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).

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. 

Why Authenticity Is More Important Than Ever

One of the rules we learn early on as writers is to use our ‘authentic’ voice when we write, but learning how to access that authentic voice is usually an elusive skill, not easily taught. It seems authenticity is like art: we know it when we see it.

If you don't feel quite this enthusiastic, don't worry.

If you no longer feel quite this enthusiastic, don’t worry.

When writing relies on tricks, gimmicks, gratuitous experimentation, or cleverness for its own sake, we feel manipulated, especially when it comes to replicating the voice of a child, I’ve noticed.

As a reader, I am particularly critical of reading books written from a child’s perspective, since children don’t have the vocabulary writers like to imbue them with. Also, children live very complicated lives, and can’t always make sense of what happens to them. I rarely feel as though I am reading a story authentically written from a child’s perspective. Children don’t seem to write a lot of stories for adult audiences, and the reason for that is key to what I’m trying to convey about finding one’s authentic voice.

Most advice about accessing your authentic voice tells you to rediscover your childlike sense of wonder. What happens, though, when guileless innocence is gone, and you are left feeling rather used up by life? Should you simply stop writing? Does this mean that you will never find your authentic voice? Maybe it means you are not meant to be a writer, because you can’t remember what it feels like to be a child, and, at least for the moment, the sense of wonder we associate with childhood floats away, a dimly-remembered colorful kite growing smaller and smaller on the breeze of all your yesterdays.

If, like me, locating your authentic self through a ‘childlike’ sense of wonder does not come easily, consider this: each day of your life, there has been at least one moment when you discovered something for the first time. It doesn’t matter how small—in retrospect—the moment might seem to you now. What matters is that you write about it from your own current, in-the-moment perspective. The ‘voice’ you write in has never seemed as important to me as the simple fact of the writing itself.

Most people stop themselves from writing, and then regret it later, because they trip over things like ‘voice’ and ‘authenticity,’ instead of saying to themselves some version of “I just need to write this down for myself.” That need is more authentic, in the moment, than worrying about what someone else thinks, and at least you’d be writing!

We are held to an impossible standard when we’re told we must somehow recreate our childhood sense of wonder, in my opinion. I remember feeling more confuddled by childhood than in a perpetual state of joyful wonder, and maybe you did too. 

The underlying emotional reality of authenticity is the feeling you get when you discover something new.  In essence, an authentic awareness of your own personal reality requires two things: being conscious, awake and aware of how you feel, and acknowledging your feelings instead of ignoring them or pushing them down, or denying you feel what you feel. If you want to deaden your authentic self, denying you feel what you feel is the fastest way to do it.

Authenticity is not about forcing yourself to do something you can’t. And if you can’t notice the world around you in a constant state of wondrous glee, I don’t blame you. Days of being in a bad mood are just as real as days of letting your thoughts wander into your inner rose garden; they may not feel as pleasant, but they’re just as real. Okay, maybe the sun isn’t shining on your inner landscape; maybe you don’t feel terribly imaginative. But consider that stories are written every single day about the most mundane things: washing dishes, cleaning up after children, changing flat tires.

Accessing authenticity when you’re no spring chicken becomes the question of one’s middle years

A great deal of writing is motivated by authentic curiosity. That means that most writing begins with curiosity about some subject or other; your curiosity leads you to do some form of research (either formal, through books and libraries, or informally, by observing your own or others’ behavior). We’ve all been told that this curiosity is fundamentally child-like, and of course children are curious, but so are adults.

You are, authentically, an adult. I have grown very tired of hearing, over and over, ad infinitum, how every single emotional state reverts back to our childhood. I disagree. Most of the emotions I experience now, I did not have the maturity or depth to experience when I was a child, if I could ever even remember them. If I were to write from my authentic childhood memories, I’d have to try to recreate that lack of sophisticated vocabulary, and that would mean my writing was highly inauthentic.

I say, start now, today, from where you are. If you want to begin with a state of wonder, let it be okay that your wonder might lack the same kind of wide-eyed innocence so valued by all the how-to books I read. I lack wide-eyed innocence; that fact does not make me inauthentic, nor should your maturity or age in years make you feel as though you cannot write ‘authentically.’ Seems to me that it’s more authentic to write about what you’re looking at through your kitchen window than it is replicating the experiences of yesteryear.

As an adult, if you want to jog the part of you that is far too jaded and experienced, all you have to do is take yourself out of your comfort zone. Go without electricity for 24 hours (a not uncommon experience here in the ‘great’ Northwest in the winter, it turns out). Stop eating meat. Don’t use your car unless you absolutely have to. Read a book you would never have read under any circumstances. Wear a color you usually avoid. Drink something electric blue. The key is to write about your response to anything you do, taking note of your feelings and what comes up for you as you try each new thing.

