I’m part of a writer’s group that get together every month to debate themes around writing, critique work, share ideas, etc. The following comes from this month’s theme which was “Writer’s Block.”
~ Or… When your imaginary friends won’t talk to you…
I put my hand up for this topic for very selfish reasons… It really was a case of ‘physician, heal thyself’…
To kick off the process, I researched the meaning of ‘Writer’s Block’ which, I discovered, was frequently described as a ‘condition’.
So if I’m going to tackle this condition, I first want to pin it down and define it – this then is what I came up with:
Writer’s Block is the condition of being unable to think of what to write and how to start, proceed with or complete your writing.
So tell me about when you have experienced penned procrastination or writer’s block?
So what can be creating such creative slowdowns or stops for us?
We’re all different with our own blocks and triggers, but let’s look at some of the more widely recognised common causes:
- Time / Timing: It’s simply not the right time to write. You feel as if your ideas may need to percolate a little longer in your brain before writing them down.
It could be that that voice in your head is telling that you have more important things to do with your time. Writing is not a priority.
- Fear: Many writers struggle with being afraid, with putting their ideas (and themselves) out there for everyone to see and criticise. Fear is a major reason that many people cite for never becoming writers.
- Perfectionism: You want everything to be just right before you ever put pen to paper / touch a keyboard. You try to get it straight and perfect in your head, but never do, so you never even begin.
In our last session we explored creativity and writers block is the antithesis to this. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield defines this as resistance – that is, the things that prevent us from sitting down and doing our best work.
- “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”
Pressfield describes resistance as a force that can’t be seen, touched, heard, or smelt. Instead it is felt. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.
- “Most of us live a double life – the one we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
This being The War of Art, he likens the writer (artist) to a warrior.
- “The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”
He cites the example of Hitler, who was a would-be artist, but found it easier to start World War II than face a blank square of canvas.”
“Resistance here is experienced as fear and the degree of fear felt equates to the strength of Resistance experienced. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.
That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If writing meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance around it.
“If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying” you, Pressfield tells us, “you wouldn’t feel anything. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.”
When we start to think about what has to be done to realise our artistic projects: “Rationalization is Resistance’s right-hand man. Its job is to keep us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly faced what cowards we are for not doing our art.”
In the war of art, like the warrior “The awakening artist must be ruthless, not only with themselves, but also with others.”
So when it comes to the trouble of resistance, “The working artist will not tolerate trouble in her life because she knows trouble prevents her from doing her work. She harnesses the urge for trouble and transforms it in her work.”
So essentially “Resistance is fear. But Resistance is too cunning to show itself naked in this form. Because if it lets us see clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame. And shame may drive us to act in the face of fear.” Resistance doesn’t want us to do this. So it brings in Rationalization.”
Pressfield then explores what it takes to be a professional – taking the principles we often apply to our first lived life and applying it to our artistic one.
“Those defeated by Resistance share one trait. They think like amateurs. They haven’t yet turned pro. The moment an artist turns pro is as life changing as the birth of his first child. With one stroke, everything changes.
“The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. To the amateur, the game is a hobby. To the pro it’s a vocation. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is full time warrior.”
For me that is owning and defining myself as a writer. This fact is fundamental to who I am. I therefore describe myself as such. It is part of my life, including my working life as a coach and Human Resources consultant. Having applied for a job several years ago, I faced an interviewer who had clearly done their research. If I wanted the job I was told, my public persona would have to be as their Personnel person. This would include not linking my blog or describing myself on Linked in as a writer. I politely explained that I was a writer and this, along with my HR experience is what I bring to the party of life. My writing has never been about my HR work – the 2 would not necessarily marry well. Yet to my mind the fact that I write makes me more rounded, interesting and observant. So, it was their loss…
My writing is every much a profession to me as HR. But “resistance hates it when we turn pro.” But the path we follow is not necessarily an easy one: “The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”
So how do you turn ‘pro? In one of the most oft used quotes on the subject “Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’”
What then are the qualities that define ‘professionals’?
- We show up consistently (every day).
- We show up no matter what.
- We are committed over the long haul.
- The stakes for us are high and real.
- We accept remuneration for our labours.
- We master the techniques.
- We have a sense of humour about it
- We receive praise or blame in the real world.
Yet still “The professional, though he accepts money, does his work out of love.”
“A professional acts in the face of fear.” Whereas “The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.”
