“What’s your advice for writer’s block?”
This is a question that I get in almost every writing class that I teach, and so as is required by law, I start my remarks by saying that I don’t believe in writer’s block.
I know the part I’m playing at the front of the class room well. Like all professional writers, I’m to display a certain world-weariness with the notion of having trouble getting oneself to set words down on the page. “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands,” offers Jodi Picoult. “I’ve never heard of anyone getting plumber’s block, or traffic cop’s block,” adds Allan Gurganus. “One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood,” Joyce Carol Oates told the Paris Review in 1978.
If there is no block, then what is there? Lack of self-discipline, obviously. The preternaturally productive Oates (40+ novels, and essays, and short stories and criticism) says she forces herself to write even when she doesn’t feel like it, or, as she put it: “I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . .”
Wow, is she a badass or what? Students love this sort of thing, love the idea that it’s possible to just push through pain, to grit it out, and get to the writing and become Joyce Carol Oates.
And here’s where what remains of puritanical fervor in this country resurfaces – it’s an opportunity to self-flagellate. Usually several students confess their sins against writing: they prefer an extra hour sleep or reality TV or spending time with their kids to working on their writing. I know I need to do something different if I want to write, they’ll say, mournfully, but expectantly, since they believe that I know the secret to never experiencing a struggle to write writing, since I have after all made a living as a writer for almost twenty years and clearly I keep winning the battle they keep losing.
“I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe in self-flagellation, and I don’t believe in self-discipline either,” I’ll say, and watch their faces register bewilderment.
Self-discipline sounds really good, but it’s ineffective — if you look closely at any writer that is consistently productive, like Oates, like Picoult, I’d argue that self-discipline rarely has anything to do with it. And since self-discipline is another way of saying self-punishment, I believe it’s immoral as applied to any kind of creative endeavor. Or actually, applied to anything at all.
“But I do believe in anxiety,” I’ll say, so that my students don’t start to worry that I also don’t believe in oxygen, chairs, the government, reality.
Anxiety is entirely rational when you’re doing something you’ve never done before. Which, by definition, is what every piece of writing is: even if you’ve written a million words, published novels, short stories, screenplays, articles, greeting cards — you’ve never written what you’re writing now. That’s scary.
All writers feel this fear or anxiety, whether they want to talk about it or not. Professional writers usually don’t have a lot of trouble starting on a routine writing project that’s paying the bills, but we often have a lot of trouble starting on a “passion project,” something we feel strongly about. This is both good and bad news for aspiring writers. Good news, they’re not alone in their anxiety. Bad news, it doesn’t go away when you get published.
More bad news: the way around this anxiety isn’t easy. And in fact, it can be lot harder than entirely ineffective self-discipline, at least at first. But once you do it a few times, the process itself becomes easier, and then writing becomes much less of a big deal.
After all, let’s remember what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about writing. That’s not jumping out of airplanes, or wrestling with giant cobras, or balancing a thin glass vial of airborne Ebola virus on your nose. It’s just putting words onto a page. Once you get through the anxiety, it’s just putting words on a page.
2. Is Hitler Really Your Role Model? Why Self-Discipline is Ineffective
The concept of self-discipline as it relates to writing, or anything else, depends on the idea that we can divide ourselves into two: the part that punishes and the part that receives punishment, the part that wants to write and the part that doesn’t.
The part of us that wants to write is usually characterized as good, and pure, and true – the part that is aligned with our higher good, the grown up. The part that doesn’t want to write is usually characterized as lazy, shortsighted and weak. The immature child.
The typical approach that many take to this conflict can be summed up like this: Weakness must be hammered away.
So, when I have a commitment to write three pages of my novel to show to a writing partner on Monday, and I’m feeling resistance to doing it – this lazy, short-sighted weak side of me can be incredibly strong – I go on the attack.
I think: Jesus Christ, Alison, it’s only three fucking pages. Why can’t you do just three fucking pages? You can write three pages in your journal like it’s nothing.
And the part that doesn’t want to write says: I DON’T WANT TO, LEAVE ME ALONE! I want to watch Girls. Or how about vacuuming? Have you seen how much cat hair is on the rug?
