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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What To Do About Serious Writer’s Block?

When writer’s block becomes writer’s BLANK

Writer’s block can seem very serious when you’re experiencing it, but it’s nothing compared to writing apprehension, which is a fear of writing so profound it often leads to resistance to the act of writing itself.

With that fear comes a great deal of crippling self-doubt.

How can you tell when your block is serious, and could possibly be a sign that you’re actually afraid to write? What can you do about the truly serious block? These are questions that virtually all writers contend with at some point.

A block becomes truly serious when the writer senses, but doesn’t understand, that he’s actually experiencing apprehension—he’s afraid to write. He is actively resisting writing—but why?

There are a few basic reasons why people actively resist writing, but they primarily come down to safety—losing it or having it. Counterintuitively, being successful at writing might not lead one to a feeling or sense of safety; instead, ‘successful’ writers often feel very vulnerable.

The common thinking about writer’s block (which, from my perspective, is a relatively simple problem that can be solved) is that you’re putting off writing; you’re procrastinating. For many people stuck at this point of the writing experience, writer’s block feels like writer’s blank.

Water images and metaphors make sense for writers

Ideas don’t come, and your response is a feeling of frustration. It’s as though you were once a full cup that has now run dry. Water, container, and fullness/emptiness metaphors make a lot of sense for writers. Many of the descriptions you might use at this point are of a “well gone dry,” being “tapped out,” or having a feeling of emptiness, as though you were once full of thoughts, ideas, creativity.

Nonetheless, this experience of writer’s blank is not particularly painful. It’s annoying, it’s frustrating; you might have negative thoughts about writing, and yourself—your ability to write—but you’re not actively preventing yourself from writing. You’re not afraid to write, you’re just not writing, yet. You will.

Deeper problems begin when writer’s blank is transformed into something much more serious. It begins with self-doubt and loss of confidence, but the real problem with self-doubt is that its roots go much deeper than a “mere” lack of ideas. This affective difference is what makes writing apprehension so much more complicated and profound than ‘mere’ writer’s block.

To be a writer searching for ideas is a normal state of affairs. To be a writer who can’t or won’t let herself write, however, is indicative of something much more profound.

Procrastination is usually linked to laziness, and if you’re experiencing a “lazy” writer’s block, it might be because you aren’t terribly motivated, but it can also be because you’re overwhelmed by earlier efforts that have exhausted you.

The one way in particular in which this type of block becomes a real problem is when we inject blame and judgementalism into our response to the writing situation. Societies with a strong work ethic often veer into overwork, believing that if you’re not working, you must be wasting your life. Those of us raised with this message tend to be very hard on ourselves. If we’re not working, we feel very guilty.

Since I work with seriously blocked clients who want to write, but can’t let themselves, I learned to differentiate between a block, which feels bad, often for long periods of time, but is surmountable; and writing resistance or apprehension, which has deeper root causes and requires more assistance to overcome.

True resistance or apprehension has certain characteristics that indicate the writer is emotionally troubled about more issues than just his or her ability or inability to write.

For a writer to experience a writer’s block, she has to be writing, and something has to stop that flow. Loss of confidence due to rejection, or fear of external judgement are two common reasons for many blocks.

The thing about experiencing a block, though, is that it is usually temporary, even if ‘temporary’ lasts some years. A block can be overcome with time. Your core self is not affected. You might feel insecure during the period you experience the block, but you do not doubt yourself and immerse yourself in self-criticism. You don’t have anything to say, or you can’t finish a piece you started; or you’ve gotten a rejection letter and can’t see the point of writing again, until that ‘magic’ day when you pick up your thought, or your pen, or you begin jotting down notes for a new article.

In other words, the block was temporary because your core self was not wounded; your ego might have been damaged or shocked, but you recovered, and now you’re writing again.

In contrast, a relatively short-term block can turn into writing apprehension and then resistance if writing becomes associated with negative emotions. Apprehension might prevent you from becoming a writer in the first place, however. This is why apprehension and resistance are much more serious than a block, even one that lasts for years, because apprehension stems from something crucial to your core being: your self-expression.

Loss of control: Those who are afraid to write fear the various stages of loss of control. The first stage of loss of control comes when you are forced, against your will, to produce a piece of writing you’re not interested in or do not feel ready to write.

This happens most often for the writer when she’s in school, and when a writer is under a deadline. Facing someone else’s expectations under these circumstances brings up a host of emotional responses, not limited to the obvious (anything from fear of judgement, to fear of losing control over one’s writing).

