Monday, October 8, 2012

What About Writer's Block?

In the book, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, there is a humorous essay by John Casey called "Mentors in General, Peter Taylor in Particular," in which he writes: 
The first time I got stuck writing—really really stuck—I ran into a well-meaning friend. He said, "Writer's block? Hey, you don't hear plumbers going around talking about plumber's block" (40).
Plumbers don't stop to consider, "Do I like this drain? Do I not like this drain?" The comparison is funny, but writers don't get paid as much as plumbers and aren't in such demand. I don't know anyone who has awakened in the middle of the night to overflowing words and said, "Quick, honey! We need a writer!" (I wish!) But still, the work needs to be done by those who feel they can't stop doing it and who feel panic when they aren't doing it. How do you, like the plumber, just go and do your job? 

Anyone who tells you that writer's block doesn't exist is wrong. Anyone who tries to tell you that you just need to do x and y is probably also wrong. In fact, anyone who makes ridiculous pronouncements is probably wrong as well. So, listen or don't. Let's see what we can glean from this book, and then get back to work.

In Alexander Chee's essay, "Annie Dillard and The Writing Life," he passes along an activity that Dillard gave to the class. The students were to appear with drafts of their essays, and with tape and scissors.
Now cut out only the best sentences, she said. And tape them on a blank page. And then when you have that, write in around them, she said. Fill in what's missing and make it reach for the best of what you've written thus far (67).
With our computers, of course, we can cut and paste easily, duplicating the writing and creating new files for each iteration. But the physical activity is a brilliant way to bring it closer to consciousness. The outcome would be similar if you had to set your story by hand in metal type, one letter at a time. Someone suggested to me that if you had to pay a dollar for every word you used, you'd probably be able to choose only the words you need and edit your story pretty well. Chee found that the voice is "trapped, nervous, lazy" and cutting it apart was illuminating and helpful. It's hard to think about doing violence to one's work with a sharp object, but that may be what it needs. This works best after the piece is already written, but what if you don't have anything, yet?

You can do a little searching and see what is blocking you. If it is an incident you want to forget, you may be using all your creative energy to tamp it down. Robert Boyers had always wanted to write fiction, but had been "reluctant" to do so. In the essay, "Imagining Influence," Boyers wrote, based on the influence of reading work by Natalia Ginzburg, that he discovered the answer:
…I had prided myself on a certain gift for equanimity and tolerance that now, increasingly, seemed to me perhaps a form of dishonesty.…I wanted, all of a sudden, to get to the bottom of the sentiments of rage and resentment that had long colored my relations with my own unlovely and unhappy mother (20).
Rage. Resentment. Write about it, however unpleasant it is or was. The act of confronting strong emotion is a good beginnning to creative work. Robert Frost wrote (an often-quoted phrase), in his poem, "A Servant to Servants," that "…the best way out is always through" (line 56). The poem is an acknowledgment of a servant's (or wife's) unrelenting work and disappointment, but carves out a little space for the narrator to rest. Whether you use the writing about your unpleasant situation or not, you may be able to find that place and move forward from there.

Fear can paralyze you. It may be your anxiety over your writing that is stopping you from writing more. John Casey wrote, "…a mentor can level out the sine wave of arrogance / helplessness / arrogance / helplessness that is often the initial flight path of a writing career" (40). If not a mentor, then perhaps a friend who knows you well can calm you. In any case, you, and I, and we are not alone in the ongoing ups and downs of writing.

I've never heard anyone mention what a writer's block is made of. I don't think it is hard and solid. I'm thinking it's ice. And it can be melted. 

Here comes the torrent of words. Time to get to work.


Nicholas Redd said...

I was going to write a very long and eloquent response but the writer's block set in. ;) Great article.

Alisa said...

hahaha! Thanks, Nicholas.