Did you know “Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five.”?
That then is the theory, so now how do we stop staring at a blank page and start writing, in practice? For this section I have turned to author Lisa Cherry and her book ‘How to stop staring at a blank page and start writing’ for some practical advise.
First of all I would invite you to think about what motivates you to write – what are your reasons and drivers? Why do you (want to) write? So what are your writing ‘whys’?
If we can understand why we write, then we can turn that understanding into action. These ‘whys’ can now be translated into tangible steps towards achieving your goals.
When it comes to motivation, one of my major issues is around the solitariness of the process of writing. It is something that I embrace, since it is something that I can claim is truly unique and individual to me. Yet, my contradiction is that as well as being solitary, I am also social. So social goals have been one of the best motivators that I have found.
What are your best motivators?
So what can stop you achieving these goals? Often we are programmed with a number of ‘Self-limiting beliefs’ which are mental blocks, negative thoughts and excuses. They tend to have a negative effect on you, on how you feel, on what you feel is the ‘right’ thing to do. They are about keeping you safe and hence small – encouraging you not to break their dark boundaries. They therefore get in the way of you striving for and ultimately achieving your goals.
Common ones for writers are:
- I’m not good enough to write
- No one will be interested in / want to read my writing
- That writing is a luxury which I don’t deserve
- That I will fail and be criticised
Does that strike a chord – what are your self-limiting beliefs?
How does this translate into reasons why you can’t write?
Take each of these reasons and write a positive solution to each of them. Even if you don’t believe the solution – decide to choose it!
For example “I can’t write because it’s indulgent” could be reframed as “I am creative and writing is part of who I am, which is worthy of expressing.
You can then use the answers that you come up with here as positive mantras / affirmations to repeat to yourself when resistance rears its ugly head. Learn them by heart, repeat them – resistance is trumped by persistence!
Now it’s time to deal with the excuses that resistance is putting in your way.
First of all, of course, you need to list them out.
By analysing them you then get to understand your own usual suspects. Then you can work your way through them.
Time is so often at the top of many people’s lists.
“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
— H. JACKSON BROWN JR.
We have so many distractions these days, which suck up the precious commodity of our time. TV, phones, iPads. They are your excuses for not doing what you want – writing! Conversely it may be that now isn’t the right time to write, because you do have more pressing priorities. That is OK – you can now plan for the time when you will be ready, rather than resistant.
Then work your way through your list of excuses and come up with the solutions.
By going through these processes, you take responsibility for your writing, you then have the where with all to change your approach to it. Fundamentally you are changing the script.
Listen to the excuses your resistance puts in the way and prioritise them honestly – you can then decide if they are unnecessary concerns or genuine issues which you need to think through to a solution. A simple example of that is the concept of finding time, vs that of making time.
In his Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in 1903:
[Letter 7] “…it is clear that we must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all costs, against all resistance. We can be sure of very little, but the need to court struggle is a surety that will not leave us.
Rilkes also tells us:
“Your doubt can become a good attribute if you discipline it. It must become a knowing; it must become the critic. Ask it, as often as it wishes to spoil something, why something is ugly. Demand proof of it, test it, and you will find it perhaps perplexed and confused, perhaps also in protest. Don’t give in; demand arguments. Act with alertness and responsibility, each and every time, and the day will come when doubt will change from the destroyer to become one of your best fellow-workers, perhaps the wisest of all that have a part in building your life.”
My fundamental piece of advice to anyone who asks me for advice about getting started with their writing – is just to sit down and begin! Just write – don’t judge, don’t compete.
In fact I’m with Charles Bukowski, who states: “Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.”
On day 25 of my first ever blog challenge, I was definitely feeling the resistance, so decided to write it out:
25 February 2012
Letter 25: To Resistance
‘Love your enemy’ is the first phrase that comes into my head now. Since I sat down and pondered who or what to write to next, as I am so tantalisingly near to finishing my cherished challenge of writing a love letter a day, every day, for the Valentine month of February. That is twenty nine epistles … shooting out into the cosmos, reaching into the void … may be to over reach and be sent unseen; or may be to touch and to torch another creature’s flame. Well so it should be, if indeed 29 there were in existence. For I stared at a white page and racked a blank brain for an object of inspiration … and there was none … Just five letters to go … the end in sight, but now no sight, no sense of next.
So then suddenly, there it was – my enemy: resistance, procrastination, pfaffing, dawdling, dreaming, distracting or whatever name you are going by today.
