Writer’s Block Demystified

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Writer’s block “is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which a writer loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years.”

Now that I read this it sounds like some category found in the diagnostic manual for psychologists to refer to, like paranoia or phobias. Is writer’ block some condition that they just might be coming out with a new drug for? Surely not. But writer’s everywhere have a fear of the dreaded WB anyway.

I hear from countless writers that they struggle with writer’s block, wait for the moment it strikes like a migraine headache or simply live in fear that one day they will be in the final stretch of writing a novel or a story and be stricken down by the an inexplicable moment when there are simply no words. So I thought I would take a few minutes to debunk this mystery and myth.

I am not saying that this does not occur for many writers. But the writers it does not ever occur for are those who write from inspiration and passion. When a writer is not engaged with the subject or the story, then writer’s block may become an inevitability, just like boredom. Staring at the page with no words coming and then getting sweaty palmed is only a symptom that there is no creative edge happening, no inner fire pushing the words out onto the paper and that instead the mind is in analytical mode.

Writer’s who never experience writer’s block are those who are inside of their writing, channeling the words, the characters and the stories in ways they don’t even know where the words come from, with little concern for editing till the final draft. And the key being that the writing they are doing is not a brain job it is a heart song. Now that may feel foreign to those who write for a living and for other people as part of a paid job. There is little room for being personally inspired when you are critiquing a medical journal article or court reporting. But when you sit at the page simply because you are busting with energy to see what will happen, what scene will write itself, you anticipate which muse will take control and you allow expression to be the goal.  That is when writer’s block is not an issue.

Yet, for a writer to commit at this level, to allow intuition, passion and story to run the show and allow the mind to go on vacation for a little while, or at least till the final edit, miracles happen. Writer’s block is about only one thing: Not knowing what you are inspired and moved to write. When you locate that in your own intuition and act on it no matter whether you know the destination of your writing or not, you will write like the wind.

writers block

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Procrastination is the Name of the Game

procrastination

“The thing all writers do best is find ways to avoid writing.” ― Alan Dean Foster

“Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and Googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read. Lots of people procrastinate, of course, but for writers it is a peculiarly common occupational hazard. One book editor I talked to fondly reminisced about the first book she was assigned to work on, back in the late 1990s. It had gone under contract in 1972.” Megan Mcardle

I teach writing workshops and classes and it is inevitable to hear a writer say, under their breath and hoping no one will hear, that they in fact battle a million and one distractions in order to sit down and become a productive writer. Then whether the battle is won or lost, what the end product generates is self doubt, and self criticism. Well let’s all just stop that. The common issues regarding procrastination for writers are captured by the quote above made by Megan Mcardle.

But, the problem of procrastination can be as simple as working from home and the phone ringing and jumping up to answer it, putting that load of laundry in, having to get up and walk the dog or the most common issue being the uncertainty about what you are writing and welcoming every single little tiny distraction that exists in order to avoid the fear, the lack of clarity or the horrible feeling of being stuck.

What we use to procrastinate must serve us in some important way. Procrastination is what is called an “avoidance technique” and it is your job as a writer to look it square in the eye and fess up to what you might be avoiding. In the end, procrastination is all about being uncertain about your self as a writer. Whether it is about inspiration, self concept, constantly comparing your writing to others or the loop that is going all the time in your head that says something like this: “what the hell are you thinking writing this book?” the ultimate outcome is a kind of stalling out and waiting for a magical elixir. But, procrastination comes in many shapes and sizes.

The French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who wrote Gigi, used her French bulldog, Souci, to procrastinate writing. She would pluck fleas from Souci’s back and hunt for them in her fur until the grooming ritual prepared her to move on to other procrastination techniques like cuddling with Souci and swatting flies. Only then would Colette begin to work.

Graham Greene, who wrote The Quiet American, needed a sign from above to begin working on a piece. Obsessed with numbers, the English playwright and novelist needed to see a certain combination of numbers by accident in order to write a single word. He would spend long periods of time by the side of the road looking at license plates and waiting for the hallowed number to appear.  Now that is navigating by the sigs and by coincidence.

