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).

How Do You Know Your Writing Is Good?

By asking the simple question, “How do you know your writing is good,” I opened up a Pandora’s box of responses I hadn’t expected or prepared for.

Many years ago, in graduate school, I conducted a small empirical research study inspired by a quantitative study done by researchers Michael Palmquist and Richard E. Young. Their study was titled “The Notion of Giftedness and Student Expectation About Writing.”

In the introduction to their study the authors said, “It will come as no surprise to those who teach composition that a large proportion of students enter the classroom believing that the ability to write well is a gift.” Unfortunately, it turns out, that belief is pervasive, and it doesn’t solely reside with young, inexperienced student-writers.

Editors of the textbook in which Palmquist and Young’s study appeared introduced their research with the assertion: “The [theoretical] claim made by romantic literary theorists that the ability to write well is a gift that can’t be taught” has “found its way into folk wisdom.” Giftedness is related to the Romantic idea of ‘original’ genius, from which we get much of our attitude about writers and writing.

Palmquist and Young asked their respondents a long series of questions intended to show a relationship between a student’s fear of writing (writing apprehension) and the belief that the ability to write is a gift. One of the ideas on their survey piqued my interest. Students were asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “My writing is good.”

The researchers didn’t ask, “How do you know if your writing is good?”, they just wanted to know how the student would assess his or her abilities, on a scale of 1 to 10.

My survey differed in many ways from Palmquist and Young’s. For one thing, it was qualitative and really only asked one question, since the scope of my research had to remain small, and you can mess up empirical research studies by creating too much indecipherable data.

However, my survey, aimed at graduate students and faculty in the English department at my university, taught me that there is a relationship between self-assessment of one’s ability and a very interesting facet of human behavior: attribution theory.

One aspect of attribution theory tells us that where we place our locus of control—externally or internally—determines our perception of self-efficacy, the knowledge that you can complete a goal or task you set for yourself.

It turned out that a whopping majority of respondents (75%) said that the only way they knew their writing was any good was if someone gave them a high grade or praise of some kind.

These answers bothered me a lot.

For one thing, it meant they were abjuring inner locus of control. Having an inner locus of control is one marker of high self-esteem; it’s also a factor in low writing apprehension scores. The greater your inner locus of control score, the less likely you’ll be devastated by a bad grade, a bad review, a bad opinion.

In non-academic parlance, high inner locus of control means you’re tough enough to take it and bounce back from rejection letters. It also means that you tend to believe in your own ability to do something, to effect change.

Crucially, this includes your ability to learn a skill or talent, such as writing. People with an inner locus of control feel like they have control over their lives. They’re less likely to think that their writing skill was given to them by the gods, in other words, since, unlike those with external locus of control, they don’t see the world as inherently out of their control. Believing less in luck or chance, inner locus of control people put their faith in hard work, for without it, they know that they’ll likely get nowhere. They do not trust to chance, luck, or fate, in other words.

Simple question, or so I thought.

Having a strong score in an external locus of control goes along with believing that writing cannot be taught. Believing that the ability to write well is a ‘divine gift granted by the gods’ is an example of external locus of control. This places writing ability in the realm of chance or luck, something only a very few can be born with.

Respondents to Palmquist and Young’s survey who, across the board, came up with responses that indicated that they considered their writing to be anywhere from bad to not very good, also tended to believe that writing is a gift; that it can’t be taught. It seems therefore that there is a correlation between thinking badly of your writing ability and believing in writing as a gift.

However, my survey was given to writing teachers and adult students, not to the age group or population Palmquist and Young studied. Although I wasn’t specifically looking for correlations of self-assessment and writing apprehension, I was, nonetheless, surprised to see that otherwise sophisticated adults, most of whom were published and experienced authors, claimed that they had to hear their writing was good from an outside source.

That’s when I knew that the issue is much more complicated than simple belief, or lack of same, in myths we’ve been told about writing.

If you don’t know, through your own self-assessment, using tools you were taught when you learned how to be a writer and then an educator, that you’ve produced a good piece of writing, something is wrong, in my opinion.

There are larger ramifications for society, which clearly encourages times of inner versus external locus of control. In a time when society teaches us to rely on external authorities, our ability to trust our own inner knowing will be squelched. During periods when we’re encouraged to listen only to our ‘inner voice’, external authority will be distrusted. Essentially, then, society itself goes through periods when one locus of control or the other is enforced and augmented by societal values.

We live in a time that privileges inner locus of control, teaching us to distrust outside authority. It teaches us that we are the ultimate authority, that only we can know or judge. The danger of this perspective is that it can lead us to an overweening inability to accept an external voice of authority. The problem with this becomes clear when we refuse to take guidance or, for that matter, a writing class, believing that the inner muse alone will guide us to the truth.

No way to get writer’s issues back in the box now.

Ultimately, we need to be able to judge accurately for ourselves, to know our writing is good, but not be unwilling to listen to outside sources. You need to know how to assess your own writing. Do you know, from your own inner locus of control, that your writing is good, or do you need to hear it from someone else? It’s not as cut-and-dried a question as I once thought. One’s skill or ability as a writer does not necessarily correlate with belief in one’s skill or ability.

Needless to say, my empirical research study, conducted for one class, and intended to be a short experiment, changed my life forever and made me realise that there is an emotional world no one talks about underlying our cultural beliefs and attitudes about writing. This emotional world has to do with a deeper psychological truth you carry with you before you ever become a writer; it has to do with where you place your locus of control—internally, believing in your ability to effect outcome—or externally, believing that your actions are affected by that which is outside your control? This is the part of the core self we bring to the writing experience, and it influences everything we do as writers.

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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