How to Avoid Writing (Almost) Your Entire Life

Florence Ma. The Writer's Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Florence Ma. The Writer’s Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Michael Gruber says that if writing taught him anything, it was how to get used to failure.

The first book this writer published under his own name was at the age of 61. He says he avoided writing due to “a simple lack of confidence.” In the following interview (see below), Gruber explains his personal background and the forces that shaped him as a novelist. The key is that he didn’t identify himself as a writer, nor did he believe he was capable of being a “real” writer.

In other words, this man speaks to everything I’ve been studying for the hundred or so years I’ve worked on the underlying reasons for profound writer’s block, the kind that prevents you from writing for more than 45 years. I know from experience that this man’s perceptions and feelings are not unique, having listened to this story from writers at every step of the process. That’s why I so fervently believe these fears can be overcome, with the right kind of help, because why would you want to struggle with this alone? 

This interview comes via Author magazine, a publication of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (of which I am a member).

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When You Can’t Think of Something to Write

One of the most challenging things we do as writers is attempt to have a new thought.

When you can’t think of anything to write, what do you do? I’ve always found the easiest way to get people writing is to discuss something, anything, they disagree with.

river-clip-art-11In an educational setting, giving someone something to write about is called a writing prompt. From my experience as a teacher, though, it’s clear that some writing prompts are better than others.

The way you measure ‘better,’ when you teach writing, is to see how much writing emerges; an effective writing prompt stimulates a lot of thinking and responding.

Let’s say you’re one of those writers who prefers to sit down at your computer, typewriter (do people still use typewriters?) or pad of paper, with an entirely cold brain. If you’re the type of writer who gets up in the morning, looking at the blank page, waiting for inspiration to strike, my challenge to you, especially if you find your thoughts are as blank as the screen, is to think about something you particularly disagree with.

Your disagreement might be anything from very small to very large. You disagree with your child’s choice of music. You disagree with the government (that’s very easy to do, it seems to me). You disagree with the way world hunger problems or blue whales are dealt with.

At every step of the way, we think barely-articulated thoughts that we never write down. Instead, we attempt to live around them. The thoughts end up being big black rocks in the flow of information streaming, like a river, through our days.

water-flowing-over-rocks

Each rock represents a thought that is potentially interfering with your flow.

However, these big ‘rocks’ are there, sticking up out of your flow of thoughts, waiting to be noticed. These rocks represent something that bothers you.

Sometimes, what bothers you needs to be articulated, but perhaps you haven’t given yourself permission to talk about this big, black idea.

My suggestion is that, at least once, try to articulate something you disagree with. The primary reason you should try this is because the words really flow; upset, disagreement, anger, irritation—these are negative spaces that often prevent us from writing at all, and the energy we’re using to suppress them is what’s preventing us from writing.

An important reason to release negativity is to locate our personal values; we find out what’s important to us—who we really are—when we let ourselves disagree with something or someone.

Another reason to release thoughts of negativity is that we are blocking our real writing—the writing that’s waiting to come out, that lies just underneath the surface—and this is a useful way to gain access to what we need to say.

Once these states of irksome angst are recognized, we find that we’ve released a lot of other emotions we were holding back. Once we allow ourselves to express negativity, lethargy and depression also float away on the stream of words. Often, what remains is our true subject, the thing we’ve been waiting to write about, and that’s a precious thing to finally find.

Believing In Myself as a Writer

IMG_0206 2This has proved to be the hardest part; this belief in one’s self as a writer. I once started a journal with: “I don’t know what to write.” The rest of the journal remained blank. I don’t journal well. 

I fight with myself as a writer every single day. I reject this self-imposed isolation. I hate it. I don’t want to do it. I don’t know how not to.

It doesn’t help that my insecurities are fueled by difficulties getting published. Every time I receive a rejection, it sets me back, and I have to begin all over again, Sisyphus rolling this rock back up the hill. I am getting older, waiting to get that rock up that hill.

I’ve learned too, through the years, that the quiet writers need has a dark side; we also need responses, we need to know others read our writing. The answer is, we need readers who feel engaged with our material, but the challenge is, how to inspire and motivate the reader (without using extrinsic motivation, like schoolmasters of yore used a cane to beat recalcitrant writers?).

The blogosphere-world has exploded, and it’s literally impossible to read and respond to everything you see. I know that when I read something someone has put time and effort into, I can’t always be counted on to respond with the truth—to say, wow, no one will read this, you’ve found yourself a subject that’s bound to turn others off! Or to find time to compliment the writer who has managed to come up with a compelling subject, who I want to read over and over again.

I’ve had to force myself, in the past year or so, to be sure to comment on people’s blogs. This is why I limit how many blogs I read, and I don’t follow many. The greatest irony for me—someone who wants more than anything to encourage writers—is that it isn’t possible to encourage every writer I see (and then sit and wonder why no one is encouraging me!). It feels overwhelming to use each blog experience as a “teaching moment,” to tell them, the way I tell myself, alright, too much detail, excessive vocabulary, you’re losing your audience… etc. All the things that go wrong, go wrong in my head before they go wrong in the writing. 

I rationalize: I shouldn’t need encouragement, should I?

Oh, but I do.

All writers do.