthful one. On a scale of one to ten, how important is writing to you? I’m not saying if you didn’t have to work how important would it be, or if you had all the time in the world, how important would it be? Just right now, check in with your desire to write and give it a number.
I start out all of my writing classes with this question. I have never had anyone give me a number below seven and it is usually a nine or a ten. I think this is a crucial piece of information, because if you have a passion in your life that ranks nine or ten in importance and you are not finding a way to pursue it, you are doing yourself great harm and robbing your life of a sense of fulfillment. I’m not saying you have to quit your job or neglect your family or other responsibilities to pursue writing, but if it ranks high, you owe it to yourself to find a place for your creative life in your daily life. When I decided some eighteen years ago to write fifteen minutes a day first thing in the morning, I knew that writing was a ten for me. And I found that with that short burst of writing each day, I was able to make peace with going to an office and doing work that was not completely reflective of my essential nature. Just fifteen minutes did that. I’d print out what I wrote and revise it on the bus downtown. For a long time that was my writing practice and for a long time it was enough. Eventually, I wrote for longer periods, but even if I had kept it to fifteen minutes, it would have done something for me that nothing else could have, the sense that I was doing the thing I was born to do. I didn’t have to show it to anybody. I didn’t have to publish it. I just had to do it.
So what is writing block? Anything that prevents you from writing entirely, or from completing a piece of writing that is important to you. If you want a sure cure for writing block, read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Or, let me distill that ancient wisdeom for you into two simple rules: Know your enemy and know yourself.
The purpose of this blog is to explore the disciplined writing life. But as yet, I haven’t really defined what I mean by that. It is a given that to finish a piece of writing you must have a plan. First, you must have a desire to write something. Second, you must have a schedule for your writing sessions. And third, you need to acquire some knowledge of the writing craft. This is really all you need, and, if you stick to your plan, you will end up with a finished piece of writing, and you will have become a disciplined writer. The subtext, of course, is that at some point resistance rears its ugly head. It always does when we set out to do something that is difficult, and what could be more difficult than creating something out of nothing, facing the blank page. Some part of us says no way because to write we have to dig deep, confront our insecurities, doubts and ignorance. We don’t start out knowing the craft, for example, and learning it, much less mastering it, is in itself is a lifelong challenge. At one time or another we say, enough. I can’t do this. The excuse could be I have a family, a job and don’t have time. But the funny thing is, if we say time is the issue, we can find ourselves with two weeks vacation and nothing else to do and we still don’t write. So maybe time isn’t the real issue. The successful writer has to make a commitment to hunt down these agents of resistance, to find a way to overcome them, defeat them or even appease them so we can get back to writing. That’s pretty much what Sun Tzu said two thousand years ago. You need a strategy. Oh, by the way, when I say successful writer, I’m not talking about critical or financial success, I mean basic, raw success, finishing what you started. If you can’t type The End to a piece of writing, there can be no other success.
As I said yesterday, the inner conflict we call writing block, that resistance, is unique to each of us. The sure fire cure, then, is to locate the source of that resistance and resolve it. There, that’s the sure fire cure. Works every time. Simple to be sure, but for some of us, it is easier to clean the garage. Heck, it’s easier to dismantle the whole house and rebuild it from scratch. And trust me, some people will do that rather than face the blank page. I’m a knitter and unraveling a writing conflict is like tackling a hopelessly tangled skein of yarn. Just when you think you have loosened the whole thing, you come to a stubborn knot that just won’t yield. Some writing knots go back to childhood insecurities and even traumas. They may be tangled up with other parts of our lives. Stresses and strains surrounding jobs, finances, health and relationships can distract us from writing. Unexpected windfalls, the thrill of falling in love can also make our writing life recede into the woodwork. Sometimes the thought of getting back into writing after a long absence can seem so daunting that it is easier to just forget about and let the novel or poems moulder unfinished in the attic or on your zip drive. An insensitive significant other or inappropriate writing mentor can say things that zap our confidence and convince us to give up.
While this blog can’t help anyone resolve childhood conflicts or troubled relationships that may be getting in the way, I can off some suggestions that helped me to identify the issues that have at times paralyzed my writing. I took a cue from The Art of War: know your enemy. I figured once me resistance was out in the open, then I’d have a shot at beginning to dismantle it. So I recommend that you start with step one: Identify and name your enemy, the particular form your resistance takes. Your gremlins may surprise you. Tomorrow I’ll take a stab at naming some of them (for anyone who's paying attention, I said I would start today, but this post is going on too long). But for now, if you’re having trouble with your writing practice, start thinking about behaviors, thoughts and attitudes that keep you from completing a piece of writing.