Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Careful what you’re calling writer’s block, because we believe what we think.

Here's my writing block, given to me by a friend many years ago.  It is the only block that I allow within twenty miles of my desk.  Let me tell you why.

Positive affirmations help all of us get through hard times.  It is part of the mental game of life.  We become our sideline coach, telling ourselves, you can do this, when we face an unusual challenge.  Whether we are aware of it or not, we talk ourselves into believing we can overcome an obstacle or complete a task.  This reinforcement often functions under the radar, because we do it so frequently that we don’t actually hear the words in our head.  But if we didn’t believe we could brush our teeth in the morning or get ourselves out the door to an appointment, we wouldn’t.

But negative reinforcement is just as powerful a motivator, though much more subtle.  Take writer’s block.  Well, don’t take it if you can avoid it, but think about, for a minute, what happens to your mental self-coaching when your writing practice hits a snag.  The slowdown can take a variety of forms.  You suddenly notice it has been several days since you’ve written a word.  Or, you sit down at your writing nook and can’t come up with an idea.  Then, most likely, you find your head full of accusations and threats—what’s the matter with you, thinking you can write?  If you were a real writer you would (fill in the blanks).  If you don’t get something written today, that’s it.  You better give up your dream of writing your book.  And then the killer of all creative energy rises up from a dank swamp and says, bingo, you have writer’s block. 

Guess what happens when you get into this mindset?  We believe what we think.  If we think we have writer’s block, sure enough, we won’t write a word.  

Tom Jenks, a writing teacher of mine and now the co-publisher of, once said to me that when he sits down to write, he faces all of his shortcomings.  I think that is a universal experience at some time or other for all writers.  We are trying to make something out of nothing, not an easy task.  And, when you do get words on the page, how do you know they are the right ones, that anyone else will thrill to them the way you do?  As much as we want to write, need to write, we can get the cold sweats because a corner of our mind believes we aren’t up to the task.  Our shortcomings loom too large to see our strengths.  We can’t get the words to work their way through that wall of doubt, so we decide we have writer’s block.  And when we tell our brain we have writer’s block, it snaps to attention and believes you.  It doesn’t produce a word. 

I'm not diminishing the terrors that can arise when we set our hearts on becoming a writer and then our inner life shuts down. How do I know this?  Because, I've spent hours, days, months afraid of the writing process, afraid of what it will tell me about myself--that I'm not good enough, that I'm on the road to failure.  And so I stop writing.  I’ll say I don’t have time to write, or some other excuse.  But I’m running away from the thing I love because I don’t want to face my shortcomings.  As I have written in other posts, this was my reason for becoming a daily writer--so I would no longer fall into that trough.

Remember, though, doubt is not writer’s block.  Fear of the blank page is not writer’s block.  A temporary brain freeze that shuts down your creative energy for a bit isn’t writer’s block.  Not the deadly paralysis we think of when we hear the term.  Unless we tell ourselves it is.  

I've learned that when I am in the grip of a writing slump, I must analyze my feelings in that moment.  Try it.  Ask yourself to identify the feeling underneath the belief about writing block.  It is more likely that you are experiencing fear, doubt, and exhaustion, possibly even boredom.  Because writing block is not a feeling, it is a belief. 

Our inner life flips back and forth between thoughts and feelings.  An oversimplification, I know.  But it works in this regard. It is easier to change a belief, such as, I have writing block, if we don't confuse it with an emotion.  Thoughts and beliefs will bend to logic.  If you think you have writing block, pick an object around you and just briefly describe it.  List the color, the shape, your opinion of it.  Just do two or three sentences.  If you had writing block, you couldn’t do that.  So there is the lie in writing block.  It sort of doesn’t exist.  

But if you identify the feelings as you think you have writing block, you will probably come with something much more real, such as, I'm afraid to write.  I've had my writing rejected and I am filled with self doubt.   These are states of being you and all the rest of us have lived with all of our lives in different circumstances.  And in order to function in the world, we have come up with strategies to confront and overcome these feelings.  We give ourselves a break to relax.  We talk to a trusted friend.  We encourage ourselves in some way. 

To my mind, though, the best way to overcome an attack of failure of confidence is some compassion.  Instead of saying I have writer’s block and I can’t do this, try this.  “I’m attempting something hard, challenging and some self doubt is part of the job.  I’ve done other hard things in my life, and I can do this.”   Trust me, there are days when I do this on an hourly basis.  Eventually, though, I get myself to a better place.  For the time being, that is, because we flip back and forth between emotional state.  Or, at least I do.

I tell myself what Hemingway told himself when his work frightened him.  “I wrote a good sentence yesterday and I will write a good sentence tomorrow.  I can write a good sentence today.”  If he could talk himself down from a writing block, I think we all can.

Please drop me a note in the comment box below and share what helps you get through a writing slump.  Good luck everyone. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Of all the difficult tasks that await the writer, understanding voice may claim the prize as the most elusive element of fiction.  It is the one that makes a story memorable.  How do you define voice?  No two writers describe it the same way.  I think that is because, unlike transitions, point of view and other elements of fiction that can be learned, parsed and practiced, voice comes from deep in the psyche of the writer, as impossible to explain, manage or bend to our will as our creative vision.  To me, voice is not something I consciously choose, but rather it is the song that arises with the story, the rhythms and intent of the storyteller (we have many inside us) that delivers the story to me.

People think voice is diction, dialect, the sound of the characters speaking.  To me it is not.  Those things are manipulated by the narrator to hold the reader’s interest, controlled as best I can (note, the writer is not the narrator of the story, but a character), to do justice to my story.  But the voice lifts all that up so that my plot, characters, setting, narrator become story.  Perhaps you can see that I am having my own difficulties conveying voice.  It is everything you read about when a writer talks about voice, because that is his or her experience of voice, a unique attribute of each story.

The voice in my stories changes with each tale, because each story, I hope, is different and unique with its own singular voice.  Once the voice comes to me, and I believe it comes unconsciously, then I must stay tuned to that frequency as I write. But getting those sound waves to reach my consciousness?  That requires listening to my story as it comes to me.  Sometimes I wait between each line that I write to hear the story coming through its voice, rather than just as text coming from my brain.  That is one of the beauties of writing every day, thevoice rising up from the depths finds it channel, its opening and I can connect with it more easily.  It is not flailing away against closed doors.

Above all, voice is authentic.  I don’t strain to achieve voice, for it is the voice I hear in my head when my story is speaking to me.  It may come with the first line I write, or emerge slowly over several drafts.  I can think through a character, a plot, but I feel as though voice is delivered to me with the words.  I know that I must go deep inside and allow it to come to me. 

It may take many drafts before the right voice for the story appears, but when it does, you know it, your reader will know. 

For another take on voice, read Susan Cushman’s post about her recent stay at a writer’s conference. 

See if you can distinguish the voice in your stories.  That in itself is a writer’s meditation.  Please let me know in the comments your experience with voice.