By TWC Founder/Director Judith Lindbergh
For years, I’ve been saying that I don’t believe in writer’s block—that I prefer to call it writer’s challenge. Well, I’ve been experiencing a whole lot of writer’s challenge during these last few weeks. According to my research, it’s not yet a chronic condition. For that, I’d have to have been stuck for at least three months. But since late September, I’ve been avoiding my writing. (This may be a dangerous admission for someone who runs a creative writing organization, but if I can’t be honest about the challenges of what we do, then I’m not being an authentic mentor.) I’m doing great with sketching out ideas, fiddling with old, half-drafted scenes, planning two long-ish book projects, and doing a lot of research. (Research is a fantastic way to avoid writing!) But actually writing? Not so much.
I know many acclaimed writers have gone for months or even years struggling to rediscover or at least loosen up their creativity. Graham Greene ran into a bout of writer’s block in his 50s and overcame it by keeping a journal of his dreams. To avoid writer’s block, bestselling novelist Jeff VanderMeer admitted to digging a hole in his backyard to bury a novel that was superficially similar to the one he’d been writing. And it’s well known that Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, and even J.K. Rowling suffered from writer’s block. So I guess I’m in good company.
As for me, I could give you all kinds of legitimate excuses. It’s been a busy time at TWC with the pandemic and all; my youngest son is applying to colleges and needs help with his essays; and one of my kitties has been sick (but she’s doing better now). All true. All have almost nothing to do with avoiding writing.
There are lots of reasons that writers get blocked: depression, anxiety, self-doubt, hypercriticism of our own work, obsessive-compulsive disorder, perfectionism, and the big one: needing and not receiving acceptance or recognition from the larger world. All of these can kill motivation. It’s hard to put our hearts and souls into a project when we’re anxious, hypercritical, frustrated or depressed, and especially hard when we’re looking outward and the work we must do requires that we look within.
Over the years, I’ve talked out the problem with many of my students. But now that I’m facing it myself, it’s comforting to discover that my usual advice is actually on track with what experts advise. First, “spit on the page!”—one of my favorite bits of overtly illustrative advice. Realizing that it’s OK to write bad, stupid, embarrassing nonsense is key to writing anything worth reading. Or–let’s adjust that–to writing ANYTHING. The minute we put pressure on ourselves to create something brilliant, artful, and/or publication-worthy, we put ourselves in an emotional bind. So I’m going to stop that. At least I’m going to try.
In fact, I read about an interesting study of writers who were “chronically blocked.” They were told to sit in a dim, quiet room and given a series of prompts to respond to. They would listen to a piece of music or imagine a vivid natural setting. Then they’d jot down dream-like descriptions of each experience. After the prompt, they would turn back to their ongoing work and do the same, creating dreamlike moments or scenes. After two weeks at this practice, most of the writers found their mojo and rediscovered the energy and focus they needed to write.
Yeah, I’m definitely going to try that one.
I’m also working to remember that I started writing because it was fun. “Playing” is required for all creative work, but it’s hard to feel playful when pressure and expectations–self-imposed or external–get in the way. I have to remember what I say in my kids’ classes: that there’s no right way to write, no required topic or form. Most kids who’ve been taught the rigors of the three paragraph essay need to crumble the hard edges of “correct” writing so that they can recognize writing as a sandbox ready for building castles and riding sea monsters.
I started writing stories because I had characters in my head who woke me up in the middle of the night and spoke to me when I was in the shower or driving. (They always pick the most inconvenient moments, don’t they?) So I’m going to start being quiet; I’m going to start listening again. And out of those quiet moments, I’m going to grant myself a snippet of a dream–something that’s big and weird and beautiful and indescribable–and I’m going to write it down, even if the words are pointless and embarrassing. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll start to crack this writer’s block, make a little pile of sand, and remember how to play.