Another stage of fear of losing control occurs when one’s writing is taken out of your hands. This happens to students, but it also happens to any writer who puts his writing in the hands of someone else: a reader, an editor, the public.

The final stage of loss of control comes for many writers who hand their writing over to others, and have no say over what is done with the writing. This on its own can be enough of a deterrent to many writers that it prevents them from wanting to be put in a situation where we’ll have to make this compromise with our vision or our creativity.

Fear of outcome: It requires a fair amount of courage to write, largely because unless you write exclusively for yourself, every time you send off a piece of writing, particularly writing you have not distanced yourself from emotionally, you have no idea what will happen, or how the writing will be received.

Fear of outcome means that you now have to wait in the ambivalent silence of doubt. This silence can lead to an intense amount of self-doubt, in which every decision you’ve ever made is up for analysis. It takes a strong soul to withstand silence. In fact, being emotionally beaten up by harsh criticism is easier for most people to withstand than having to listen to the sounds of silence.

Fear of finishing: Writers frequently speak of ‘grieving’ the loss of their writing process when they come to the end of a project. Now what? The fear of the blank page becomes a fear of the blank life. Many professional writers have more than one project going at once to avoid ever having to deal with the nothingness of the blank life they dread facing.

Fear of failure: Not everyone bounces back from rejection letters and critique sessions. Some people are devastated by responses that lead them to question their writing—and themselves.

Writing becomes, for most people, a measure not of their intellectual ability (an arguably cognitive skill we can distance ourselves from emotionally) but instead a measure of ourselves—the deepest parts of ourselves we can’t articulate very well, not without some help of the compassionate kind (this doesn’t have to be from a therapist, although sometimes, that’s what the resistant writer really needs).

When we’re afraid of expressing these deeper parts of ourselves for fear of ridicule and humiliation, apprehension can overwhelm any desire we have to express our feelings. Feelings are difficult enough; expressing them to the outside world requires tremendous courage. Why would you want to do that when you’re scared and feel vulnerable?

The answer is, you won’t. You’ll do everything you can to avoid sitting down to your writing. In the process, you negate yourself and your deep need to express yourself.

Fear of success: Let’s say you very much want to get the writing done. You want to be published. You know your writing will be out in front of the judging, commenting world. Suddenly, this becomes the world you can’t control, with responses that feel overwhelming.

Fear of success means you won’t want to deal with the world if and when you do get published. Success, at least as it is defined by the rest of the world, is very scary for many people, much scarier than failure. The ‘logic’ of fearing success is that we tell ourselves, at least I won’t have to deal with the demands of success. I’m safe. I can stay as I am.

The key to serious writer’s block, then, lies in the feeling of a lack of safety. Because our society imbues so much emotional and psychological weight to writing, and further imbues the writer with so much social capital, we are right to be cautious before we set out on this path. Conquering these fears is a process, one that might have to be dealt with at every step along the way.

If you are coping with any of these fears, and still want to write, I hope you will feel comfortable enough to contact me. We can discuss options. The last thing I want is for you to feel alone with these fears. I started this website because too many writers deal with these fears on their own. 

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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.

Jade Splinters

Cover of "The Art of Writing: Teachings o...

The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters

I used The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters while writing my dissertation about why people feel uncomfortable thinking of themselves as writers. My thesis is that writers are taught by society to think of themselves as writers (or not), and that society’s definitions of what a writer is or is not are constructed by our collective values.

Western writers can access this book most easily through terminology used in the poems, which refer to writer’s block, revision, inspiration, and other subjects of concern to all writers everywhere. Rather than be told what to think, though, each of the inspirational poems illustrate the principle of the writer’s concern, a Taoist approach to writing.

You are being guided, rather than pushed, in other words. To understand how to write, or how to write a poem, for that matter, you are being shown ancient Chinese poems. Then you sit with them, meditate upon them, and find that, instead of being taught in the style you’re accustomed to, which is based on agonistic beliefs of how writing ‘ought’ to be taught, you discover your writing. It’s a gentler, less aggressive way of thinking about writing, one where writer’s block is more about emotional stagnancy than painful avoidance: “…when the six emotions are stagnant/the will travels yet spirit stays put.” (The ‘six emotions’ referred to are sorrow, joy, hate, love, pleasure, and anger.)