Wherever he traveled, Charles Dickens decorated his desk with nine objects. The bronze toads, green vase, and the statuette of an eccentric dog salesman surrounded by his pups comforted Dickens when he hit a mental block, and helped him feel comfortable enough to work anywhere.  Now this is bordering on being Obsessive Compulsive but OCD has its place in history with a slew of famous writers.

Victor Hugo, who wrote novels like Les Miserables, did more than buy a new bottle of ink in preparation to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. With a deadline looming, Hugo locked himself inside his house with nothing on but a knitted gray shawl that reached down to his toes. The uniform suited his productivity, and he completed the novel weeks ahead of the deadline.

Some people dream of lounging all day, but Truman Capote really did. His workday began in bed or on a couch where he would write on a notebook rested against his knees. He always kept cigarettes and whichever drink was appropriate for the time of day—coffee, tea, or sherry. Boy do I relate to this. Not the cigarettes and Martinis at the crack of dawn, but I get out of bed and put on my favorite tea at 6:30 am and then crawl back in bed with my laptop on my knees and write until 10am every morning. If I do not do this I am a basket case and cannot get my barring’s for the whole day. I put music on every time and listen to soundtracks of my favorite movies while I write. The theme from Bourne Legacy gets me every time.

So you are in good company. You are not odd or unusual in your procrastination. And in the end you need to make friends with a pattern that is one of the most frequent issues for a writer. Know that procrastination is just part of the job. Get over it when you can and then laugh at yourself the rest of the time. You will get to writing, you will finish and you will be done in your own good time.

“We are so scared of being judged that we look for every excuse to procrastinate.” ― Erica JongSeducing the Demon: Writing for My Life

Listen to What I Hear

Learn to Listen

“Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “’Listen to me.’”—Jhumpa Lahiri

I think the part of Christmas that has stayed with me since childhood, are the Christmas Carols that seem to live in me at a cellular level. All the music from oldies with Bing Crosby and White Christmas to Mannheim Steamroller can conjure place, people and moments that I have no need of a camera to instantly recall.

Each song has a story attached to it from my life. And whether is was a Christmas meltdown at the dinner table over some disappointment regarding presents, or the first Christmas with my daughters bright eyes wide open as they tip-toed down the stairs of our farmhouse in Maine to see what Santa had brought and whether the Reindeer had been well fed, I can recall the Technicolor of the moment as soon as Nate King Cole starts in with “chestnuts roasting by an open fire”.

I listened to these songs over and over, year after year. And in the listening I hear new things each time. Songs are story. Songs are assembled with tune, voice and words to transport. And for a writer, the story on the page is no different. Every amazing book we read or write and every extraordinary story we tell has a magic ingredient which makes the magic stand out: That magic ingredient lies in our capacity to listen.

I know that most of what I talk to writers about is how to tell the story, about great characters, tension, payoff and honesty. But none of this happens at the level that is possible for a writer without the deep capacity to listen. Listening takes pausing. Breathing. Waiting for the muse.

First and foremost, as a writer, I need to listen to my own intuition if I stumble on the direction of my story. I need to pause to listen to my characters whisper in my ear how they want to be developed. I need to listen to my own desire for what I want to say and what I don’t want to say. Every day. I need to be willing to listen to everything.

But, listening comes in layers. We can hear ourselves say “Oh that won’t be interesting”, or “I cannot share that much, be that vulnerable in my writing”. When this ultimately happens, oh pretty much every day, we have a goldmine moment to listen at a deeper level. Our unconscious selves long to be given a stage on which to express itself and when any one of us decides to write a story all the voices that we have silenced will try spill out onto the page.

If we can stay with what we are resisting and get to the bottom of why we are saying “no”, “I cannot do that”, “I am afraid”, then we can unearth parts of our stories, our characters and ourselves that become the magic and the real juice of our writing. Many of us as writers struggle to stay ruthlessly honest with ourselves and truly listen beyond our fears of being literarily naked.

The other part of listening as a writer is to make sure you have someone read your writing out loud and you listen to the story you are writing unfold. Hearing your words, the words of your characters and absorbing the writing as if you are the reader is a powerful way to tune up your writing style and to hear the places you need to improve.

And at the end of the day whether you are a writer or not, listening and hearing from a deep heartfelt level of awareness and presence is what we need in all our relationships, friendships, marriages, workplaces and schools. The gift of listening is transformative.

Bradbury quote