Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Shape Shifter Called Writer's Block

Jane Fonda played the young Lillian Hellman in the 1977 film, Julia.  In one shocking scene, working on her first play, she paces up and down in front of her typewriter seemingly in the grip of writer’s block.  Hellman's lover, the experienced, successful Dashiell Hammet, sits under a tree, as I recall, all centered poise and wisdom. We see Lillian’s growing angst as she smokes unfiltered cigarette after unfiltered cigarette, until in a fit of rage at the blank page, she throws her typewriter out the window, narrowly missing Dash I suppose.

Two things are wrong with this scene. First, no writer would throw a typewriter, or, these days, a computer, out the window. Dash might go flying head first, but not the Underwood. Second, any writer close enough to the typewriter to pitch it headlong already has a leg up on writer’s block.

But what is it, exactly, this famously paralyzing spell that imprisons the writer’s imagination? It appears in many guises. A Lillian Hellman type inability to string one word after another into a simple declarative sentence is the most famous. Yet I doubt many writers actually sit and stare at a blank page for hours, certainly not with the distraction of the internet close at hand.  I think there are two ways of looking at an inability to write:

1.  Everyone suffers from writer's block at some time or other.
2.  Nobody does.

You see, I don't think the term writer's block is very helpful, or useful.  Creative work both frees our essential nature, and can turn on us and put us in conflict with ourselves.  That conflict creates a gridlock of the mind, imagination, and will.  The good news is that, like gridlock, moving some of the pieces around, getting some trucks to back up, some taxis to take a side road, walking instead of driving for a day frees everything up.  Writing is nothing if not an exercise in self-discovery, and the path to freeing yourself from an inability to write as much, as often, and as easily as you would like, is to understand the beast you call writer’s block.  I suggest you ditch the term writer’s block and tell it like it is.  I know it by other names:  procrastination, fear and self doubt, overbooking my schedule, rewriting the same piece over and over because I’m afraid of new work, avoiding endings, inability to prioritize, making cleaning my refrigerator more important than my writing session, laziness, mismanagement of time, a talent for distraction, inability to put my needs and desires ahead of family and friends, and the most deadly of all, promising I’ll start tomorrow.

Writer’s block is just a catch-all term for the particular quirks of personality that we struggle with in every area of our lives but seem particularly glaring when it comes to writing.  Take any of my examples above and put a different tag line on them:  Dieting Block, Exercising Block, Punctuality Block, Organization Block, Self-Promotion Block, Cleaning the Garage Block, or whatever goal you have that gets sidelined by your particular gremlins, and you have writer’s block in a different guise.  Writer’s block is just you meeting you.  Or, in the interest of full disclosure, me meeting me.

My most important lesson about writing came not in a writing class or reading John Gardner's advice to novelists, but from looking at my reflection in the window of my writing room that overlooked the Mendocino Coast.  Days earlier I had made a commitment to myself to learn how to write fiction, and it terrified me.  By dumb luck I'd had a cookbook published.  I considered myself a cook but writing recipes wasn't "real writing," I told myself.  But of course, that experience opened up the writer in me and the desire to write something real, which to me meant a novel.  That desire dogged me until one day in Mendocino I had to face it down and say yes to writing.  All of a sudden, when writing became real to me, I had my first experience with writer's block.  I couldn't write a word.  Then came my epiphany in front of the window.  If my goal, desire, passion is to write, part of my process must be to confront in myself the traits that kneecap me and keep me from the thing I most want to do.  After all, if I had opened a restaurant and nobody came, I wouldn’t say, oh well, Business Block and give up.  I’d have to figure out or find someone who would help me figure out a way to draw in customers.  I saw writing in a new way.  For want of a better way of describing it, it became my spiritual discipline.  It was the lens through which I saw every aspect of myself, my strengths, weaknesses, and passions.  I ralized I must confront all of them, not just the blank page.  My revelation occurred thirty years ago and I face myself down every day.  It is a never-ending process, just like life.

My justification for this blog comes from the revelation I had way back in my Mendocino days, and what I've learned since them.  I pass my few insights on with the hope that they might save you a little time wrestling with whatever it is that gets in your way.  You'd come to all this on your own if you stay with it, but maybe something in this blog will keep you from giving up.  If you are not able to complete a piece of writing that you started, or can’t get yourself to your writing space to begin exploring something to work on, or always find yourself saying, I’d love to write but I just don’t have the time, bingo!  It's time for a plan and some writerly navel gazing.  I need to point out that confronting your obstacles to writing won’t make you a better writer or a published writer.  It will, however, make you a more consistent writer with finished product to show to a friend, a writing teacher, even a prospective editor.  Not confronting your writing gremlins, though, will keep you mired in the swamp of excuses and regrets. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to start.  I’ll give you a hint as to where I’ll begin.  Don’t EVER promise yourself you’ll start tomorrow.

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