28 July 2007

On the (Writer's) Block: Fear

I can't go on. I'll go on. Samuel Beckett

As Joan Acocella pointed out in an article in The New Yorker, Writers Block in some ways began with Coleridge in the early 1800s, and developed into a wide spread disease in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The romantic image of the Suffering Artist, struggling to reconnect with The Muse flourished. It didn't hurt that many American writers of the early 20th Century -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, etc -- were also prodigious drinkers (Tom Dardis' excellent The Thirsty Muse recounts some of their stories). There's nothing like being blotto to keep The Muse away, and destroy whatever artistic discipline they may have had. Interestingly, James Baldwin, not known for shying away from a good party, apparently also used to get up and write every morning, no matter what carousing he'd done the night before, and hungover guests would be awakened to the sound of him banging away on his typewriter.

I admire the dedication and work ethic of writers like Anthony Trollope who wrote a set number of words everyday before going to work in the post office, or Joyce Carol Oates, who can apparently write a novel while most of us are taking a shower and eating breakfast, or even Harry Potter's Mom, J. K Rowling, writing the seven title series at approximately 2 1/4 years per book. Me? I'm not mad at 'em, but, let's face it, I tend to be pretty lazy.

But I've been thinking about this subject, not so much because I'm blocked -- MY tendency is to do everything BUT write, rather than not being able to do so: I need to put in more Butt in Chair time -- but because it comes up from time to time whenever writers or artists get together. As always, I'm haunted by quotes: Samuel R. Delany's comment that "Not writing can be as much of a habit as writing" and Audre Lorde's command to her students to "Forget 'The Muse.' There is NO MUSE! You just sit down and work."

I wonder too, how much of our blockage (or my own hesitations) are based on Fear. Fear of failure, fear that we are exposing too much of ourselves in our work, even with names changed to protect the innocent and the guilty. Even a fear of success: I've often said to people who have hesitated before applying for positions or grants and the like, "What's the worst thing that could happen? You'll get it and then you'll be forced to do the work!" (Amazing how much easier it is to tell someone something than to do it yourself, huh?:)

And there is that very large fear that the work is not "just right" or "perfect." Waiting for it to be perfect, or working on something until it is 'Perfect' can be a huge stumbling block. I'm not referring to being slapdash or shoddy, what I mean is, to take a personal example, is literally changing just one word in a story at least ten times before thinking it worth while to be sent out. Perhaps I was channeling Flaubert!

John Shannon and Becky Schreiber of Schreiber Shannon Associates (link to their old website, soon to be updated) closed out the 2007 Maryland Library Leadership Institute with the following quote from Marianne Williamson. Parts of this I'd heard before, but it remains incredibly powerful, and resonates very, very deeply with me:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson from A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles

So: What am I hiding by avoiding work? What 'old tapes' are playing in my head telling me I'm not worthy which stop me from writing, which hold me back from being my best? Interesting questions....


BronzeBuckaroo said...

Thank you for the Marianne Williamson quote. It has helped.

John K said...

There's an excellent book on the psychology and physiology of writer's block called The Midnight Disease by Alice Weaver Flaherty. I read it a few years ago and used it in my Situation of Writing Class; she debunks some of the longstanding myths about creativity and blockage, and employs current cognitive science to clarify how writers' brains work and why some authors are so prolific--to the point of being hyperprolific--and others must struggle to put words on a page. I highly recommend it!