Every Friday I and a few others meet with our pastor to help him brainstorm ideas and applications for his Sunday sermons. He shares the verses that will anchor the sermon; we offer ideas about our interpretation of the passage and brainstorm ways he might make these verses relevant to congregants.
This pastor is so smart and funny, so humble and funny. And funny! Plus he was an English major. I have a wee pastor crush. But each week he feels blocked and stuck and ill-equipped to put so many ideas into a twenty-four-minute sermon. He asked me a few months back about writer’s block.
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t believe in it. I think it’s just an excuse people use when writing gets hard.”
Later, thinking about my quick dismissal, I realized I was full of hooey. Writer’s block terrifies me, and I don’t want to admit that I have experienced it. But because scary things often lose their power when we discuss and deconstruct them, I’d like to chat about what writer’s block is and from whence it often comes.
Psychologists use the term “fixation” to describe what happens during writer’s block. Essentially we become stuck in a development phase. We cycle, and we cannot break free from the mindset or thought pattern. That sounds about right. When I am blocked, I feel dull and unfunny. I cannot unstick myself. I cannot create. Unfortunately, the ability to create might be the most fundamental element of writing fiction.
So let’s talk about what happens in the creative process. In the 1950s, creativity researcher J.P. Guilford coined the terms “divergent thinking” and “convergent thinking” as the two main elements in the creative process. First there’s the brainstorming (the divergent thinking phase) where the “there are no bad ideas” ideas are dumped onto the playing field. Next comes the convergent thinking phase during which we consider all the brainstormed ideas, gather ideas that feel sticky and meaty, and see how we might arrange and organize those best ideas into something that can build a story.
But we may be blocked by too few or too many ideas.
When I get antsy and jump too quickly from divergent to convergent thinking, when I have not generated enough wild ideas before sitting down to write, it’s very possible that there will be no spark on the page, no evidence that I have any imagination at all. It’s as if I am trapped inside an imaginary box like some white-faced, beret-topped mime, unable to find a way out of the box. I can only stare longingly at the wacky and wonderful ideas that sit on the sidewalk outside the four walls, while inside the four walls, I have only the elements of a Dick and Jane primer. Instead of returning to the drawing board, I stop
Ironically, having an overabundance of ideas can be equally paralyzing. It’s like the cereal aisle at Safeway. My kids have requested granola, but which granola? WHICH GRANOLA WILL MY CHILDREN EAT?
Forty-seven granola options is ridiculous, but it’s more than okay when there are forty-seven different directions our story can take. An abundance of directions means we have done due diligence in the divergent phase. We must learn to be comfortable with abundance. We must trust that the story is there in front of us, waiting to be shaped and moved from butcher paper to our computer screens. We and the story will be okay.
We also may be blocked by fear.
Fear that we won’t ever arrive at the The End of our story. Fear of rejection. Fear of Criticism. Failure. Others’ opinions.
Fear paralyzes us so we are fixed on ourselves rather than on the story. It’s good to remember, however, that more fear simply means we are doing more meaningful work. Yet the more fear we have, the more Resistance we feel, Steven Pressfield explains in The War of Art. Resistance is the killjoy of any creative act. Resistance is a huge jerk. Yet, Pressfield states,
Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and we conquer Resistance.
Boom. Yes. Let’s do that. We cannot allow fear to keep us inside our imaginary mime boxes.
Or, we may be blocked when we are trying too hard.
My first two books have not sold yet, and this is the recurring feedback from editors: Who’s the audience?
After that feedback, I am determined to write a novel that is firmly planted in a single genre for a single audience. But I am having a heck of a time, partly because I am focusing too much on audience and too little on storytelling. Just this past Friday, my agent called after reading the first 130 pages of the manuscript. “It’s just not resonating with me like your first two did,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
She was also so right. The juh nuh say quah she found in the first two books had gone AWOL in this current project. When we try too hard to write a certain kind of book or target a certain audience or do something experimental because it feels cool to be experimental, we can get stuck. We should never write to please or impress others. We should write out of respect for the story.
But is writer’s block just a romantic excuse?
Maybe. Psychologist Steven Pritzker, PhD, believes writer’s block is only an “artificial construct that basically justifies a discipline problem. A commitment to a regular work schedule will help you overcome barriers like perfectionism, procrastination and unrealistic expectations.”
While I don’t like to admit that writer’s block happens because I am undisciplined, it does make sense.
When I was an English teacher, I taught even when I wasn’t feeling at all inspired. My firefighting friend, Pete, puts out fires even when his muses aren’t sliding down the fire pole alongside him. Big Chuck, our mechanic, doesn’t let one failed chassis overhaul stop him from attempting another. (Chassis overhaul?) But for some reason writers can woefully claim writer’s block then shut down their laptops. It seems odd. It seems like something a diva does.
Maybe Dr. Pritzker is right: if we commit ourselves to a regular work schedule—no matter how we are feeling about our talent, creativity and spark, we can ignore our internal editor that yells loud and unhelpful feedback. Maybe. Let’s try it and report back to one another.
(Next month, we’ll talk about what we can do to block the block.)
Your turn, dear readers: What does your writer’s block feel like? Do you have particular triggers that inspire a state of writer’s block? Do you believe writer’s block is an artificial construct and a discipline issue? Mimes: cool or creepy?
Photo compliments of Flickr’s darkday.