The primary difference between being an adult and seeing the world and being a child and seeing the world lies in how many things you have already done. As an adult, you have gotten used to doing many things a certain way, but it is disingenuous for us to pretend that as children, every single thing was new to us and we experienced each new thing that happened consciously and with total awareness. Childhood was not idyllic or even all that interesting for a lot of people, and is not necessarily representative of an emotional state we all want to hark back to. Maybe you felt idiotic and dumb as a kid; that’s okay. Just as many things are, or can be, new to you now. 

Therefore, never think you can’t write with new eyes, or authentically from a place of surprise and wonder—even if your sense of wonder is tempered by age and experience and is no longer dripping with the dew of your own personal spring morning.

All you have to do is step off the place where you currently stand, and do something even just a little bit different. You will have a new experience, and for most readers these days, reading about how you handled that new, yet very real, experience, is fascinating. This fact will always be true: humans want to know the real, true, authentic stories about other humans, fictionalized or not, and will always find those stories interesting. You might not believe that, but the next time you’re stuck in a long line at the grocery store and you catch your eye wandering to the bright cover of People magazine, you will be another moth drawn to the flame of the human drama.

Tell it like it is (for you), as they used to say. That’s as authentic as it gets—or needs to be, for that matter. 

The Silent Dialogue: How We Create The Book We’re Reading

One of the most interesting things that happens to us as writers occurs when we read.

The real story is created as we read.

The real story is created as we read.

We conduct a ‘silent dialogue’ with the text, and, to the extent we imagine the writer in our minds, making him or her seem real as we read, with its author. This imagined collaborator, the ‘author,’ guides us as we make sense of what we read, but we do all—or most—of the real work involved.

If you take notes while you read, you will inevitably ‘talk’ to the piece of writing. You might even talk out loud. If you’re like me, you ask questions of the text as you underline phrases, or draw circles around crucial words; or perhaps, words you don’t understand; ideas you agree with, disagree with, have a strong opinion about.

As soon as you begin to interact with the text, you’ve formed a relationship with its author, but it’s a silent one (unless you can somehow meet the writer and ask him or her your questions). Even so, the real relationship you’re having is not with the writer, for you are imagining him or her, even as you imagine the characters she’s created. The real relationship you’re having is with her writing, which becomes real for you as you interweave yourself, your values, your beliefs, your experiences, into what she’s written.

How could Lizzy and Jane be so patient?

I remember the first time I read Pride and Prejudice, for example. I was 16 or 17 years old, and I found myself frustrated by the slow pace the heroine’s life was taking. I could not understand how Jane Austen, with such sanguinity, allowed her protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett, to endure months of unhappiness and uncertainty over Mr. Darcy. Why couldn’t Elizabeth write to him? Why couldn’t her sister Jane let Mr. Bingley know how she felt? Why did nothing happen?

I remember yelling at that book, tossing it down in frustration, unable to continue reading. The relationship I formed with the writer I’d constructed in my mind was one of tension and irritation. I didn’t understand a lot of things in those days, but the primary thing I did not understand was that in my responses to the text, I was creating my very own version of Pride and Prejudice, the one I interwove with my responses, my ideas, my attitudes and opinions as I read.

My frustration at how slowly Darcy and Elizabeth fall in love, coupled with the arcane, stultifying social rules of Regency England, stemmed from beliefs I had formed in an era very different for young women than the one in which Austen wrote. My responses made excellent fodder for my writing, because my values reflected the changes that had happened for women since Austen‘s era, and therefore inspired a paper on the freedoms young women in America took for granted.

As a teacher, I’ve encouraged students to respond to the text conversationally, focusing less on the author as we have been taught to think of him or her, instead conceiving the text as a piece of writing you can engage with directly, commenting, complaining; noticing similarities or differences between the writing and our own experiences.

Although this process is considered a form of reader-response theory or critique, my goal has not been to get the student to critique the text, but rather, to form ideas and responses that will inspire writing and assist in self-awareness and critical thinking skills.

The values and mores of the Regency Era baffled me

One of the most valuable pieces of writing any reader can engage in, therefore, is a journal or diary of responses to a piece of writing. By silently engaging with a text, you will find that you have many things to say. Your personal responses to any piece of writing will inspire you to create something new, and you’ll learn about yourself and your values as you interweave your own reality with someone else’s words.

To get an idea of how to inspire your own writing through responding to someone else’s work, see Lisa Ede’s Work In Progress. To understand the culture in which the idea of the reader or audience’s response to the writing, rather than the author per se, became an important discussion, compare and contrast New Criticism with reader-response criticism.

Following I. A. Richards‘ study of reader misunderstandings and misreadings conducted in 1929, theory began to center around the idea that the reader creates the text they read, that there is no textual reality that exists a priori containing one—and only one—’correct’ meaning, that instead, the individual’s interpretation matters tremendously to how we make meaning.

In addition to this, and important to me when I teach, has been trying to convey the concept that the individual author’s personality or characteristics, while ‘important’ from the perspective of imagining authorial intention, should not derail teachers from what is even more important: getting the student to value their own writing.