Enjoy accounts of the agony of the blocked writer? Read Geoff Dyer’s ‘Out of Sheer Rage”

Geoff has written plenty of books, but he had a really rough go on this one.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence was originally intended to be an academic study of D.H. Lawrence, or maybe a novel…or something. It turned out to be “or something” –  a darkly hilarious and agonizing first-person account of not-writing.

I assigned this book once in a class I taught, thinking it would be an entertaining way for blocked writers to identify with the struggles of a known writer who was having trouble. Turns out it was traumatic to most of them, because Dyer’s expression of his mental and emotional turmoil was so intense and honest. They couldn’t see the humor in it, and seemed a bit irked that I had made them read it.

Even though it’s true that Dyer missed deadlines and experienced a profound sense of powerlessness, self-hatred, anger, depression and anxiety, somehow he was eventually able to write a book, albeit a very different one from what he had imagined. It is a good example of making lemonade out of the sourest of lemons.

He really does a good job of describing his tortured, many month process of not writing a book about Lawrence (who he admired tremendously). By cataloguing his inner process and procrastinating behavior so clearly and bravely, he unintentionally shows other blocked writers how to work with the many challenges inherent in the writing life.

Perhaps it’s just the psychologist in me that is fascinated and amused by this account of a monumental struggle with the written word. I won’t assign it to my class again, but maybe you should read it someday when you don’t feel like writing.

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Starting up again, after a long writing drought

If you’ve had a long non-productive spell in your writing and are making plans to start up again, structure your reentry plan so that failure is unlikely to occur. Protect yourself from the habitual tendencies that will predictably derail your train of words if given the chance.

Begin by taking small steps that would be very difficult to not do. For instance, if your goal is to start writing every day, make the sessions short (maximum of 15 minutes) so it’s hard to rationalize skipping the session.

Sometimes people in this situation complain to me that small steps are not enough, considering the scope of what they want to accomplish. I understand, but, small is better than no steps, and excessively challenging daily goals activate gnarlier resistances. Be pragmatic and don’t discount seemingly small steps – they add up over time, and your daily productivity will grow as the writing habit grows stronger.

If you have identified factors that have helped you write successfully in the past, incorporate these elements into your preparations and planning for your writing sessions. This could be as simple as recreating the same writing space you had when you wrote well in the past. If someone was very helpful on a previous successful project, is that person or someone similar available now?

Writers are always working on this issue of commitment to their work, and over a career, falling off the wagon and getting back on is a common dynamic. Getting back on the wagon sooner rather than later is better, but it’s never too late.

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Rip Van Winkle Writing Habits: How long does it take to change them?

Rip Van Winkle was a rather lazy procrastinator who went to sleep for twenty years. When he awoke the world had changed. This can happen to any writer.

No two writer’s block problems are identical, and neither are their resolutions. There are many factors that make a difference in how change comes about, or whether change occurs at all.

One key issue is motivation level. Do you need to write to put food on the table or complete a graduate degree? Do you have a relentless inner drive to express yourself through the written word? Or is writing something you think might be kind of a cool hobby to experiment with at some point in your life maybe after you’ve been retired for a while if you still kind of feel like doing it then?

The greater the need or desire to write, the more likely you will have the steam to do what it takes to initiate and sustain a regular routine of writing. There’s more to it however.

Some writing block issues are specific to a conundrum in a current project, and if/when that issue is resolved the blockage dissolves rather readily. Other writers turn things around by simply implementing a free-writing practice like Julia Cameron’s morning pages exercise. Change can happen very fast, sometimes inexplicably.

Other blocks are decades-long, complex struggles that have many Continue reading

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Sean Connery finds his long-lost writing mojo in “Finding Forrester”

Sean Connery recovers his literary mojo after he begrudgingly helps a young writer

In the movie Finding ForresterSean Connery plays William Forrester, a washed-up recluse whose career as an author has collapsed after his first novel created a sensation many years earlier. Guilt, grief and disillusionment contributed to his withdrawal from society and writing at the height of his success. (Strains of J.D. Salinger‘s life are resonating here.)