Now I want to have this out with you and I’m guessing this won’t be once and for all, this stalling, this staying, this stopping of my strived for success.
Why can’t I move beyond this solid wall, this barrier, this self-created strange protectionism? Why am I so static, so staid, so very stuck, so often? What weight is this, what darkness, what blindness to my future? What rocket, what change or what challenge will shift you out of my path and let me stride, rather than stress myself forward? I am staggered that not even grief, tears or terrible fear motivates me on and over you.
So I must consider this and think … well … could it be that now is not my time to move; or may be here is my lesson – my learning obstacle to be climbed up and over and scaled like any average mountain of life. But then this mountain is unseen, and it feels so solid, so heavy, so truculent, so frustrating, so scream generating, if I let it stick and let it raise steam … There I am pulled back to black – stale, pale and aged.
So forward now … I see you and I raise you … I am aware of you and I name you. Not to shame you, though shame is tempting, but to acknowledge you, to understand you, to know your role, to push your boundaries, then to blast through to freedom.
Someone told me there is no real cure. “My name is Sandra and I am a procrastinator” … I wait for the acknowledged applause to die away …
Now I know you Resistance, I can start to step away from you, to walk around, climb over or sail in you. I know how you tick, I see how you move, I hear your special solid voice. That voice not to be a vice to me now. For in the very act of stopping me, I learn to step around you, to dance away.
For me the solution is to share. Your weight is too much to bear alone. Life is not meant to be for one. I chose to connect to cherished colleagues, not fellow workers, not to sharing inmates. I chose to commit to promises, rather than to (other’s) deadlines, I move to the light, to the way forward in ways that work for me, that work with my rhythms, my wants, my true skills, my loves. I trace the naturalness of my form, my thoughts, of my heart and I replicate that out into the world. Then I chose to share the un-natural, the unwanted tasks and transferences with those who have the gifts which are my strangers, my sloth and my burdens.
This is not one lesson learned and kept close. So often I slip back, absorbed into alternate realities, distracted by your square solid form blocking out the sun. I forget you are there, lulled into old life patterns, long learned forms of being and of seeing. Now in my new life there is not the pattern of average days to give me reason and meaning, so I create my own way and my freedom. And freedom is not resistance, it is grace and flow and ease and these I love.
Farewell old fiend.
Not yours, Miss S E A Peachey
There is no one perfect answer to Writer’s Block, resistance or procrastination. We all have our own scripts and sometimes the story in them changes. That’s why working through our patterns is so important. It isn’t just a one off exercise either. On the journey of my life, with it’s ebbs and flows, I realised recently, that I wasn’t making writing a priority.
I’d been putting off editing my latest book, as my script had told me it was a chore that I would find impossible to fit in around the business of earning a living.
Then Caroline, a friend of mine died in September. She was only 2 years older than me and had so many plans for living her life to the full. But suddenly she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died only a few days later.
Her passing unlocked something within me, made me want to make the most of every conscious moment. She had always been a fan of my writing and now I turned to words to work my way through the stages of processing my grief and the plethora of emotions that accompanied it. Out of this came a number of poems and a tribute, which I published as a blog.
What it did too, was spur me to return to my novel. Far from being a chore, I found that editing my book was actually pure, motivational joy which uplifted me and gave me a deep well of contentment.
I have since made a conscious choice to put writing at the top of my list of priorities. Not just as a one off decision, but as a continuous process.
To round this topic off, Steven Pressfield cites that:
- Ultimately, “The more Resistance you experience, the more gratification you will feel when you finally overcome it.”
- And that so many people put their lives off until their deathbed.”
I don’t intend to be one of those people.
And whilst I thank Mr Pressfield for his wisdom on the subject, I’m going to give the final word to Terry Pratchett:
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
~ Sandra Peachey
With inspiration from Steven Pressfield, Lisa Cherry, Rainer Maria Rilke and Terry Pratchett
PS: My book – Peachey Letters – Love Letters to Life has been featured in Psychologies Magazine and The Lady, it was also honoured as a Finalist in the 2015 International Book Awards.
The book takes the best posts from this blog, adds new content and wraps it all together in a satisfying structure. It’s an easy yet satisfying read, which has allowed its’ readers to laugh, cry and think – seeing the love in everything we do in life – from the big themes to the tiny, trivial minutiae of it too.