Doubt, Fear and Constipation

bananasOnce upon a time, I didn’t believe in monsters under the bed. Boogeymen were also make-believe, and hostile, big-eyed aliens were only real in movies. I didn’t want to believe in scary stuff so I chose not to believe in it. Behold, Ladies and Gentlemen . . . da Queen of de Nial!

I applied the same head-in-sand mentality to Writer’s Block. When my high school English students claimed Writer’s Block rendered them unable to write their Hamlet essays, I rolled my eyes and called them pribbling, beef-witted pollywockers. When, in 2005, I had the pleasure of hearing Dorothy Allison speak about her paralyzing, three-year Writer’s Block, I didn’t yell Shakespearean insults, but I didn’t quite believe her either. Lionel Messi doesn’t suddenly find himself unable to play soccer. Meryl Streep doesn’t suddenly find herself unable to act. Barbara Walters doesn’t suddenly find herself unable to ask nosy, semi-inappropriate questions. And three years? Surely Dorothy Allison wrote something over those three years.

But let’s get back to the monsters.

While I didn’t want to believe in monsters, deep down I have always known that they exist. They come in the form of pediatric cancer, domestic violence and chronic mental illness. They look exactly like political leaders who don’t care that their country’s people are hungry and voiceless. They are the terrorists who lob bombs into crowded public spaces. They may not live under my bed, but they do exist.

And, as I have been writing over the past fifteen years, I see Writer’s Block is equally real. My students did feel paralyzed. Dorothy Allison was unable to write for three years. It’s a monster that resides under my bed after all . . . under your bed too.

How do I know? Because Writer’s Block is almost always the result of doubt, and doubt loiters and lollygags in the heart and head of every serious writer.

Let me share some examples: Finding yourself stuck in the murky bog of a problematic plot? Doubt. Wanting to give up—no, I mean seriously give up . . . for real this time? Doubt. Feeling paralyzed by the fear of success? Feeling paralyzed by the fear of failure? Worrying that, perhaps, you are a lousy writer who’s been wasting time and money honing your craft? That’s all doubt, and left unchecked, it’ll push open the door so Writer’s Block can stride in like it owns the place.

But don’t panic!

Doubt, like bananas, is healthy! Too many bananas (and too much doubt) will stop you right up. But a banana a day? Yes sir.

Writer’s Block is just a less-gross term for Literary Constipation. It is not going to kill us. It is simply a time where our writing course is altered, or as Dorothy Allison calls it, a “correction.” Writer’s Block is just a correction. A disruption. A few speed bumps. Corrections make our stories (and our skills) more correct. That’s a good thing.

Still, Dorothy Allison was paralyzed by Writer’s Block for three years. THREE YEARS!  Three years of staring at blank paper and screen. Three years of sitting on the literary loo and being able to produce nada. Not even crap-ola. Ack!

May I share what works for me when I’m blocked?

First, I try to figure out why I am blocked. Am I listening to Ron, the all-in-my-head voice that tells me what a crummy writer I am? Am I writing to please and impress the whole wide world? Am I missing something important in my story? Oh, right . . . like PLOT?

Once I determine why I am blocked, I deal with the blockage. Sometimes it’s simple; I spend a few days taking better care of myself. I eat fewer bananas. Drink more water. Increase my fiber.

You have heard all the standard solutions: Go for a long walk. Draw your story on really big piece of paper. Read your writing aloud. Write a scene from the perspective of another character. Vent to a trusted writing partner. Take a break. Work on another project. Organize your junk drawers. Go through old photo albums. Clean your house. Write a letter of resignation, carefully detailing why you will never write again. Sign it, then mail it–snail mail–to your writing partner. By the time she receives it, you’ll probably be writing again.

But sometimes nothing works.

That’s right. Complicated blockage requires calling in the big guns. Two big guns.

Gun #1: When I get really mired in the muck, I remind myself to be kind to myself. (As opposed to screaming, “WRITE, YOU IDIOT! WRITE! NO, SOMETHING THAT DOESN’T STINK!”) Kindness is paramount.

Gun #2: While Writer’s Block is the result of doubt, of tunnel vision and the apparent absence of creativity, it’s also the result of feeling cornered. Boxed in. When I need to free myself and tickle my brain, I read Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions. Neruda’s poem-questions remind me that words and language are playful, that I am not at the mercy of the world . . . nor at the mercy of Publishing. I’m also not constrained by the world’s (or Publishing’s) constraints.

A few examples of Neruda’s words:

Tell me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?

Why do trees conceal the splendor of their roots?

Who hears the regrets of the thieving automobile?

Is there anything in the world sadder than a train standing in the rain?