And the part that does: Don’t try to distract me. I don’t care what you want, WRITE THE THREE FUCKING PAGES.
This is not what can be called a productive conversation.
There’s a book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, which I have recommended often in my writing classes. He tells the story of how, in his late twenties, he rented a house to “finish a novel or kill himself.”
He’d already failed to complete two novels, and had screwed up a marriage plus two careers. This time he was determined to finish the novel, and he did. “I felt like a dragon had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath. Rest in peace, motherfucker.”
The book talks about the struggle with the part within that does not want to write, which he calls resistance, or, “the enemy within.” An insidious enemy who will do anything to keep you from doing your work. He describes it thusly:
Resistance is always lying and full of shit.
Resistance aims to kill…when we fight it, we are in war to the death.
This is war and a deadly business. You can give no quarter to the enemy, show no mercy, because if you coddle the enemy, they will murder your children, rape your women, burn your houses to the ground and salt the earth. This is why you must be, as Joyce Carole Oates said, pitiless on this matter of mood.
Although now I will confess that I am quoting her out of context, as many people do on this subject. This is a situation I will soon remedy, but first, I’m going to really up the ante.
Let’s be clear, the one with whom you must be pitiless is yourself. The immature child within to whom you must show no mercy.
Weakness must be hammered away, right? But do you know who said that? Adolf Hitler.
And indeed we are talking about destruction. We are attempting to destroy and silence the part of us that doesn’t want us to write, a part of us that is stopping us for some reason.
The problem with being at war with yourself –- which is what happening when you yell and scream at yourself, and try to drag yourself to the page by the scruff of your neck if necessary — is that there can be no winner. You are at war with… you. We can’t “beat” the part of us that doesn’t want to write, without doing damage to our own psyche.
A damaged psyche is a problem, for life most importantly, but also for the writing.
For if you somehow manage to grit out a piece of writing in this manner, you’ll probably have trouble summoning the energy to bludgeon yourself into this act repeatedly. You’ll have to keep hitting yourself harder to get the work done, and only the most masochistic could keep that act up indefinitely. This is one reason why I say that self-discipline is over the long haul ineffective.
3. Why Self-Discipline is Immoral and Dangerous.
As I’ve already pointed out, the part of us that doesn’t want to write seems childish and immature, and so it should be troubling that our instinct is to crush this weaker part of ourselves when it raises an objection to a new course of action, simply because it doesn’t immediately fall into line with our grown-up plans. It seems a basic point of morality that the strong ought not beat up on the weak.
In For Your Own Good, the psychologist Alice Miller wrote very eloquently about the damage that children sustain from physical punishment and humiliation.
She points out that children have a very hard coping with the fact that pain is being caused to them by the very people on whom their lives depend. And that this confusion becomes even worse when parents don’t allow their children to express their full feelings of pain, anger and confusion at being treated in this manner.
“If there is absolutely no possibility of reacting appropriately to hurt, humiliation, and coercion, than these experiences cannot be integrated into the personality; the feelings they evoke are repressed and the need to articulate them remains unsatisfied, without any hope of being fulfilled.”
And this leads to psychological problems, as well as to adults who are inured to their internal sensations of discomfort and pain.
“The scorn and abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality, creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore…Almost everywhere we find the effort, marked by varying degrees of intensity and by the use of various coercive measures, to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of the child within us – i.e, the weak, helpless, dependent creature – in order to become an independent competent adult, deserving of respect.” [Emphasis added.]
Sound familiar? Destroy the childish part of you that doesn’t want to write, coerce it into writing, and you’ll be zipping your way to a completed manuscript in no time. Except for that this makes no sense at all: you really do need an intact self to create. Your internal defenses can’t be eliminated by forbidding them to exist. Or by yelling at them.
Also, you also really can’t eliminate your internal defenses — this childish part of you is there for the long haul. That’s a fact, not a problem.
And the part of you that’s stopping your writing isn’t doing so because it’s mean and cussed and hates you. It’s doing it because it’s trying to protect you…from something. The strength of the resistance that you feel to writing is a measure of exactly how much protection some part of your brain thinks you need from this writing act you’re about to undertake.
