When we moved to California last year, I was looking forward to more free time. Going from full time job plus part time job plus grad school plus writing a thesis to just ONE full-time job sounded like a vacation. I was going read stacks of books, I could maybe start writing a book of my own, and I could blog to my heart’s content. But this year, I’ve been disappointed in how little I’ve done outside of work. I’ve read few books, I haven’t started writing a book, and I’ve blogged so little that I now have a terrible case of writer’s block–or in this case, blogger’s block. I’ve started and not finished five or six new posts in the past few weeks. Nothing came together, nothing felt right. I would start posts just ten or fifteen minutes before I had to leave for an event: classic writer’s self-sabotage. My perfectionism has always slowed my progress, but lately it’s been paralyzing; I do so many rewrites that my meaning gets lost in verbiage. It frustrates me so much that I give up.
So I’ve been mulling over the source of my blogger’s block. Maybe I have less time and am more tired than I thought I would be this year. After all, I’m teaching all new classes at a new school. Maybe I got burnt out on writing while I was in grad school. With the imperative removed, it could be that I’ve just reverted to a state of mental laziness to compensate for the incessant hours of mandatory blogs, response papers, research papers, and essays. Maybe I’m not challenging my mind with enough new and fresh ideas to generate material for thoughtful blogs.
I hate the feeling of being defined by excuses rather than action. I know that composing a bunch of rambling posts for a tiny audience isn’t contributing much to the world, but it’s always been satisfying for me. It’s kept my mind sharp and helped me form my ideas about literature, teaching, faith, culture, and even fashion and food. But lately, the thought of sitting down to write a blog post made me slightly nauseous. I think more than anything it was fear that I would sit down at the keyboard to write and find that I had lost my voice.
So I turned to the Google, which has quite a bit to say about writer’s block. The first article I clicked on was spectacularly unhelpful and generated a lot of sarcasm in me. How does one conquer writer’s block, according to About.com?
“1. Stick to a schedule.” Sure. I can see myself with a little pocket calendar full of neatly handwritten entries: “Saturday, April 27th: Scrub the pantry shelves/Lift weights/Read Tolstoy/Develop inner poise/Write a deeply fascinating blog post.” Honey, these things just don’t happen on a schedule. At least not for me.
“2. Don’t be too hard on yourself.” At last! I have been liberated from years of self-doubt and insecurity by About.com telling me not to be too hard on myself!
“3. Don’t panic.” Yeah, whatever. See #2.
“4. Take time off.” I can see the conversation with my boss now. “Uh, yeah, I’m gonna need a sub next week…because…um…I really need to blog.”
“5. Examine any deep-seated issues.” Thanks, Freud, but I already know my issues. I’m a tyrannical, foaming-at-the-mouth perfectionist who fears failure like other people fear heights and spiders.
Thankfully, About.com doesn’t have the only article out there on overcoming writer’s block. There was a much better article by Emily Herzlin in USA Today about 4 categories of writer’s block, defined by the mantras that blocked writers recite to themselves.
I call Herzlin’s first category “The Self-Deprecator.” The mantra of The Self-Deprecator is, “My ideas are stupid. I have a boring life. Nobody cares what I think.” Sometimes we free ourselves from the imperative of writing by convincing ourselves that we lack the ability. We silence our voices, drowning in a sea of self-pity. It’s like we’re our own bullies–we might as well give ourselves a wedgie and steal our own lunch money. I think that the antidote to this excuse is to remind ourselves of our status as unique creations of God, each with something to say that no one else has the ability to say because no one else in the history of the universe has had our perspective. And as for the “boring life” excuse? Well, some of the greatest works of literature are written about the most mundane of topics. That is what great writing does–it elevates the ordinary, causing us to examine parts of our lives that we usually pass over.
The second category of writer’s block is “The Avoider,” whose mantra is something like, “I’m hungry. I can’t write right now. I just got over a cold. I can’t write right now. My foot hurts. I can’t write right now. Someone’s playing music and it’s annoying. I can’t write right now.” Of course, none of those are legitimate long-term reasons why we can’t write, but it’s convenient to fixate on little annoyances that give us a quick way out. We avoid the reasons we don’t want to write because they make us guilty or anxious or uncomfortable. “I’m hungry,” doesn’t make it sound like we’re avoiding anything. But by the time we make that sandwich, eat it, and clean up, another convenient excuse has come down the pipeline. There’s no doubt that our tech-centered world has increased Avoiders’ problems exponentially by creating a multitude of distractions. Facebook and Twitter are probably probably partly to blame for many cases of writer’s block.
The third category is “The Non-Committer,” the person who says, “I wrote a paragraph but it was stupid. I wrote a paragraph about something else but it was also stupid. This is stupid. Forget this.” Sometimes we might have a lot of great ideas, but we have difficulty fleshing out those ideas. If you’re like me, you quickly get tired of one idea and desperately want to move on to something else. But unfinished writing doesn’t count for much. Unless you’re Jane Austen and you’re already successful and dead. Execution and follow-through is just as important as innovation. There comes a time in almost all writing projects where we temporarily lose our way. We’re in a thick, dark fog and we can’t remember where we started or where we’re going. It could be a sign that we need to scrap the idea and start afresh, but it usually just means that we need to plow ahead and trust that the fog will disperse and the sun will soon break through and lead us to the finish.
Finally, the most dangerous category of writer’s block is “The Waiter.” This person says, “I have to write it perfectly the first time, so I should wait until I can write it perfectly.” This is the one I struggle with the most. I want my thoughts to be fully formed and my words to be precisely crafted the first time I sit down to write. Just ask Tim–I go completely nuts if he tries to look at a blog post while I’m in the middle of writing it. I hate for anyone to see the smallest hint of my imperfection, in writing or in character. As I mentioned above, that intense level of perfectionism can be crippling. It’s so much easier to sit quietly and wait for perfection to be dropped down upon us like the blessing of a heavenly Muse instead of rolling up our sleeves, getting into the muck, and wrangling our prose into something presentable–eventually, something beautiful.
Writing shouldn’t be a burden, but a cleansing catharsis, as well as a joyful act of creation. It can give us such complex and satisfying inner lives that we find less fulfillment in superficial toys generated by a chronically bored world. To borrow phrases from Oscar Wilde, writing can make the desert blossom like a rose. It can bring us out of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world. Fear and procrastination should never rob us of the rich rewards found in the pen.