How many churches are there in heaven?

Why does the hat of night fly so full of holes?

How many bees are there in a day?

I am not suggesting that Dorothy Allison could have unstuck herself with a few Neruda poems. I am not suggesting that poetry is the solution to an AWOL plot. I am simply consoled and invigorated as I witness others playing with language.

Look, writing fiction is really hard work. Being a writer requires tremendous endurance and courage. During the correction times, we need to be kind to ourselves, we need to rediscover the beauty of language and the joy of story, we need to endure. We must, as Dorothy Allison said, “Write dirt until it becomes mud. Write mud until it becomes wine.”

How do you, dear readers, cope with paralyzing doubt? What do you do to unstick yourself when you are blocked? Please share so we know we’re not alone when monsters peek out from under the bed.

 

Photo compliments of Flickr’s Ian Ransley

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About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.

Comments

  1. says

    Clean the house! Oh I love that, Sarah. I actually do that; there is something about scrubbing the kitchen that also cleanses the “creative floors” in my mind. Rearranging things on my desk helps too. I find your post today to be on the other side of the coin of yesterday’s post about Lee Child’s “confidence” as a writer. Child says in his interview that “I’ve lived with the book for a year; I know whether it’s good or bad; I know where it’s weak or strong …” A writer with that kind of attitude probably never has a single doubt or has writer’s block. I’ve no idea how any writer gets to that stage of confidence. Doubt does come up for me and it’s a stop sign that says I need to either get some R&R or the doubt spurs me on to battle against it. You’re right, the key is not to let it derail you.

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    • says

      Yes, Paula. Lee Child’s confidence is impressive . . . I can only assume that as he writes, he focuses on pleasing a very small segment of the population . . . maybe just himself and one or two other people.

      Or maybe he’s just as badass as his protagonist. :)

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  2. says

    Question #1: If one banana per day keeps one unstuck, how often must one trot to market to maintain a steady flow?

    Question #2: If Sarah Callender posts were pinned up on trees in the woods, would the bears eat more bananas? (They’d certainly be less grumpy if they did.)

    I doubt I can explain, in this little Unboxed comment box, the depths and layers of my doubt. Some days knowing I have so many Unboxed friends is the only thing that keeps me trotting for that next banana.

    Last question: Could I feel any more amused and comforted about my writerly life than on Sarah Callender’s day up on WU?
    Answer: No.

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  3. says

    As always, Sarah, your post is both whimsical and thoughtful.

    I love Neruda madly, and love to read poetry in general to get myself moving on slow days. I don’t really believe in block as such, but take it as a signal that I’ve taken a wrong turn. I go through a mental checklist–character? Wrong action? Weak plot? I can usually figure it out within a few days.

    Knock on wood.

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    • says

      Yes! Your comment reminds me of an article I once read about depression. In a nutshell, the author was claiming that depression (the symptoms of it) gets us to stop and realize that something’s amiss. Therefore, depression can be seen as a guardian angel of sorts.

      Same with Writer’s Block. It feels as lousy as depression, but maybe it’s the thing that gets us to pause when we (or our stories) are wandering in the wrong direction, not being healthy, needing to go to the well for fresh water.

      XO!

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  4. says

    Sarah,

    What an amusing play on writer’s “block” and creative way to address such a core issue. You said it perfectly well: “Doubt loiters and lollygags in the heart and head of every serious writer.”

    For me, roughage comes in many forms, and for the most part that doubt departs swiftly. Every day I eat a lot of vegetables, and by that I mean I keep my life uncluttered so that creativity can rush out at every opportunity. Being bogged down with “life” – or worse, tasks I’ve taken on because I can’t say “no” – is a sure way to lead to grunting (“the loo” – Sarah, I love that, but I have to say I’m never going to think of my writing chair the same, though I do like that I can now call my desk “the throne”). I’ve learned how important this is and in fact can changed my entire lifestyle just for the sake of healthy storytelling, and I now swear by it and encourage any other writer to do the same. Because of this, I live immersed in writing, allowing me to not only put in sessions all throughout the day and to plan when I write, but also to be ready to write during that one free minute I have to capture a new idea. (Though admittedly I might have an advantage in that I am a full-time freelance editor in my day job, which not only allows me to parcel my work days however I’d like, but also allows me to exercise the underbelly of my writing muscles.)

    But sometimes you still need prunes. For me, that’s the long walks (walks always lead to juggling story ideas), car rides (because there’s no better way to pass the crawl of rush-hour traffic than to work out plot), and, as simple as it sounds, the decision to “pack up for the day” (often that leads to a new perspective which strikes half hour later and results in an hour-long dump of satisfactory writing).

    p.s. thank you for acquainting me with “pribbling”. It’s a beautiful word and has gone in my little green book.