And here’s why you disregard this message at your peril. The brain takes this protective role very, very seriously. In his book, The Divided Mind, Dr. John E. Sarno has written about how the brain creates physical maladies in order to divert attention from something troubling happening in the unconscious.
To the layperson, this sounds absolutely bonkers, until you consider all the ways that mind does directly affect the body — for instance, blushing, when you feel embarrassed, or sweating when nervous. Sarno found that the brain can restrict blood flow to certain body parts, creating
“physical symptoms…intended to divert attention away from the emotions in the unconscious so that they will not become overt and thereby known to the conscious mind.”
This includes back pain, knee pain, headaches, to irritable bowel syndrome, frequent urination – all excellent distractions.
These maladies serve a protective purpose, he writes, “since the repressed emotions, should we become aware of them, be in some way to dangerous to normal existence, or too emotionally painful to deal with.” And this all happens without conscious decision.
My point here is that you can try to override this part of you that is trying to stop you from doing something it perceives as harmful – in this case, writing — but the psyche has lots of tricks up its sleeve. The better approach would be to try to shine some light on this resistance, to gently approach this scared part of you with kindness and appreciation…and curiosity. Why is that you don’t want to write? What is going on here?
4. Objections, Or What Self-Discipline is Not
At this point, you might argue that without self discipline, everyone would just do whatever they want. Give into every impulse. Civil society would break down.
This is confusing the issue. Discipline is about achieving obedience through punishment, which is not the same thing as behaving in your own self-interest. Behaving in your self-interest involves taking action to avoid unpleasant consequences, or to receive pleasant ones.
As an example, I have been working for myself and from home since I graduated from college. When this comes up in conversation with people who have worked for others, in an office, I am often complimented on my self-discipline. “I could never work from home, I’d just watch television all day.” Often this is followed by examples of situations where this person has worked from home for a few days and got absolutely nothing done.
I usually say that self-discipline has nothing to do with this, for a few reasons. Mostly, that if I avoid my work for any reason, the only person who’s there to pick up the slack is me. And if no one does it, then the only person available to have an unpleasant conversation with an irate client is me. And the person who will not be able to invoice for the work and won’t be able to pay the bills, is, again, me. None of these things really happen to an employed person who works from home. If you goof for a day (at the office or at home) The worst thing is that you fall a little behind, and then you catch up, and your pay check still appears in your checking account.
And then I say that I’m not sure how anyone gets up every morning and puts on binding clothing to go to the office, because I don’t think I could do that ever day. The response is generally something about needing to earn a living. Exactly.
Life is full of things we don’t want to do in the moment, but we do it because the consequences would be less pleasant. Generally, you don’t experience a huge amount of inner turmoil about the decisions you make in your self-interest. (Yes, of course, there’s a little bitching and moaning, but nothing close to something you’d describe as a block.) You’re doing the dread task for a good cause: keeping your home, putting food on the table, keeping up with the company gossip. It’s possible also to delay gratification of some need, or to endure discomfort, for a goal you’d really like to achieve. You might also put off some momentary pleasure for an even greater future pleasure.
To return to Joyce Carol Oates, and her advice about being pitiless on the matter of mood. What she really meant was being very clear about identifying and acting in your own self-interest – deciding on your greatest pleasure and going after it full-tilt. The full quote from the Paris Review:
One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.
The activity of writing changes everything for her because knows she loves it. In another interview she said: “I love to write…it’s a fascinating experience to deal with language and to tell stories involving people who are, for me at least, fascinating.”
And so she acts in her own enlightened self-interest, if she’s tired, depressed, sick of it all, she knows from experience that doing something she loves will lift her out of that, in the way that people who like to exercise do the same. This is not much of a struggle, this is not a “block,” this is not a serious objection from her unconscious mind. This also is not self-discipline. This is self-interest.
And what’s more, she doesn’t stick to a regular schedule. Earlier in the Paris Review interview she said this:
I haven’t any formal schedule, but I love to write in the morning, before breakfast. Sometimes the writing goes so smoothly that I don’t take a break for many hours—and consequently have breakfast at two or three in the afternoon on good days. On school days, days that I teach, I usually write for an hour or forty-five minutes in the morning, before my first class. But I don’t have any formal schedule, and at the moment I am feeling rather melancholy, or derailed, or simply lost, because I completed a novel some weeks ago and haven’t begun another . . . except in scattered, stray notes.
