Hurray! Success!…..So why am I blocking?

You’d think that the experience of success as a writer would boost your confidence and inspire you to write regularly, with vigor and enthusiasm. It sometimes does.

I’ve seen the reverse happen with several writers, who became blocked after hitting their first home run. These challenges are greater when the success comes early and fast. It’s harder to feel like you deserve it if success comes early on or without a lot of effort, and imposter feelings can emerge and sabotage attempts to keep writing. You might think: “My first article was a lucky fluke, and if I write another, I will be revealed as a fraud!” So you stop writing to avoid humiliation.

Success can also stimulate is feelings of not being worthy of the accolades the literary world is bestowing. If your self-esteem is low, praise can feel foreign and threatening. Inner voices may chime in with, “Who do you think you are! You’re not a real writer! You don’t deserve this notoriety!” or variations of this kind of brainwashing. Continue reading

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Desperate cry from beyond the grave, “It was only a first draft!”

I heard about a young man who wouldn’t start his screenplay because of the worry that if he died unexpectedly before it was done, someone might find his unfinished manuscript and conclude he was a terrible writer. He would, of course, be much too dead to clarify matters and say: “Wait! It was only a first draft!”  Writing is indeed a risky business as far as self-image is concerned. What was this man afraid of? The imagined opinion of an unknown person going through his affairs who might find a first draft of the screenplay he hasn’t even written yet and have a critical thought about it?  While I have not found this “post-mortem discovery of a first draft” fear to be a common one, plenty of similar bogeyman constellations glow in the dark firmament of a blocked writer’s wordless nights. Just how nuts are our sensitive egos?

Very nuts. It’s the human condition to feel compelled to protect and defend our sense of self (this is also the compelling substrate of much great literature, I might add). Writing is a challenge because it inevitably opens us up to the experience of receiving criticism, and we have to tolerate this input to continue writing, and to develop our craft.  Sometimes our previously held view of our ‘self’ needs to die so we can grow into our next incarnation as a writer. This means taking less seriously the negative and positive ideas we cling to about ourself, especially if they limit our productivity, or our ability to go public with our work.  As writers we have to let the ego die a little. It’s uncomfortable, but the feelings pass and something better is born.

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Writing and Sacrifice

To fully embrace writing, you have to make peace with the sacrifices involved. There is a price to pay and reluctance to accepting this reality can inhibit your productivity.

First of all, to do it properly, you have to dedicate time to writing. You have to give up a percentage of other activities (or non-activities) to give writing the time it needs.

Every day you can choose to write or not. When you chose to write, you may have to sacrifice, for at least a while, having fun with friends, sleeping, money-making, hikes through nature on a sunny day, reading,  movie watching, beer-making, beer drinking, gourmet cooking, skiing, gardening, house cleaning, motorcycle trips, staring at a wall, mowing the lawn or making love. To name only a few.

If you have a lot of internal conflict about the sacrifices you have to make for your writing, you may experience ambivalence, procrastination, avoidance and resentment. You may need to make a deeper commitment to writing  for it to actually happen, and this means consciously giving up something you don’t want to give up. It might even mean giving up unhappiness, which is a lot to ask of anyone.

Would you rather sacrifice your writing, or an episode of Game of Thrones? There is mourning either way.

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“Sylvia” is definitely not a feel-good flick, but it portrays writer’s block well.

Sylvia Plath blocking 

I put the movie Sylvia in my DVD player with trepidation. I knew I wasn’t in for a laugh-fest, but I’m compulsive about watching movies that depict the writing process, so I soldiered on. The movie turned out to be quite good, and depressing as hell.

Gwyneth Paltrow does an agonizingly superb job of portraying a disturbed, gifted and depressed Sylvia Plath as she confronts her personal, literary and relationship demons. At one point in the story, she goes to a seacoast retreat with husband Ted Hughes, so they both can write. Ted immediately begins banging out the pages (it turns out later that he was banging more than his typewriter) while Sylvia avoids writing and spends her time baking goodies. Continue reading

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Walking the Talk

Not long ago I took a tour of Tor House in Carmel, California, the stone dwelling of the great poet Robinson Jeffers. During part of the tour the guide described how his wife Una would hear him pacing in his office upstairs while he wrote.

His pacing was not a way to avoid writing, it was what his body wanted to do during his creative process. It’s true he got up from his desk and moved away from pen and paper, but his mind was engaged and the walking helped him concentrate as he composed his verse.

There are probably good circulatory or neurological explanations about how physical movement can aid the writing process. The brain is Continue reading

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The Path is the Goal is the Path is the Goal: Write Daily

An oft prescribed cure for writer’s block is to write every day. It might  seem strange, and possibly stupid, to tell a blocked writer to do the very thing he or she cannot do, and call that a remedy. Would we try to heal someone who just broke a leg by telling them to run a mile?

No, we wouldn’t. But we might tell them to take a step or two on crutches each day to begin to strengthen the muscles. And as the break in the bone knitted together again, we’d recommend placing increasing weight on the leg until, eventually, a mile run would seem natural, and possibly enjoyable.

The cure for not-doing is to do. It is easier to begin ‘doing’ if the challenge is not too drastic. Little steps or awkward limps down the path are a fine way to start. Once you’ve begun writing a little bit each day, your brain wakes up and before you know it, you have realized your goal: to write every day.

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“No one tells me what to do! Not even myself!”

Anyone who has read even a few letters to the editor in the newspaper knows that anger can stimulate the flow of written words. A touch of outrage is powerful energy that can motivate one to march, fight and write.

Can anger also stop you from writing?

My experience tells me it can. After all, most of us were forced to produce writing against our will during our education. We often did it only to avoid potential bad consequences, not from love of the assignment. If the instructor asking (or demanding) that we write was someone we did not respect or like (a jerk), there was even more resentment to Continue reading

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