Writer’s block is enemy number one to anyone attempting to live the creative writing life. We all know the usual version of it: staring at the blank page and seeing a wall.
But there are two other sinister versions of writer’s block that are easy to overlook.
Version 1 – “I can’t write because I have to clean the gutters”
This version makes doing ANYTHING ELSE BUT WRITING seem imperative. “I told myself I would write this morning, but that grout in my shower isn’t going to scrub itself.
And I really should learn to make jam today, I’ve been meaning to do that.
And maybe I should dust….”
I hate cleaning house, but when I have this kind of writer’s block, I turn into Mary Poppins tidying the nursery. The busyness makes me feel good. After all, I’m still accomplishing something.
It’s easy to forget I’m actually running from the work I want to be doing… writing.
Because, oh yeah, I want to be a writer, not have immaculate gutters that are the envy of my neighborhood.
If you can dodge this obstacle and manage to actually get to the desk and tune out the dishes, writer’s block will get mad and pull no punches.
Version 2 – “You will never be a writer”
And then there is the other manifestation of writer’s block: the ugly voices that come out to bash you where it hurts. The critical voices inside can be almost too much to take.
At its heart, writer’s block is every critical voice you’ve ever heard coming out to dance on your dreams in golf cleats.
And since “a dream is a wish your heart makes” (thank you Cinderella), your heart feels battered and bruised by these voices. It hurts! No wonder we would rather tackle the laundry than write!
Whenever I set out to write, my voices are waiting in ambush.
They say things like:
“What are you even writing? This is terrible.”
“You have nothing original to say. Why are you trying to write at all?”
“You don’t know what to do next. This novel is a hot mess.”
And the one that cuts to the heart of it all:
“There is no way this will ever be good enough.”
Oddly enough, the advice the voices give is always the same:
“Just stop. You should definitely stop… NOW! Don’t even sit down; don’t even try! Whatever you make won’t be good enough.”
Sheesh. Is it any wonder writers get blocked when we have those kinds of negative Nancys driving the creativity bus?
I say it’s time you take charge of your own bus and boot the voices to the curb.
The best way I know to deal with voices that spew out fear is to look them right in the face, listen to what they say, take a deep breath and say, “Okay… and?”
In other words, challenge the heck out of them.
Let’s take the “your not good enough and never will be so don’t even think about trying to be a writer, ever” voice. This one, in my opinion, is the evil mastermind of all the other voices. If you deal this voice a death blow, the minion voices will shrink back into the shadows.
When my voice looks at my writing or my little fledgling idea and says, “This isn’t good enough,” I like to say, “You’re right.”
That’s right. I let myself agree.
Because here is what I’ve learned as I’ve studied writing craft and process: a first draft doesn’t have to be good enough. I will say it again.
A first draft doesn’t have to be “good enough.”
And every time I sit down to write something, to create something new that didn’t exist before, THAT is a first draft. Nobody’s first drafts are good enough. Not Shakespeare’s, not Neil Gamon’s, not yours, not mine.
Let’s consider a writing/garden metaphor for a moment. Some writers plan out their garden, they make neat rows, study seed catalogs, and get everything mapped out before they stick one shovel into the dirt or plant one seed. But when the garden grows it will still be a wild thing with shoots spreading out all over, weeds creeping in, and big ugly cutworms crawling onto the tomato plants.
Other writers will throw a bunch of wildflower seeds wherever, won’t till the ground first, and if the fancy strikes them, will buy up whatever plants are on sale and half-wilted at Walmart and throw those in too.
My point: whether planned out or grown from the seat of your pants, both “gardens” will have to be pruned, shaped, and cared for to reach their full potential. Maybe some will need more shaping and tending than others, but neither will be “good enough” from the get go, at least if you want a good garden in the end.
In other words, your first draft was never meant to be “good enough,” or perfect. Because let’s be real, don’t we really compare our first drafts to finished and published books? Books that have taken years to write, revise, edit, edit, edit, rewrite, edit, proofread, and finally appear as a beautiful thing on a shelf.
It’s like comparing your kitten to a mountain lion and being angry that it can’t roar or hunt like a pro.
This is a first draft. This is what your are sitting down to write. You are planting the seed. You are watering the scraggly little bush. You are not whacking at it with the electric pruners because if you do that, it will die.
Do you hear me? Those critical voices, the ones that say it isn’t good enough, they will be your friends later on in the rodeo called revision. They will help you see which branch to cut, which area needs planting, where to throw some fertilizer.
But not yet.
Right now, you and your writing don’t have to be “good enough.”
What are some of your critical voices and are you letting them drive the creativity bus?
I hope you will boot them off at the next stop, sit back, and just write.
Like most writers, I used to write stories as a kid. Then I grew up.
A couple of bad experiences in a creative writing class with a teacher obsessed with Science Fiction (about the polar opposite of what I write) left me doubting I could do it at all.
Still, I always had the lingering feeling that maybe I could write stories and maybe they could actually be good.
But I didn’t try.
