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Doubt, Fear and Constipation

bananas [1]Once 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! [2] 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 [3]

About Sarah Callender [4]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.