The Four Different Kinds of Writer's Block--And What We Can Learn From Them
Last night, Joni and Colleen came to my fiction class and spoke about various aspects of the writing life, including the importance of setting up a schedule and actually writing. As is inevitable with such a discussion, there were those people who talked about having trouble getting started. This got me thinking about Mylene's earlier post about resistance to writing.
The problem with lumping all of our reluctance under the generic terms of "writer's block" or "writing resistance" is that if we don't know why we are resisting writing, we will find it difficult to break through. Writing resistance can happen at any stage of the process, and it usually happens for one of four main reasons:
1) The fear that the words will fail us. This is probably the most common reason, and is also known as the terror of the blank page. Mylene talked about this earlier when she talked about our fear of corrupting that perfect vision inside us, the realization that what we put on paper will never live up to that which is so beautiful inside our minds. I call this an internal fear. We are fighting against ourselves, fighting against an ideal that only we have created.
2) The fear that we won't connect with readers. We worry what we write won't be good enough to get published, won't find the right (or any) audience if it does get published, or will be badly reviewed. We worry that what we're writing won't be understood or be trivial and boring. We have internalized voices from outside ourselves, and we are too adept at listening to them. I was stuck here a long time, after years of hypercritical workshops. I got so good at listening to everyone else's voices I forgot to listen to my own.
3) The fear that our time will be better spent elsewhere. This also got me for a long time, and will be the subject of a later expanded post. For the longest time, I thought that because I was a Christian, that writing was selfish and not a wise use of my time. I was a steward, after all, of my resources, and what was I going to give to the world by sitting behind a desk? Shouldn't I be out there feeding the homeless, or leading worship in my church? Shouldn't I keep singing in the choir? To be honest, I still struggle with this one, and am working on figuring out how to continue to serve God in other ways, along with (rather than in spite of) my writing.
4) The fear that we will break open. In Wild Mind, Natalie
Goldberg says that in order to write fully and honestly, you must be "willing to break open." You have to be willing to tell the truth, no matter what genre you're writing in. Sometimes that truth is difficult. Sometimes it has the power to dismember. But in order to write what will most resonate with readers, we have to go there, to the heart of that which we are most afraid. Frankly, there are days I can't handle it. There are days when I wake up with my very mentally disturbed antagonist in my head, and just don't want to go with her. This happens less now than it did at first, when I was early in the writing and research process. Now I can listen to her with more compassion, having already broken open so many times. But sometimes what she tells me paralyzes me--because I don't know if I want to put something that dark out into the world.
I can remember my first writing sessions at Panera--I had to write there because I couldn't write alone--I would go into the bathroom stall and lay down on the floor if no one else was there and put my hand on my stomach and just breathe. I had to tell myself that I was okay, that this was my novel and not actually happening to me, but all the research I'd done put me there. It put me there so viscerally that I felt like I was actually experiencing it, and I had to do something to mediate the horror.
While most of us aren't writing books like that (and Lord help you if you are!), I still think #4 is the reason for the vast majority of writer's blocks. We may say it's #1 or even #2, but deep down, I think we know the truth. For most of us, it's that there's another level of depth beyond where we are already writing, but in order to access that depth, we have to be able to face the darkest parts of our characters and the inevitable darkness within ourselves.