I’ve been struggling with blocks since I began writing.
I’ve been embarrassed of my writing, felt my writing was no good, worried that no one was ever going to read it, and wondered why I bother.
Most writers encounter blocks of some kind. Julia Cameron discusses the ways writers keep themselves from writing in The Artist’s Way. Steven Pressfield talks about resistance in The War of Art. Even Virginia Woolf had to murder her “Angel in the House.”
You’re not alone if you have to struggle against yourself to create.
In our society, it’s okay for children to create out of the sheer joy of it, while the price of adulthood is turning one’s mind to “adult” things. Adults only get to create if they’re very good or making money from it.
It was hard for me for many, many years to feel okay about writing. I’d like to share some of that battle with you.
My first block was embarrassment.
Despite receiving early encouragement and support from my parents and teachers, I felt furtive, almost guilty every time I wrote.
Perhaps it was because, even then, I sensed that the fruits of a childhood imagination were not to be shared with adults. Adults didn’t understand. They didn’t know how to play imaginatively. They didn’t care about the story. Instead they evaluated, read critically, and suggested improvements.
One glance by their judgmental eyes was enough to wither the tender blossom of my fantasies. From then on, I shared what I wrote with no one. My work was for my eyes alone.
The next block I faced was worthiness.
I was the stereotypical brainy student. I absorbed rules endlessly and applied them to everything I wrote with strict precision. No dangling prepositions or sentence fragments for me.
My reading appetite was voracious: I read Voltaire, Henrick Ibsen, Rabelais, Benjamin Franklin, Emerson, Ayn Rand, the Koran, Will Durant’s Story of Civilization in 11 volumes. I saw these great authors as my tutors in a world I intended to join. It was my destiny, no less, to join their company in the pages of an English Lit textbook.
How hilarious! The ego of youth knows no bounds—and thank goodness for that. Otherwise, young people would take one look at the heights that our great artists, inventors, and statesmen have attained and conclude: “Impossible. I can’t compete. I shall resign myself to life as a receptionist.” (Which I almost did.)
Although my yearning for greatness spurred me on to greater and greater reading challenges, it didn’t inspire the best prose. I wrote fantastical stories and poems that I wanted to think were brilliant but knew, in my heart of hearts, were crap.
I didn’t WANT to write if what I produced was amateur. It was either greatness or nothing.
Unfortunately, that meant the only brilliant works I wrote were in my head, backlit by pride.
I wish I could say that university cured my of my writing neuroses and sent me on my way with a portfolio of brilliant works, but it didn’t. It only introduced a new block: incomprehensibility.
Nothing I wrote in college made any sense at all to anyone who wasn’t in college.
I’m crushed when I think about the years I wasted trying to be clever. Clever writing is mental masturbation. You think you’re doing something brilliant, but the only person who thinks it’s brilliant is the one who voted for Ulysses as the best book of the last century.
Today, I use this guideline:
If you read it and don’t understand it, you’re NOT supposed to conclude that the author is brilliant and you’re not. You’re supposed to conclude that the author didn’t bother to make his/her work accessible to a wider audience.
That’s why literary fiction is difficult to sell, while authors like Danielle Steele and Dan Brown make millions.
Accessibility is important. If you don’t understand what you’re saying, no one else will, either.
I’m looking at all you students out there who use incomprehensibility as a technique to confuse the people marking your work. Many clever students realize that if they make something sound clever enough—even if they have no idea what they mean—they’ll get a good mark from their professor, who doesn’t like to admit that he or she doesn’t get it, either.
I was lucky. I cured my writing of incomprehensibility when I began tutoring shepherds in Spanish. Because of my lack of proficiency in the language, my speaking ability was reduced to that of an 8-year-old. Can an 8-year-old explain lactation curves? It’s possible, but only if you become very, very good at explaining what you mean using the simplest words and metaphors possible.
Because I was speaking in my everyday life like an 8-year-old, my thoughts began mimicking my speech. Soon, I was writing in English like an 8-year-old and thinking nothing of it. Considering that a general rule of thumb for authors is target readers with an 8th grade reading level, I far exceeded expectations.
Today, I write all the time. I no longer feel embarrassed of people reading my writing. I understand the difference between writing meant for public consumption and writing meant to remain private.
I’ve learned to write even when I don’t feel like writing, and I have confidence in the magic that happens when you let your fingers do the writing for you.
But there’s one more block that crops up from time to time: inauthenticity.
As a professional writer, I can write about anything—and I do. I take on personas that will help me better reach my target audience.
When I’ve got a little more time to write for myself rather than for an employer, I see-saw between my artistic and commercial sensibilities. On one hand, the artist in me wants to explore thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, the commercial writer in me knows that people will only read something if it’s of some use to them.
What I strive to do is feel okay about expressing myself, without my inner censor leaping out and shouting, “HALT! No one will want to read THAT!”
I try to have the confidence that people will want to read what I have to write, even if it wasn’t written with a commercial goal in mind.
I’d like to say that I’ve swung self-awareness like a hammer and splintered those blocks into impotent shreds.
But they’re still there, lurking at the edge of my consciousness, hoping to find me vulnerable on an off day.
Ultimately, we may not be able to defeat our blocks entirely, but we can thwart their purpose. Creative blocks take great satisfaction in keeping you from completing your work. All you have to do to defeat them is to keep on writing, and writing, and writing until you’re done.
Let those fingers fly!