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  5. says

    Sarah–
    As far as I can tell, writer’s block–the subject–is the means by which a great many people deal with the problem. Unable to get the work out, they write–and also talk, sometimes a great length–about not being able to get the work out. There is nothing wrong with this, and the only way to explain why so many posts are written on the subject is to assume readers love it.
    Or: Just possibly, those who like the idea of writing but don’t write are comforted by the notion of lifelong writer’s block.
    But the issue is serious to many, and I don’t want to be thought of as frivolous. If, like preps for tomorrow’s colonoscopy, the various Dulcolax or Fleets solutions on offer send people shuffling quickly toward the word processor, all to the good.

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  6. Denise Willson says

    You are my perfect banana, Sarah. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  7. Cat Moleski says

    Often when I’m a little stuck it means that the scene I’m working on or reviewing needs help. When the block turns to anxiety I remind myself that today is not about selling a book, it is about being a better writer than I was yesterday. Then I grab a craft book or two and start with pencil and paper to work out what I need to do next to make my WIP better. It feels slow and painful at times but I always see an improvement and that gets me through to the next round of re-writes, or the next draft, and gives me the courage to tear the story apart and take it in a new direction if need be or to start something new. Occasionally, I worry that the story well will run dry, but that hasn’t happened yet, so I tell myself to worry about that sometime in the future.

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  8. says

    Sarah-

    I work with an award winning novelist of speculative fiction. For several agonizing years she struggled to write, her output barely a few hundred words a day.

    This writer had trouble concentrating. She couldn’t focus. Paragraphs would send her skittering off in random directions. Cohesive plot was a distant dream. Health issues played in, she felt. She changed her diet, visited doctors.

    Nothing helped. An unfinished novel–undelivered and finally dropped by her publisher–languished.

    Recently this writer contacted me about a new project. She reported writing thousands of words a day. “What has changed?” I asked. “The book I’m writing,” she said. “Ah,” I said.

    Writers block is, in one way, as simple as bicycle rider’s block. It’s based in fear. The cure is getting back on the bike. If that doesn’t work, a different bike can help. One with fat tires, maybe?

    The trick is to lessen fear and try again. Make the task easier, the stakes lower, the process fun again. Take pressure off. One hasn’t forgotten how to ride a bike. Just go for an easy spin around the block.

    Pretty soon you’ll be back on the road. I’ve experienced block myself and know many writers who have. I also don’t know any who haven’t recovered from it.

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    • says

      Yes! Fat tires and possibly training wheels. It’s also perfectly OK to ride while wearing a life preserver. Whatever it takes to get back on that dang bike!

      So glad you chimed in to share your thoughts and your empathy.

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    • says

      I attest to this from my recent experience switching projects. By letting go, I have connected to my inner spirit and I’m now writing stronger and freer than ever before. Fingers crossed, the product at the end will reflect it.

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  9. Carmel says

    Sarah, I knew you wrote this post as soon as I saw the title. ;o)

    There’s nothing to add after Don’s post!

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  10. says

    The pun is funny but, in my experience, writer’s block isn’t a struggle with plot or character and it isn’t solved by long walks or cleaning the kitchen. Writer’s block can be a fundamental inability to connect with a story. You’d rather clean or sleep or go to the dentist than try to work. The pleasure of reading is dulled; you put up with tv commercials instead. You read craft books and blogs. You make copious story notes, draw diagrams and maps, cut up magazines for collages. But you don’t tell the story. When you do manage words, they sound sterile, puerile or just boring. You keep trying–that’s what writers do–but your daily output is sentences, where once you wrote pages. You try ideas, discard them. Make lists. Read more on craft.

    But you don’t mesh with the people and events you try to write about. There’s a barrier you can’t seem to climb over or knock down or dig under. You begin to fear you never will.

    If you’re lucky, an idea comes along that chips away at the wall. You dig a little, and soon there’s a tunnel. Telling the story is still hard, but the chips keep falling. If you persist, the urge to write–the need to write–starts coming back. You read more fiction, watch less tv. Then you choose to sit with your story instead of someone else’s. Finally, the scenes start arriving in your mind. You don’t have to dredge them from somewhere in your entrails, and you like what they do and say. The barrier is only knee high, and tottering. You’re going to get over.

    It took me three years, but I’m writing again. WU was a large part of what kept me hoping I’d recover. Thanks to all the folks who post and respond. You made a real difference.

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    • says

      Yes! And wow, if WE (the writers) aren’t connecting with the stories we are writing, how can we expect the experience will be any different for the reader?