Sean finds his way back to his own literary passion through a chance meeting with a talented high school student that he ends up mentoring. Long story short; he helps the kid through a tough patch and finally writes another book.

Finding Forrester is a cinematic portrayal of how helping others with their writing can be a vehicle for helping yourself. If you are in a position to help someone as they try to get going and become more productive, you may tap into your own inspiration as well.

I encourage small group discussions in my classes with blocked and procrastinating writers, because these interactions provide connections, validations, and information that end up being useful in the process of developing a more productive writing routine. Many, many people struggle with these issues, and it is a relief to discover  Continue reading

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Refrigerator Refuge for Blocked Writers

It’s possible to stare at the contents of a refrigerator for a long time when you don’t want to do something. The sight of food is compelling in a powerful and primal way. Entire television cable networks have been launched by lunches.

The sweet siren songs of food have pulled many an unsuspecting writer into the deadly maw of the refrigerator, and long periods of avoidance. As a writer you’re vulnerable because your poor, addled brain is desperately seeking something to soothe the cerebral suffering generated by the challenge of writing. It knows what is in the fridge, and it wants you to get it.

You have to eat, and if your nutrition is poor, writing ability is affected because the brain has to be well fueled to accomplish what a writing project requires. But when you get up from the desk because you feel stress, as opposed to hunger, you are reinforcing a habit that interferes with your writing goals.

Writing stress foods tend to reside on the high sugar,  Continue reading

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Does you imagined audience help or hinder your writing?

As a writer, you are frequently advised to write with a clear sense of who your audience is. This helps you focus and tailor a written communication that will achieve the greatest impact. Such advice to writers is fine and probably useful most the time, but what if you tend to imagine audiences who don’t like your writing?  What if you imagine them frowning, scoffing, dozing or gagging as their eyes scan the page? I knew a professor whose writing was blocked by her recurrent inner visions of groups of graduate students laughing at her articles. If you are prone to having doubts and fears about your writing (extremely common) you may automatically conger up visions of overly-negative reactions from your imagined audience. This mental habit can be viewed as an intelligent system of ego-preservation because such visions prevent you from taking the risk of finishing and showing your work to others. These mini-hallucinations protect you from the experience of criticism, disappointment, neglect, humiliation and rejection, by stopping you from writing. That’s a good thing, right? Right? As a writer you do need a good internal, self-monitoring, bullshit-detecting mechanism that helps you critically review and edit your work, and for this it can help to imagine the reactions of your audience. For instance, if you imagine your audience rolling their eyes when you write a certain passage, that’s useful information that can motivate you to revise and improve. But if your internal audience is jeering at you before you even turn on your computer, there’s a good chance that your audience visualizing function has run amuck. That’s way more ego-protection than you need. Sometimes we have to continue writing in spite of the reactions of our imagined readers, especially if they are jerks.

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The heartbreak of TGSWD: Tile Grout Scrubbing Writing Dysfluency.

This bathroom will provide several days of writing relief to its owner

If your bathroom is too clean and shiny, you may be suffering from the heartbreak of  TGSWD – Tile Grout Scrubbing Writing Dysfluency.

Avoiding is not always an idle, languid, lazy state of daydreaming, watching TV, and eating cookies on the couch. For many writers, avoidance is best conducted and sustained in the guise of doing an onerous household chore.

I suspect that if you feel a touch of guilt about blowing off your writing time, serving penance through grout scrubbing or toilet cleaning will appease that inner critic. You may be procrastinating, but at least you’re not enjoying it.  Somehow it helps to know that you are a better person than those who are having fun while they avoid.

Certain religious traditions (note: I’m not naming any one denomination specifically) may generate a higher proportion of those who gravitate to self-flagellation during their blocked periods, but I’m also fairly certain that more than a few atheists find themselves under the pot with an old toothbrush and grout cleaner during their writing time.

One of my students had the reverse dynamic. She abhorred housecleaning even more than writing, and she would intentionally schedule herself to clean the bathroom during the time when she wanted to write. Then she would write to avoid having to clean the toilet.

Smart.

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