Eventually she will pull herself back to what she loves, her writing, because she is taking care of herself, not because she is punishing herself. And Jodi Picoult, too, makes the point that it’s love, not punishment, that brings her to the page: “What you need to remember, however, is that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than writing.”
Now it’s true that we humans don’t always reliably act in our self-interest. Sometimes we take the easier choice in the moment because the consequences aren’t clear, or even real, to us. (This is also called “being young.”) Sometimes we take the easier choice in the moment because we figure our future self can take the heat. But for the most part, we’re pretty good at playing out what will happen if we do or don’t do something today and deciding whether we’re willing to accept or not.
The equanimity with which we accept those consequences is a measure of maturity.
The problem that we’re dealing with in “writer’s block,” or its associated problems, is that is we’re attempting to delay gratification of our immediate needs, or endure some discomfort for something that we’re not really sure we want.
If you’re not convinced — on all levels — that this writing is something that you really want to do, of course you’re not going to do it. And punishing yourself isn’t going to make the desire more keen. Morale does not improve if the beatings continue.
The further problem is that when we think about “what we want” we only take into account the goals of our ego — the mature, grown up part of us, the one who makes decisions about things like wanting to write. We do not take into account the goals of the rest of our psyche, but just because we ignore them doesn’t mean they’re not there, exerting their influence over us, and causing what we perceive as trouble.
Again, if you are experiencing “writer’s block,” some part of you really, really does not want to write. What is it? And what are its objections?
5. Moving Forward Without Self-Discipline: The How-To Part
Sometimes, the process of inquiry can take just a few moments of quiet thought. The objections come to mind quickly: Maybe you don’t feel like you have the technical skills to tackle a certain project. Maybe you’re afraid of what your ex-husband will think of what you’ve written.
But generally, if your answer to the question “why don’t I want to write?” pops easily to mind and is something you’d be willing to say in front of your writing class, it’s probably not the issue that’s strong enough to go up against your strong, competing urge to write.
The good news with this problem, as opposed to so many others, is that its resolution is obvious. When you figure out what the problem is, you’re able to sit down at the screen or at the page and the words do start to be written.
To get there, I suggest an escalating strategy of inquiry. First, take a few minutes to think about what your problem is. See if you feel any more motivated to write. No?
Okay, then, try to write about what the problem is. (Oh, so sneaky…here you are, writing about why you can’t write.)
Try to zero in on the problem by asking yourself to describe where this block lives. Where in your body do you feel this? Does it have a color, a shape, a texture? When you concentrate on this block, what thoughts come to mind? Does that help you to understand the problem any more? These are good moments to try some of the cognitive-behavior therapy techniques outlined by David Burns in his seminal book, Feeling Good.
Still nothing? The unconscious is a complicated place and you may not be able to resolve this issue so easily. It can be helpful to discuss this with another human being that you trust. Sometimes, just the act of talking about a problem and being heard by another human being can lead to its resolution. And if not, you may need to consult an expert of your choice. Yes, a therapist, an analyst, psychologist, a priest, a rabbi. You are in a conflict with yourself that you can’t resolve, and you need a referee.
I should say that the problems you uncover don’t tend to just go away –but knowing what they are makes them easier to handle. For instance, in going through this process myself recently, I realized that I was deeply worried about returning to a period of workaholism that I experienced several years earlier. I worked until it hurt, and it took a lot to extricate myself from that situation. I know that tendency is still alive within me, to get into a project and disregard my bodily needs. And so I have resisted sinking into a larger project, as a kind of self-preservation. Until I addressed that issue, my own block was very powerful. Now that I know this is there, I can work with it.
This process which I’ve recommended here is rather Un-American, by which I mean: not guaranteed to be quick and easy. You’ll probably turn up things inside you that you don’t like very much. It will seem easier to just punish yourself for not writing, rather than going through all this. But actually when you identify where the actual problem lies, you’ll have a degree of freedom that you haven’t had before. You won’t be so mean to yourself, which will make yours a nicer life to live.
And, if you want to, you will write.