The Bravest Act a Writer Can Perform

In Victoria Nelson’s On Writer’s Block, writers are encouraged to come face-to-face with their inner fears, resistance, and blocks about the act of writing. From personal experience, I know this is harder than it sounds. I am not sure that I agree with her fundamental premise, that a resistant writer’s first task is to find self-love, although maybe she’s right. I’m not sure resistant writers throughout history have necessarily found the “peace” of self-love before they forced out yet another manuscript. I think plenty of writing goes on whether the writer feels self-love or not.

However, I do agree with her that resistance stems from some fairly deep places within the psyche. It’s probably more accurate to start, not from a lack of self-love, but from the overwhelming and subsuming lack of confidence that probably cripples most resistant writers. From talking to most writers who have not yet determined that what they want to say is important enough, lack of self-confidence eats away at one’s desire to be a writer.

Nelson counters emotion with some simple, but entirely reasonable, logic. It is not logical, she says, to claim you have a novel in you that you hope to get published “some day,” if you’re not also willing to put in the time practicing to write that novel. She’s not saying practice to get published. She’s saying write as an activity, practice how to write—this reduces your stress, because instead of thinking of writing a novel and getting it published, you think in more reasonable terms. Her analogy is that a long distance runner doesn’t just suddenly leap up one day, prone from years on the couch, expecting to run the Boston Marathon. It requires practice—daily practice, in fact—to hone your abilities to do any long-term task as large as writing a novel (or running a marathon).

However, the resistant writer baulks at the notion of ‘practice.’ What seems logical and simple on the surface gets tangled in the strands of cloying, destructive inner nay-saying. So Nelson’s point is, you’re sitting there, a writer-wannabe, in front of the piece of paper (nowadays more likely to be the computer screen) and your mind is filled with thoughts far too grand and complex to translate adequately to the page. And she isn’t wrong. Every word I write is a negotiation with what it should have been, if only I’d been a “better” writer, one who has a better command of structure, intention, plot, character, etc. Even now, writing this blog, a low-risk endeavor, there are so many better ways I could have chosen to say what I’d like to say. There were better choices of topic, or more elegant methods of expression. Yet here I go, writing anyway, ignoring (as much as I can) the negative voices saying “This sounds stupid,” or “Do you really need this sentence? Can’t you find a better way to say this?”

Nelson’s contention is that the bravest act a writer can perform is to simply put one word down, and then the next, and the next. One mundane, inelegant word after another. Each word will be inadequate, and won’t say precisely what’s in your mind. All the wonderful, Xanadu-like structures your imagination has created won’t be expressed in precisely the way you think they should: “The bravest act a writer can perform is to take that tiny step forward, put down the wretched little word that pricks the balloon of inflated fantasies with its very mundanity, and then put down another word directly after it. This act marks the decision to be a writer” (11). Perhaps then the hardest part is not a lack of self-love, but the puncturing of that “inflated fantasy,” which, unfortunately, is encouraged by the social cachet afforded to writers.

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