      So glad you are writing again, and yes, the WU community is a lifesaver to me as well. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  11. says

    Thanks for the interesting post, Sarah. I have a friend who has been blocked for almost twenty years. He says he’ll open up once his father dies, but I have my doubts. My duels with the Big WB are much more abrupt, and because of their brevity, perhaps less terrifying. At the moment I’m between novels–it’s been three months and nine days since the last–so the time is drawing close for me to go back to work, which is another way of saying my self-loathing is driving me to the blank page.

    The blank page–white, wordless, silently condemning–is my nemesis. Once the source of frustration, I now simply allow it to exist. No more coffee cups slung across the room, no more curse words between abbreviated breaths, and no more laptops closed so violently the screen cracks from end to end. Yep, there’s only me and that damned white page, staring at each other for hours, wondering who will break first. . . .

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    • says

      And if I were a betting woman, I’d put all my money on YOU breaking that dang WB. Clearly it is no match for you.

      Gosh, I feel a little heartbroken for your friend . . . claiming WB for twenty years? Stating it’ll get better after his father dies?

      Every year I say, “This summer, when things calm down, I’ll clean out the attic, the garage, the junk drawers.” And every year, I have all sorts of good excuses why it doesn’t happen.

      I hope your friend is more successful than I!

      Thanks for the great and gutsy comment.

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  12. says

    Sarah, why DOES the hat of night fly so full of holes? (I suspect it has something to do with a big bee day.) I sometimes feel doubt about breakfast, socks or how much power is left in my flashlight batteries, so worrying about writing is like a daily exercise session.

    One thing that helps me: writing something other than fiction. Working on nonfiction pieces keeps me in the game, and they can make some related demands on structure, character and plot, though not in the same way. Nonfiction writing for me is a good warmup for the rigors of fiction.

    I wonder if that thieving automobile took my socks.

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  13. says

    Great post, Sarah. Like you, my writer’s block always comes down to good ol’ fashion fear. If I can’t battle the creative monster myself, I journal about it, then get together with another writer friend for coffee to discuss. Sometimes, I even read her what I wrote. It’s cheaper than therapy, and a lot more fun + it works for me.

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  14. CK Wallis says

    Since deciding to become a serious writer (or, to start writing seriously), it seems the first thing I must do every day is battle writer’s block.

    The minute the screen lights up, I have to talk myself out of feeling foolish for even thinking I can do this, for indulging such an impractical obsession, for making such frivolous use of my time when there are so many serious issues in the world, for spending beautiful summer days indoors on something that will probably just end up an embarrassment, etc., etc. After a few minutes of this I hit some version of “f— it, it’s my life”, and start writing.

    At my age, time is the most important motivator; it’s important to me to just get the stories written, wherever the chips may fall. When I had my bookstore, I used to put up quotes from famous authors. One I had in the SciFi section was from Isaac Asimov: “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type faster.” That’s now my favorite writing quote.

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  15. says

    Sarah, I always look forward to your posts.

    I have a slightly different view of writers block, I suppose. I’m a lawyer, and in this business, if you have a brief (20pp, 50pp, whatever) due by a certain deadline, you write it, and you file it on time, or you commit malpractice. There’s no room for writers block, or “not feeling it.” There’s plenty of room for fear and doubt, of course, but you simply cannot let those translate into a lack of words on the page. In terms of cranking out a first draft, whether you want to or not, it’s good training. The problem is learning to let go of the heretofors and whereases, which tend not to pep up works of fiction much …

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  16. says

    It is always so lovely to read your writing, Sarah. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a sucker for stories about constipation… that is just the Metamucil on the cake for me… :)

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    • says

      These days, every time I make a poop-related joke, my 11-year-old son rolls his eyes and says, “Real mature, mom.”

      You have that in your future. It’s AWESOME.

      Thank YOU for the giggle.

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  17. says

    Whenever I get paralyzed with doubt, I go dumpster- ah; I go AUTHOR BIO DIVING or read a few posts from W.U… It’s encouraging to know that even bestselling authors have serious doubts from time to time.

    What do I do when I’m struck?

    I might watch a 7 layer plot movie. (They get the wheels turning sometime.)

    Read a 7 layer plot book in the genre I’m writing in.

    Crank up my favorite graphic audiobook, “The Blah Blah Trilogy”. It’s a MOVIE….in….your….MIND.

    Sometime s staring at the wall helps. It’s a stillness thing.

    Go people watching.

    If I’m stuck for too long, I scrap the story for parts and start all over again. In those situations, the only fear I have is fear of the major overhaul. I’m getting used to it, though.

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