Aspiring writers may benefit from the following, but perhaps so will any creative person who's ever dreamed of accomplishing something while strenuously avoiding actually doing it. I recently reread a book called On Writer's Block: A New Approach to Creativity, by memoirist and fiction writer Victoria Nelson. Nelson first published it in 1985 as Writer's Block and How to Use It, then revised and rereleased it in 1993 under the current title. When a friend recommended it to me four years ago, I protested. I was not a blocked writer. Indeed, I thought so-called writer's block was just a convenient excuse for laziness or a flabby imagination. Real writers write, I believed; wannabes whine about being blocked.
True, I told my friend, I was facing tremendous inner resistance against my personal projects (a typically semiautobiographical first novel, some short stories and long, ambitious cultural critiques), but I'd always been able to crank out journalism and other kinds of deadline-oriented professional writing without breaking a sweat. Obviously, if I weren't an undisciplined, self-indulgent slug who went out kibitzing with friends at the late-night blues bar around the corner when I should be home at my desk, I'd probably churn those literary projects out as well, completing one after the other instead of dithering over the same re-re-re-re-revised 50 or 60 pages for months on end.
But my friend insisted I was missing the point. Nelson's book, she said, explained that "writer's block" takes many forms, including the ability to sail through personally unimportant projects while remaining adrift in the stuff that deeply matters. So I found the book at Borders and began reading.
On Page 1: "Writers, when they are not writing, tend to think of themselves in a number of ways, all bad. They are--so they think--lazy, undisciplined shirkers, failures, cowardly frauds, good-for-nothings; the list of negatives stretches into cold infinity."
On Page 2: "Writers who find themselves unable to produce have made a choice not to write, but they do not experience it as a choice. . . . [An] inability to write means that the unconscious self is vetoing the program demanded by the conscious ego."
H'm. OK, a very interesting way to think about it. Go on.
On pages 3 and beyond: "What is creativity? Above all, it is play, the child's fresh spontaneity waiting to come forth in writing or painting or composing music or any other act. . . . Writers who want to recapture this joyful spirit from which the hard work of creative endeavor draws its energy must have the humility to recognize, first of all, that they may have forgotten how to play. . . . Creative discipline grows out of pleasure, not out of tyranny or self-abuse. . . . Loving oneself--as opposed to the narcissism of being in love with oneself, with all its attendant insecurities--is one of the most difficult life tasks to master, and it is integrally related to the creative process."
Standing there between the tall aisles at Borders, I was nearly crying. Who was this stranger killing me softly with her song? In just minutes I had gone from denying the very existence of writer's block to realizing that I was, indeed, a blocked writer, as pretentious as that sounded to my ears. Hundreds of thousands of professional, written-on-deadline words were not evidence to the contrary. The unvarnished truth was that I had grown to hate the act of writing, and to hate myself for being stymied in what was once my fondest pastime. What had happened? In my desperation to prove to the world that I had enlightened, important, brilliant things to say, I'd lost touch with the true source of my motivation--a simple delight in the process of writing--and become obsessed with the greatness of the imagined product, not to mention the imagined adulation that would follow. Nelson's wise little book urged me to read my resistance as a signal of something fundamentally unhealthy in the way I approached writing--and life.
I eventually mustered the courage to take two actions. First, though it scared the hell out of me, I put aside my poor overworked novel (250 pages of continually revised beginning and middle but no end in sight) and several other unfinished projects. Maybe one day I'll be able to return to this work with joy and fluency, unburdened of heavy ego-imposed expectations. Or maybe not. Meanwhile, I go on fulfilling my professional-writing duties (like this column, a fun little trifle, for me at least). No sweat, no self-torture: It's a job, and a much better one than my other feasible choices (paralegal, corporate flack). I should feel lucky, and I do.
Second, I took notice of the one thing I still did enjoy playing at: the piano. I gave myself permission to follow the fun. I sang and played keyboards in a cheesy cover band ("Love Shack," etc.), prepared classical repertoire for a local student competition, began immersing myself in jazz. Now I'm taking another step: I'm about to begin Towson University's undergraduate jazz-piano program. So I reread Nelson's book--to help me focus on what's important here, to remind me that this is all just playtime. "Remember that the despised word 'dilettante' comes from the Italian dilettare, to delight in," she writes. If I can maintain a childlike attitude even while doing my homework and allowing my adult aspirations to grow, maybe I can avoid the dreaded pianist's block.Sandy Asirvatham writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org