It’s worth pausing for a minute to consider writer’s block. It afflicts most of us at some point or another, in one form or another. There are two types of writer’s block. The first is where the urge to write is completely stifled and no writing is being done at all. The second is where we are writing to a greater or lesser degree, producing words and paragraphs of perfectly good text that have no (or little) connection to what we truly want to say – words that don’t express our own unique creativity.
Martha Graham, the famous American dancer and choreographer, discussed keeping the channels of creativity open with Agnes de Mille:
Agnes de Mille: “The greatest thing she [Martha] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
Not everyone wants to write, but everyone is naturally creative. Some people paint, others dance or cook or sing (some do many or all of these things), yet others apply their creativity to business or teaching or marketing. The creative impulse is precious. It distinguishes us from every other person on the planet, dead or alive, and every major religion, all the way back to the Greeks and the Romans, makes mention of creative impulses as divine inspiration. Who are we to ignore such a gift?!
When we begin to write, however, or when we are thinking about what we might write, if we have not yet found a network of supportive people or gained confidence in our work, it’s easy not to bother. We wonder, ‘Who am I? Why should anyone read what I have to say? What makes anything I could write worthwhile?”
To answer these questions, ask yourself this: have you ever been fascinated by a documentary about an unknown person? Did it matter to you that they were not famous? No, it didn’t, and that’s because, although the details of our lives vary, all human beings have the same needs and desires, as Abraham Maslow explains. Once our basic physical and safety needs are met, we yearn for belonging, love, acceptance (our social needs) and ultimately, to fulfill ourselves, to become all that we are capable of becoming (our self-actualizing needs).
When we write our innermost feelings, we practice self-acceptance. When we share our writing with a benevolent writing friend, we find belonging. When we strive to express ourselves creatively in words, we experience fulfillment, and as we revise, taking pains to speak kindly to ourselves, we move closer to becoming all that we can be.
During a tele-seminar for the Nation Association of Memoir Writers, one caller told me of the negative response of friends to her efforts to write a memoir. They asked her why she was so focused on herself and ‘still writing about her feelings’. My heart went out to her. This poor woman was being diminished and discouraged by people who didn’t know better at the very time when she was most vulnerable. The early drafts of any piece of writing are delicate. The structure may be uneven at this point, the grammar and spelling inexpert, but the writer’s heart lies exposed. Writers must protect themselves from naysayers. If we don’t, the wisps of creativity, the first stirrings of our story, may evaporate – or be abandoned – before they are captured on the page, and later shaped into publishable prose.
So, whilst there are as many different reasons for writer’s block as there are people, the solutions are refreshingly simple. The first step is adopt ‘beginner’s mind’. This is how Buddhist monks describe a willingness to step back from prior knowledge and existing conventions in order to start over and cultivate new options. For writers, this means saying to ourselves, “Okay, I don’t mind if what I write is ungrammatical, stupid or just plain boring. I’m going to write everything that comes to my mind about this topic (whatever that may be), and not judge it.”
For nine years, I wrote short stories for a magazine called BCtheMagazine bimonthly and, about two weeks before every deadline, I’d begin to feel burdened. Sometimes I dreaded starting a new story and every time, the solution was the same. I’d say to myself, it’s okay if this isn’t any good, I’ll just fish around in my mind for a character with a problem, get the story started, then get it finished (i.e. the problem is either solved or it becomes clear it will not be solved), and revise the heck out of it later to make it good.
So, in the spirit of beginners mind, the second step is to complete the following assignment without judgement, with gentle self-acceptance, and with deep appreciation for yourself – for your willingness to take action on your own behalf. If you blog online, you may like to choose a topic that fits your theme and then this writing exercise can also be a blog post.
Think of a time in your life when you were happy, delighted or content. Perhaps it’s a childhood memory, like a birthday party or a holiday celebration, or perhaps it’s an adult memory, like the birth of a child or an experience of a goal achieved. Then think of the sights, the smells, the tastes, the sounds and the textures of the experience.
To get the words flowing (no judgement!), write a shopping list account of this time. Here’s an example:
Christmas when I was a child:
‘Christmas tree in the bay window of our house in Sussex, I’m eight or nine years old, it’s early morning and I’ve gone in to look at the pretty multi-colored lights. Outside the grass is tipped with frost. The room smells strongly of pine, needles have fallen all over the navy blue carpet, gold baubles hang on the branches, so old the silk threads are unwinding, thin short strips of silver tinsel lie haphazardly on the branches (Mum doesn’t care about interior design: “Here, just plonk them on!”). Piles of presents under the tree wrapped in flimsy green paper decorated with red candy canes, big square ones and small rectangular ones that could be anything, if I pick them up and shake them I might be able to work out what’s inside, but I don’t know if I want to spoil the surprise. It’s a sweet time, a stage of life when everything is simple, when the biggest dilemma is – do I want to spoil my Christmas surprise or not?’
And so on and so forth. Have fun with it!
I look forward to reading! Tessa