by Brooke Finnigan
If you’re reading this, then the drive to write is already there. You know both the intoxicating high of writing for eight hours straight, and the frustrating low of spending an hour on a single word choice. Doubtless, you’ve fallen in love with your characters and spent hours matching the words on the page to the vision in your mind. Writing is hard work, yet it’s fulfilling. But there’s one little thing we’re all hesitant to mention: writer’s block. It’s a jinx; just saying the words can mean you’re suddenly struck with the debilitating disease.
My pet theory is that writer’s block has nothing to do with writing. In fact, it has everything to do with your state of mind. If you weren’t a writer you’d call it a slump, a bad week, depression. But as writers, we tend to relate our whole world to our work; we eat, sleep, and even breathe writing. And maybe that’s why writer’s block is so common, so integral to being a writer.
Writer’s block is a process, an insidious dilemma that sneaks in and wreaks havoc. The good thing, though, is that we can prevent and treat writer’s block more effectively than we think. It’s not a curse, it’s a cue. If you’re working ten hours a day with no breaks, then you’re asking to crash. Many of us think of this as a naturally occurring phenomenon, that you can’t have the bout of extreme creativity without paying for it later. And we accept this as a necessary evil. Or maybe you’re not writing at all, and instead find yourself staring at an almost blank screen feeling alternately guilty, frustrated, and conflicted.
Both cases are more similar than they first appear. We’re attributing our success, or lack thereof, to something beyond our control. Something that happened to us, almost magically, rather than something we did. Just as a good streak builds upon itself, so does a bad streak; our thoughts reinforce our actions. If we reverse our thoughts, we reverse writer’s block. It really is that simple.
Underneath writer’s block is fear. According to therapist Michelle Morand, writer’s block is most often triggered by self-critical thoughts. Doubt creeps in and it grows. We become anxious. Then we indulge in behavior that isn’t helpful to reversing the onslaught of negative thoughts; we work ourselves even harder, and we speak to ourselves more harshly. And, because no one can work under such a negative and punitive strain, we begin to collapse under our self-imposed weight. The sad thing is that this confirms our worst fear: that we are just hacks, after all. Our critical thoughts increase, we get deeper into the slump, and then the process repeats itself over and over, ad nausuem.
On paper it sounds clinical, almost too easy to be true. But remember this, no one ever excelled under negative encouragement. That was the most difficult thing for me to accept when breaking the cycle of writer’s block. I had control, I created this situation, and my old patterns of thinking – to push, prod, and push some more – were not only ineffective tools for motivation, they were causing my writer’s block.
The last thing many of us want to hear is that we need to start treating ourselves gently. We buck against the suggestion. But that’s exactly what I’m proposing. And maybe the harder we resist such an idea; the more we need to consider putting it into practice.
The next time you find yourself slipping into a bad case of the dreaded Block, ask yourself these questions:
Are these self-critical thoughts about my abilities as a writer helpful to me or are they getting in my way?
Think of your next bout with writer’s block as a blessing in disguise. Morand recommends paying close attention to when your inner critic pops up. In particular, what does your inner critic say, and how does he/she say it? Pay attention to regional accents, gender, intonation, and choice of words. You might be surprised to realize that the voice belongs to someone close to you. Most often it’s a parent or a spouse, but it can also take the guise of a teacher, a sibling, or a boss. Once you’ve identified the voice, then work to neutralize it. Nip the inner critic in the bud with a phrase like: “That was my old way of thinking. What you’re saying isn’t true. I am a good writer.” Or, take it a step further. Morand suggests having a written dialogue with your inner critic. Challenge your negative voices and expose them to the light of day. That way, when they do pop up it’ll be even easier to dismiss them for what they are: nonsense.
Am I expecting myself to be perfect? Who else do I expect this of?
One of the best things you can do for yourself when the block is on your back is to switch perspectives. Look at yourself and your work from a different point of view. Depersonalize the situation. Would you be as critical of a friend as you are of yourself? Do you expect the people in your life to be perfect? No, so why should you expect it of yourself then?
Am I thinking in all or nothing terms?
This is a trap, advises Morand. It’s the perfect way to paralyze yourself into not writing at all. As long as you plan for the steps between the local paper and the Times bestseller list, it’s helpful to have lofty goals. But, when you box yourself in with unrealistic expectations, you’re asking to fail. The next question to ask is why are you making it so hard to succeed? Many writers are more afraid of success than they think. Get in touch with that inner critic again and find out why you don’t think you’re worthy enough to make it all the way to the top.
Am I condemning my writing on the basis of a single event/difficulty?
One rejection letter and a bad week do not a horrible writer make. Don’t let small setbacks keep you from seeing the bigger picture. Quell your inner critic and get back to writing. A writer writes. Period.
Am I concentrating on my weaknesses instead of my strengths?
Re-train yourself to accentuate the positive and to work around a problem until a solution utilizing your talents can be found. It may sound odd, but equate your strengths and weaknesses to training a dog. When the dog obeys, you lavish it with praise. When it doesn’t, you move on for a while and try something new. You wouldn’t whack Fido over the head with a newspaper because he doesn’t comprehend a concept, so why is it perfectly acceptable to beat yourself up when you uncover a weakness? Attacking yourself for weaknesses, perceived or otherwise, is counter-productive to becoming a better writer.
What perspectives might be helpful to me and how can I put them into practice?
When have you thrived most: under punitive conditions or positive encouragement? Which of the two is more conducive to writing? Be honest and realistic. Chances are, like most people, you work best when you feel supported and understood. Treat yourself as gently as you would another in your situation.
How can I create a nurturing environment for myself when it comes to writing?
Do you write best on your own, in bursts, or on the weekends? How can you turn off your inner critic and trust your innate knowledge as a writer? Don’t be afraid to experiment to find what’s right for you. Some people are night writers while others get their best work done in the early hours of the morning. Most of all, remember to be your own champion. There’ll always be people out there to criticize your best efforts or sabotage your peace of mind; don’t waste your time trying to beat them to the punch. If you don’t make yourself and your writing a priority, no one else will.
Every writer has a distinctive rhythm and style. As a group, we’re likely to judge our accomplishments, and even the volume of our work, against writers we perceive as more successful. Writing is not a contest designed to compare the merit of two people on the basis of their writing ability. Nor is it a race to see who can get to the finish line first. It’s an expression of the spirit, and
thankfully, no two spirits are alike.
Morand, Michelle. Personal Interview. 6 November 2000
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