Welcome back. Today’s blog grew out of talking with several author friends via zoom and email and text exchanges about the importance of truth in fiction. However, it became clear that the more immediate topic ought to be Writer’s Block. Even my brilliant poet friend said, “With all that’s going on, I just can’t get my head into writing.” I have long resisted accepting “writer’s block” as a real issue, but no longer. And, today, in addition to whatever other dragons you’re personally facing, you have a disturbing election on the horizon; a deadly Pandemic; a crashing economy with record unemployment; Social Justice issues; militias and guns; a looming healthcare crisis; need I go on? And, we find ourselves glued to the events and craziness daily.
So, I was wrong; writer’s block is a real thing. I will not give my two-cents (why is it two-cents?) about these issues, but instead, try to provide you with some tools and a brief workshop to rekindle your writing muse (which might be hiding in the darkest depths of your stomach).
If we were just talking about “normal” writer’s block, we could easily hunt up a hundred or more articles on the web with as many “cures.” What they all agree on, from King to Oates, is the enemy of writing is “distraction.” Although a few say, “Interruption.” I believe interruption is subsumed in distraction. Or that interruption might be external and distraction internal, but no matter, we get the idea.
Stephen King would say, neighbors and friends will think you rude, never wanting just to chat, or go out somewhere, always just writing. “Good,” he says.
And if these were ordinary times, the primary distraction might be our fear of not knowing where to start or where we’re headed. The fear that we’re not good enough. Blocks can feel big and intimidating and impossible. What to do?
Ernest Hemingway would tell you to “always stop writing for the day in the middle of a sentence so that when you arrived at your desk the next morning, you would always be able to get started by finishing that sentence. The momentum created is usually enough to keep you writing on smoothly.”
If it is a blank page, try writing a backstory for your characters. Or, do some five-minute writing prompts (we will come back to this); Or, just permit yourself to write badly.
But these are not ordinary times. Communities are in rebooted lockdown conditions and movement restricted; no one is posting pictures of their sourdough. Zoom cocktail parties have lost their novelty. The news seems worse every day, yet we compulsively scroll through it. We get distracted by social media yet have a pile of books unread. We keep meaning to go outside but somehow never find the time. We’re bored, listless, afraid, and uncertain. John Cassian, a monk, and theologian wrote in the early 5th century about an ancient Greek emotion called acedia. A mind “seized” by this emotion is “horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room … It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or devote any effort to reading”. He feels such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast. He glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Frequently in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting. This sounds eerily familiar. Yet, the name that so aptly describes our current state acedia was lost to time and translation.
Now, the pandemic and governmental responses to it create social conditions that approximate those of desert monks. No demons, perhaps, but social media offers a barrage of bad (or misleading) news. Social distancing limits physical contact. Lockdown constricts physical space and movement. Working from home, or having lost work entirely, upends routines and habits. In these conditions, perhaps it’s time to bring back the term. Jonathan L. Zecher tells us, “Learning to express new or previously unrecognized constellations of feelings, sensations, and thoughts, builds an emotional repertoire, which assists in emotional regulation. Naming and expressing experiences allows us to claim some agency in dealing with them.” Like Cassian’s desert monks, we struggle through our own “long, dark teatime of the soul,” we can name this experience, which is now part of our emotional repertoire, acedia.
And, now, to deal with it in two ways. I have taken these suggestions that I offer you for a test drive, and they have helped me. I hope they will do the same for you.
- Tea and pound cake. Whatever your fear, insecurity, etc., have a cup of tea with it. So, I make a cup of tea and cut a piece of pound cake (why tea and pound cake? That’s a longer story), and sit across from, let’s say, my old companion, hiding safely in my gut, Insecurity. We talk (yes, out loud), about why he exists, and why I have trouble facing him, and what I can learn from him, and what, if anything, I can do about him now. Yes, I am alone when I do this, so as not to frighten family members (my dog seems to enjoy this time, my cats hide). When I have learned as much as I can learn from Insecurity, I thank him and ask him to kindly leave (my gut, I will not carry him there any longer – I hope).
- Workshop – Write the Ending. Remember my mentioning a return to the writing prompt? So, what is paramount on your mind? What is your crucial worry or distraction (yes, you can have more than one)? The election? COVID? Economy? Social Justice? Climate Change? …? Something else? Pick one to start and treat it as if it was a novel that you had to finish. Write the last chapter. Happy ending? Funny? Sad? It doesn’t matter. By writing it, you will do two things. First, you will exercise control over something troubling you. I know it does not feel like real control, but neither is the future real yet. “The future is called ‘perhaps,’ which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the important thing is not to allow that to scare you.” — Tennessee Williams. Second, you are writing again. And by all means, write more than one of these last chapters if you wish. Do let me know if this was, or was not helpful for you.
Thanks for being here and stay brilliant, healthy and hopeful, Nick