Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Writer's Block

I can remember clearly the moment I decided I could leave the world of journalism. I was a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, an excellent newspaper, and I had a three-day a week job. It was an ideal set-up, except I was growing tired of the pace of the work. I longed to delve more deeply into projects and write in a more literary fashion.

My escape came when I was accepted into a creative non-fiction class at UC Extension taught by Bay Area writer Jane Anne Staw. The class inspired me, and I went on to study privately with Jane Anne for many years. I am still in a writing group, North 24th, that evolved from one of Jane Anne’s seminars. I consider it crucial to my sanity.

Jane Anne Staw’s most recent book is Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block. Jane Anne has helped many writers on their road to publication. She’s an astute observer of the obstacles writers erect to keep themselves from working. Her book has just been released in paperback, and I asked Jane Anne to share some of her insights into writing with Ghost Word. Part One deals with the cruel voices inside our heads that tell us we can’t write.

“I realized yesterday that whenever I start writing, I say the most awful things to myself,” a writing client announced when she came for our meeting yesterday. “I couldn’t believe how mean I was. ‘You’re no good. Nobody will want to read anything you write. Who cares?’ were only some of the criticisms dancing around in my head. I was never aware of this before; I didn’t realize how awful I am to myself whenever I try to write.”

My client is not alone. Whether they realize it or not, far too many writers are cruel to themselves when they write. From the moment they first think about sitting down to put words on the page to the day they begin to consider sending a manuscript out for possible publication, many writers transform their writing into a war zone and become their own worst enemies.

First there are the voices in their heads. My client was able to hear hers for the first time yesterday. Other clients are unaware of the hostile crowd they bring with them into the writing process. For these writers, I often suggest creating a separate page or column as they write, a place to jot down any of the negative voices or comments that they overhear. Very quickly, the uninitiated tune in to the hail of insults and condemnations striking them. “You don’t have anything interesting to say. You are too shallow to write anything important. Your punctuation is awful. Nobody likes you so why would they read what you write? You’re one of the stupidest people you know.” These are only some of the hundreds of bullets aimed directly at the writers I work with, and not necessarily the most cruel.

Once you become aware of the hostile voices in your head, you can learn to negotiate with these voices in order to create the quiet and safety you need to write. Some writers are able to identify at least some of the people—a parent, former teacher, ex-best friend-- behind the insults and then negotiate with these voices. When I realized that one of my critics was a revered professor from my undergraduate university, I learned to thank him for wanting to help me, then to explain that I didn’t need his help at the moment. I would, however, probably need it later, and would call upon him then. One of my clients realized that the most vitriolic voice she heard was her mother’s, and decided that the best way for her to deal with her mother’s intrusive presence was to ask her to leave. It was that simple. Every morning my client would sit down to write, then the minute she heard her mother’s voice chastising her about some aspect of her writing, she would get up from her chair and accompany her mother out the door. “Thanks for coming to see me, Mom, but I have to write right now and don’t have time to talk.”

Even if you can’t identify the people behind the voices, you can devise strategies to silence them. I’ve suggested that clients draw interpretive pictures of some of their voices, then turn these pictures to face the wall when they start to write. Often, finding an alternative activity to engage the negative chorus provides writers the quiet they need. “There’s a great movie at the Lumiere you might like to see,” I’ve suggested to my personal chorus. Or, “It’s such a beautiful day, wouldn’t you rather be gardening?”

Most writers find that all that’s necessary to distract their harsh critics is a bit of diplomacy. And I emphasize the word diplomacy. While some writing coaches offer hostile strategies to silence critics, I maintain that there is already too much enmity and hostility in the writing process. And in the long run, hostility is counterproductive, generating only temporary solutions; while compassion is enduring.

Related to this barrage of critics many writers face without the proper ammunition, is the question of the ideal reader. And when it comes to envisioning readers, most of the writers I’ve worked with place themselves in front of the firing line. “Whenever I write, I consciously think about what my meanest editor will say when he reads my piece,” one writer told me. “I know that I’m still trying to show the chairman of my dissertation committee that he was wrong about my writing,” a poet admitted. “Even though he had nothing to do with poetry, I’m determined to make him respect me.”


Susan said...

Frances, thanks for posting this. (yes, I've got one of those raging bitch voices that lives in my head, too). I appreciate this and the other recent post about support for the writing craft that you posted, and I'll be passing them on to some writer colleagues of mine.

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