Not Writer’s Block, Writer’s Pause
By Alison Goodman
A while back I attended a party in honour of a visiting bestselling author. I was duly introduced and ended up chatting to him about the obvious: the way we write. Convinced a rapport was developing, I ventured a more personal question.
“So what do you do about the self-doubt?”
He stared at me as though I had just spat in his mouth. “What self-doubt?”
I stared back. Lucky man, I thought. Actually, my first thought was, what a git, then I thought lucky man. What would it be like to never feel overwhelmed and underqualified?
I think there would be very few fiction writers in this world who do not have moments of “Am I good enough?”
Ralph Keyes, in his marvellously reassuring book, The Courage To Write, says,
“Fear is never enjoyable. But nerves are part of the writing process, perhaps even an essential part. That’s what most working writers come to accept. Anxiety is always there.”
Fear is always going to be a part of writing, because writing is risky. Artistically, financially, personally, and sometimes even socially, risky. Of course, fear is not the biggest part of the writing process, or always uppermost in the mind, but it is guaranteed to be lurking and ready to jump you when you are feeling tired, unhappy, angry, stressed, or uninspired.
Most of the time we live with our writing fears and often use them to spur us on. But sometimes fear can stop us in our tracks. It can halt the flow of words until we stare at the blank page screaming inside with frustration. We want to write, but when we reach inside, we come up empty. I’m not going to call it Writer’s Block because it sounds so insurmountable. I’m going to call it Writer’s Pause, because a pause is just a moment before you move on. And you can.
To try and address the many kinds of fear that can hold back a writer would be a book in itself and, and in fact, Ralph Keyes has written that book. I think it is one of the must-haves for every writer – a brilliant resource to draw on when it’s hard to face the page. My goal is far more modest. I’m going to attempt to unravel two of the specific fears that may be behind a Writer’s Pause, and offer a few ways to move through them. As Ralph Keyes says, the difference between writers,
“who are paralysed by fear and those who are merely terrified is that…the latter come to terms with their anxieties. They learn how to keep writing even as fear tries to yank their hand from the page.”
As research for this article, I took a straw poll amongst my writer friends and asked them to list the top fears that could bring their writing to a grinding halt. The one that emerged over and over again was the fear of “digging deep”.
Robert McKee, writing guru and author of Story, has a motto that appears on his website and all of his resource material – write the truth. He doesn’t mean it in any down-the-line facts kind of way. McKee is urging the storyteller to “bring to the work a vision that’s driven by fresh insights into human nature and society”. He has encapsulated one of the tenets of modern fiction writing; an author is meant to explore the human mind and spirit through story, and find some illumination about the human condition. Of course, as any fiction writer knows, that is about as easy as ripping out one’s toenails with one’s teeth. To do it, most of us use some level of our own experience, even if it is just the first-hand knowledge of our emotional states.
There is a certain amount of exposure inherent in every story we write. And if you happen to be excavating personal memories, traumatic events, or family history to create your fiction then the risk factor soars. If I write that, you realise, then I (and/or my family) will be exposed.
Sometimes that exposure is not a problem, and sometimes it becomes such a big problem that it will stop the creative process. Shame, or even the threat of it, is a powerful fear.
To double the anxiety, it is often accompanied by the fear of dragging up all the emotions that are associated with the memory or event that we want to, or must, write about. And sometimes we fear what we are going to find there – perhaps not the person we thought we were.
At the very least, such exploration is going to be uncomfortable and, as humans, we are primed to avoid discomfort. With all that going on at a subterranean level, the writer may find themselves stuck on a particular scene, unable to move on, and not understanding why. Cue the screaming frustration.
The first step in moving through this kind of Writer’s Pause is, of course, to recognise that it is born from a sense of shame and a wish to avoid pain. I count myself lucky to have been taught the craft of writing by Gerald Murnane, and I remember him saying to me once that if I was doing everything to avoid writing a scene, then most likely it was where the real emotional truth was waiting to be uncovered.
That’s when I realised that such avoidances were an opportunity. It was a huge neon arrow pointing me toward something that I should explore. As Toni Morrison once said about the anxious moments of writing a novel,
“When you stiffen, you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important…the fear itself is information.”
If a fear of digging deep has stopped you from writing, try this exercise, inspired by Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg’s delightful book about living the writer’s life. Decide to write about what disturbs you – see it as an opportunity – but put a time limit on it. Ten minutes only. Or twenty. That way, feeling those emotions is not an endless prospect. And when you have done your ten or twenty minutes, get up and go for a walk or garden or do something physical that you enjoy. Work the emotion out of your muscles and let your mind consider that opportunity for truth.
There is a pernicious myth about writing that has been handed down to us from the great Romantic idea of the artist. It goes something along these lines: if I am going to be any good as a writer, then my first draft should be brilliant. And if it is not, then I will never be any good.
As you can see, this myth is a fabulous way for writers to set themselves up for a fall. It’s an idea of perfectionism that can never be achieved. I always hope that, with all the books and interviews about the writing process available, this myth is fading. However, I think it has just been driven into the subconscious. It occasionally pops up in an interview with an author. “I don’t rewrite,” the author will say, meaning see my genius. As if rewriting is a mark of the hack.
Rewriting is actually the mark of a working writer. I can’t stress this enough. Rewriting is as much a part of the process as that first joyous flush of ideas. Brilliance will not just fall from your creative soul onto the page in one draft. Probably not even two, or three. But if we are unconsciously buying in to the myth, then that is what we expect. Instant brilliance. And if it is not instant – if writing is hard, as it inevitably will be at times – then the myth’s faulty logic tells us that we are not good enough.
Ironically, a Writer’s Pause created by perfectionism can often take the form of rewriting, but it is not useful rewriting. It is that obsessive going over-and-over one paragraph or one chapter with no forward movement through the story.
Julia Cameron in The Artists Way, her enlightening twelve-week program to rediscover creativity, says,
“Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right...Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try again.”
Perfectionism is about the fear of failure. It is the fear that we just can’t do it. No wonder this idea of perfectionism can halt a writer in his or her tracks, or at least create a lot of torment.
Anne Lamott, author of the witty and wise writing guide Bird by Bird, suggests taking the pressure off your writing sessions by aiming to complete a short, defined assignment rather than an overwhelming amount of something you have not really specified. One paragraph, for example, about your character leaving her house, or a description of a sunrise over a river. That’s all. Eminently achievable.
Julia Cameron has another approach, which is an essential part of her twelve week creativity program but works particularly well against the scourge of perfectionism. She calls it “morning pages” and it is three pages of longhand, written every morning when you first get out of bed. The pages are meant to be stream-of-consciousness meanderings, not “Art” or even good writing. The morning pages are about moving the hand across the paper and writing whatever comes to mind. They can be whiny, self-pitying, boring or stilted. It doesn’t matter. Morning pages help evade the damaging Critic within us and get the flow of creativity back on track.
Digging Deep and Perfectionism are just two of the fears that can be behind a Writer’s Pause. There are many others, and the books I have mentioned above explore these and many other aspects of living the writing life. However, you may have noticed that the exercises that I have suggested are a variation on the same theme. Keep writing. Whether it is timed exercises, morning pages, short assignments or even notes, just keep writing. If you do, that terrible feeling in the pit of your gut will, at some point, be overtaken by the joy of creating again.
Copyright Alison Goodman 2012