Over the last few months I have written some compelling, thought-provoking articles on a variety of subjects – whether women are too far out or too far in to be considered outsider artists; how women use their bodies as well as their voices to express outrage instead of sexuality; which moments in time really matter in women’s history. However, unless you are gifted with ESP or some other form of mind-reading, you probably missed these articles. That’s because they exist only on the media platform known as my mind.
I did not treat these pieces lightly; they were more than random thoughts that flitted across my mind and then vanished never to appear again. I spent a lot of time with them. I thought them through; I researched material and interviewed subjects; I attended events and jotted down notes in a notebook. I even edited the copy, debating which words to use and what titles to give each piece. But ultimately they remained imprinted only in my consciousness and not on paper.
Now the mind is a very powerful thing. It can affect the way we feel and behave, it can influence our health and our emotional state. But one thing it cannot do is write. It cannot, on its own, change thoughts into concrete form. One might say that words have their own ephemerality (perhaps a made up word, but it does say what I mean). The squiggles on a piece of paper have meaning only because we have collectively and culturally assigned a certain sound and a certain sense to them. Nevertheless, they are more corporeal than thoughts. They can be shared, they can be preserved.
Writing is something most of us learn to do at an early age. It gets embedded in our physiology like riding a bike and driving a car. But that’s the physical part. The other part of writing, the having something to say, comes, it seems, from somewhere else.
Sometimes, when I’m really in the flow, I feel that the words that take shape on the page are coming from somewhere beyond myself. That I am channeling the words that come through me and appear on the page (or the screen) as if by magic.
At other times the words struggle to appear. Nothing I do seems to coax them out of hiding. They stay securely in the ether and refuse to budge.
I had never understood writer’s block before this. I knew there were times I had nothing to say and therefore I didn’t write. But never before have I had so much I wanted to say and been unable to make it appear before me.
What has changed? Have I suddenly become conscious of writing as an act of communication? Have I understood that writing implies a reader and I’ve become afraid of rejection or, perhaps worse, indifference? Am I seeking a kind of unattainable perfection, where each word is just the exactly right word, and each article resonates with meaning and significance.
One of my favorite books on writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, particularly her chapter on Perfectionism. At an academic workshop on helping students improve their work I once suggested to a group of scientists that perfectionism was a flaw. In their world it was critical – and I suppose if I went to a dentist or a doctor who had barely squeaked through their training, I might agree. But for an artist of any sort, it is in the willingness to abandon perfectionism that creativity can bloom.
Or am I just looking for an excuse for not doing what I need to do to, which is to sit down and suffer through the agony of searching for the words to express my ideas however roughly and just keep going until I have written the first draft and then get busy revising. After all, isn’t that what I tell my students. “Just turn in something,” I say. “Then we can make it better.” Or “Wonderful happens in the rewrite.”
When I tell others, writers in particular, that I have writer’s block, they want to fix it. They suggest writing prompts, inspirational readings, morning pages, deadlines. Anything that will get me writing in the hope that once I have begun, like a car starting downhill, it will build momentum and the writing will take off and eventually run under its own steam.
I appreciate their concern and their suggestions. I really do. But I’m not sure that fixing the writer’s block is what is needed. At least, not right away,
My sense is that I need to embrace this resistance and let it fester a bit longer. I think it is about many things that have nothing to do with writing but a great deal to do with who I am, who I was, and who I am in the process of becoming. In order to move forward, I think I have to sit still right now and let the inertia come over me until I absolutely can’t stand it any more. I need to dig deep inside myself and find out what I really want to write. Yes, I have lots of clever ideas, and they are all interesting and others will read them and tell me how clever I am. But they aren’t my soul talking. And maybe that’s what this moment demands of me, what this block demands of me. To sit still until my soul cries out to be heard. Not in cleverness but in truth.