I was so paralyzed by fear of failure that I was stuck. I figured if I didn’t try for my dream and lose, or have it taken from me, at least I still had my dream. And it was precious to me and well-guarded.
So I felt jealous. I was jealous when people who were pursuing their dreams had success. I was jealous when a crappy musical play about bagpiping and cougars was produced at my town’s community theater. I wish I was making this up. I’m not.
Side note, my husband still says that play was amazing just to get my goat. And it always works!
But back to the point, I started to see it like others got to do things and I just didn’t get to.
But my friends, having come out the other side of this kind of faulty thinking, I can now see the main thing successful creative people have is something pretty simple: they have a little bit of natural talent, and the tenacity to not give up.
They are people who develop themselves and seek out ways to grow. They keep putting themselves out there and getting better until they become, like Steve Martin says, so good they can’t be ignored anymore.
Successful creatives possess the drive to work hard to improve their craft, and they find the right venue for their natural artistic abilities. It’s not magic. It’s not a special calling or blessing from the Cosmos that says they get to do this and other people don’t.
So if you find you are jealous of the success of others (or mean, spitting, and hateful), take a moment to ask yourself, “What is it I wish I could do?”
And once you’ve named this, why aren’t you doing it?
No matter where you’re at, you can take some small steps to start down the path. For me, the small step was letting myself peruse the writing section at the library. It’s amazing to me now how much courage it took just to acknowledge to myself writing was something I wanted to do. And then I took my another step and actually checked out a book called On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner. A great book.
I think you’ll find, even if you are still a long, long way off from your end goal, you’ll find joy just in moving toward it. Stop plopping in the road and grumbling at all the people who are passing you by. Get up and start walking.
So, what exactly do you wish you could be doing that you aren’t pursuing yet? And what little step can you take today to get closer to it?
And let’s face it, no matter what you write it can’t possibly be worse than that play.
If you’re like me, you’ve felt the green-eyed monster’s bite on occasion. This, of course, is Jealousy.
While I’m not typically jealous of other people’s possessions, I have been jealous of other people’s creative endeavors. It’s hard to admit, but I’ve been surly to see the success of creative people, and I’ve belly-ached over why it can’t ever be me. It wasn’t pretty.
I would think, “How come THEY get to do all this creative stuff, and I don’t ever get to?!”
I was baffled and envious. How come other people could pursue their artist things and have success and how come I couldn’t? And it was doubly worse if they got paid to do it; it was the final straw on my straw pile of self-pity.
As a side note, in case you’ve never seen a straw pile of self-pity, it isn’t pretty.
The real question I should have been asking was, “Why does the artistic success of others bother me so much?”
It bothered me because I was frustrated.
I wasn’t pursuing my own creative dreams; I wasn’t using any of my creative abilities for much beyond the occasional sewing or craft project.
I had something in me that wasn’t being used, let out, developed. And I was frustrated.
To better understand frustration, follow me back a few years to the sad tale of Moondog.
My husband and I lived in a big city with no kids and one aging dog and we decided, on a whim, to adopt a 5-month-old Australian Cattle Dog.
At first things weren’t that bad. We went to dog parks, went on lots of walks, and he was just a puppy.
But as he matured, we just couldn’t give him enough outings, mental stimulation, and exercise. And make no mistake, a dog bred specifically to herd cattle for 10 hours a day in the rough terrain of Australia NEEDED exercise. These dogs were herding dogs bred with wild Dingoes to give them the stamina they needed, because all the regular sheepdogs kept dying. This was a serious working breed.
But of course we didn’t know any of that when we adopted him. And we didn’t know that these dogs were very smart and needed mental work as much as physical work.
Without this need fulfilled in some meaningful work, Moondog was neurotic. Although sweet to us, he was nervous and aggressive around other dogs and people. On walks, he would lunge at people in uniforms, old ladies, anyone who walked funny, and on and on. He would lunge at kids on skateboards, trying desperately to aggressively herd anything he could. Once he ripped a kid’s baggy pants and scratched his leg. Other times, he would be fine. It drove us crazy.
We hired an Animal Behaviorist to help us figure him out (even though we couldn’t afford it). My husband often went on long bike rides with Moondog running beside him. He taught him to catch frisbees. We hid things around the house and played games with him to find the objects. But Moondog continued his aberrant behavior (at least aberrant for a city dog). We often mourned the fact he couldn’t just do what he was bred to do because we knew he would be great at it. Or maybe he would have seriously decimated some herd of cattle. Who knows!
In the end, we know we couldn’t have done more for him, but we feel like we failed that dog. And when he eventually bit a man (for real) on the thigh, we realized we couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t hurt someone else. We had to put him down: a beautiful, healthy dog that just wasn’t meant for the world he found himself in.
When I think of him, I realize the frustration that dog must have felt. And although it is not the same thing exactly, when creative people don’t follow their passion to create, they end up creating all kinds of unsightly things instead like bitterness, resentment, and jealousy. I know for me this has been true.
So what makes you jealous? And what is your heart trying to tell you about this? What is it you really wish you could be doing?
Stay tuned for next time as we discuss the key to creative success.