Guest Blogger, Dr. Sue, is back as promised to deliver a little more Writer's Therapy. Don't forget to write her with your issues at Dr.Sue at mindspring.com
The inability to write—or, more accurately, the feeling of being unable to write—is the single most common factor propelling writers into my office. The causes of writer’s block can range from resistance to the subject matter of a particular piece to deep-seated conflict about one’s identity as a writer. The effects are remarkably similar across the board: frustration, sometimes edging into despair; a sense of separation from an essential part of the self; and, too often, the impulse to medicate with alcohol and other drugs.
Below, two writers describe their experiences with crippling blocks. I invite you to share your own stories, including any strategies you have found helpful.
Dear Dr. O’Doherty,
I am experiencing what feels like more than writer's block. It's more like writer's terror. My life has been in serious upheaval for the past four months, during which time I did not write at all. I also received a rather dismissive rejection letter from an agent who had solicited my work. I'm suffering from major lack of confidence. Even journal writing makes me nervous. How can I get back on the horse again?
Your use of the term “serious upheaval” suggests that this is not a case of, “ever since I won the lottery my time has been taken up with visits to realtors and I simply can’t write.” Please be gentle with yourself, and don’t expect too much too soon.
Some writers thrive on chaos. These magnificent specimens can create great works from an army bunker, on the plane to Reno for the divorce, or during an extended visit by the in-laws. Most of us, though, require some external order to access the internal universe that allows us to create. If we are continually pulled back into the demands of the “real” world, it is the internal world that begins to seem chaotic, due to the interruption of our concentration.
By her mid-twenties, Jane Austen had completed three novels plus her satiric History of England and other sophisticated juvenilia. She had begun a new novel when she was forced to move with her family from her childhood home to the less familiar town of Bath. Her father died four years later; the family moved house again and she may have had a love affair that ended badly. During this period, to the best knowledge of her biographers, she barely wrote at all and completed nothing. It was only after the family was settled again that she was able to return to serious, productive work, revising the drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication and creating three new major novels.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to write now; only that it’s important to keep in mind that you are not a machine, programmed to churn out set amounts of material regardless of external conditions. The rejection you describe would most likely hurt under any circumstances, but I imagine that the upheaval you have experienced rendered you more vulnerable to self-doubt.
This is not a state you can just snap out of. Instead, as counterintuitive as it may sound, try to immerse yourself in it for a while. Get out that dreaded journal and write about what has been happening to you. Make lists of reasons why you can’t write. Write for five minutes every morning, then go about the rest of your day, taking extra care with yourself. It is my bet that within a few weeks you will find yourself going over the time limit, writing about other topics, and getting excited about the ideas that are forming on the page. Don’t rush this, and don’t blame yourself for not producing more or better stuff. It will come.
Dear Dr. Sue:
I have been working on a novel for quite some time and find myself at a dead halt, an impasse. This came upon me suddenly and since I try to keep disciplined and write four hours a day, I'm going out of mind with worry that I'm just lazy and will never be able to finish my book. This impasse occurred about the time I was exploring, through the book, some deep conflicts around a past personal trauma. Although I fictionalized the trauma, the book still required me to explore the feelings. I became anxious and then overwhelmingly tired, and I couldn't go on, I had to shut down. I know if I did face the feelings it would not only help my book but also my life but I develop this fatigue every time I sit down to write. My therapist advised me to first talk about the trauma with him, but I lose heart. I don't want to ever write a memoir or self-indulgent autobiographical work either. But I need the feelings to create the fiction. What do you recommend?
Blocked and Distressed
Your evocative description of blockage signifies a gift for vivid and specific prose. Clearly, you are not a writer who is content to glide over difficult or painful material. The depth of your commitment is admirable, but be careful. Your psyche is more important than your novel, as hard as it is to keep that in mind when you are in the midst of it. Your therapist’s advice is wise: when exploring a dark forest, it is always safer to travel with a trusted guide. Remember Wordsworth’s assertion that poetry is “emotion recollected in a state of tranquility.” The recollection and tranquility are as important in this equation as the emotion itself. Delving into the past with the help of a professional in the service of both healing and art is far from laziness or self-indulgence; it is vital to your work and life. Facing trauma, dealing with it, and transforming it into art can be slow and frustrating, but keep at it, gently, and the transformation will come. Forcing unprocessed feelings onto the page can result, as you indicated, in raw confession rather than fully realized fiction. You can do better than this, in your work and, crucially, for yourself.
Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A well-published: published author herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.