If there is a how-to guide in this book, it is to be found in the section called “The Twenty Four Styles of Poetry.” Its twenty four poems illustrate a special style of writing that would have been considered important for the student to know: how to write in the elegant style; the masculine; the potent; the Ancient Heavenly style, and many others that were considered a poet’s highest attainment at the time.  Each of the twenty four styles uses language that illustrates its style, e.g.:

The Flowing Style
It takes in like a water mill
and turns like a pearl marble.
It is beyond words
and these are clumsy metaphors.
Earth spins on a hidden axis
and the universe rolls slowly around its hub.
If you search out the origin
you’ll find a corresponding motion.
Climb high into spiritual light.
Then dive deep into dark nothing.
All things for thousands of years
are caught up in the flow.

This is the essence of poetry, isn’t it? To reify itself within the lines of the poem? Think of Chinese poetry almost like a calligram, and I think you’ll start to realise why this slim volume is so effective. The section called “Jade Splinters” is truly where a new paradigm about writing began for me. The Chinese compared writing to “jade splinters,” meaning that their writings were attempts, only “splinters” left as they carved a gem. Don’t you prefer a metaphor that envisions writing as a process of carving a gemstone, rather than the metaphor of writing as a struggle (the metaphor we’ve learned from the Greeks)? I know I do.

Unconventional ways of dealing with writer’s block and other writerly ills

 

Blooming Meditation, by Robin Urton

 

There are times when the quotidian simply doesn’t do it, and the writer is compelled to try something new and different to get the creative mind flowing. Although you can use tarot cards, with their diverse imagery, to answer personal questions, you can also use them to inspire new ways of thinking, to unlock parts of your creativity you might not have conscious access to.

After years of searching, I finally found someone who unashamedly uses tarot cards and other divination systems to inspire writing-related creativity. His book is called Write Starts: Prompts, Quotes, and Exercises to Jumpstart Your Creativity, by Hal Zina Bennett, New World Press, Novato, CA. 2010, and what he’s suggesting is very clever, in my opinion.

He uses the cards to:
Break through writer’s blocks
Develop characters for stories
Organize chapter outlines for books

For those familiar with tarot, these are not “what will happen to me?” Celtic or future-oriented spreads. Instead, he suggests that you pick out cards one at a time, after thinking about some aspect of your writing project that’s either blocking you or needs more explication or direction (such as your characters or plot).

Ask a question that the cards can answer (such as “what is preventing me from writing the next chapter/line/paragraph/book?” rather than a “what is wrong with me??” question. Those of us who use tarot are used to asking open-ended questions, but in this case, you have to be careful that your question is not too open-ended, as well as not being too negative (as in, “what is wrong with me that I have not yet become a famous writer??”).

When assessing the reasons for writer’s block, the first card picked represents the root cause of the issue, what has happened to make you feel blocked. The example he gives in his book is the Five of Swords from the standard Rider Waite deck, which is the first card he pulls. This becomes the Root Card, which will give you an idea of what has created the problem in the first place.

If you’re familiar with the Rider Waite deck, you know that their version of the Five of Swords is a pretty grim image depicting a scene of what I’ve come to associate with embarrassment, pyrrhic victory, and/or defeat. It’s the one card I automatically think of when I know I won’t get what I want. In a simple yes-no spread dealing with outcomes, for example, I associate the Six of Wands with victory, the Five of Swords with defeat. So his Root card speaks to a recent rejection he received just prior to experiencing his writer’s block.

The next card he chooses is called ‘Gain,’ and he says it asks us to think about what we gain from the previous card. In his case, the messages are pretty clear, since the next card he pulls is the Four of Pentacles. His inner knowing about what’s going on for him tells him that he’s clinging to a vision of himself and his work that lies in the past; he’s resting on his laurels. He asks himself if the rejection slip he received is triggering this rather negative Four of Pentacles response, since this card feels true to him.

The final card he pulls is in the position of Solution, which is intended to be a guide out of your dilemma. In his case, he chooses the Wheel of Fortune, a card that symbolises what goes up must come down to me, but to most people is about gain and winning. He interprets this card to mean that all will end well with this piece of writing if only he can get it written. All he has to do is get over the rejection and stop clinging to the past. I think it’s important to note at this point that your interpretations of the cards are what matters, not his or mine.

The point is to know the cards well enough to be able to interpret the messages you receive from their images. The only reality that matters is yours; if you can’t identify with the messages from the cards, it’s important to trust what you think, feel, and believe. Ideally, tarot (or any other intuition-building tool) will be the most useful when the images convey some inner reality that perhaps you’re not consciously aware of. The most important thing, however, is to break yourself out of the slogging rut you find yourself in when you’re having trouble writing.