My eccentric hippie Writer’s Craft high-school teacher would often begin our classes with free writing exercises. When he first introduced this idea of free writing I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. One of us asked: “So you want us to write about whatever comes to mind, grammatical errors and all?” He flailed his hippie hands and said “Yupp, now write. Write whatever.” I remember looking down at my piece of lined paper with my pen in my hand just begging it to move but I couldn’t help but reminisce about my grammar preaching, sentence structuring, coherent campaigning school teachers without shuttering. I was faced with a challenge- free writing. You wouldn’t think so, right? I mean, writing whatever you want about whatever you want should be easy. Think again. It’s the hardest thing known to student kind. How could I possibly write freely when I had been molded into a student who had learned that freedom and writing don’t go hand in hand? I wish I had kept some of those writing pieces so I could go back and read some of them. On second thought, no. It would probably make my skin crawl. I’m telling you, old habits die hard. I am by no means a writer who can participate in free writing. I’m what you would call an O.C.D writer; a writer with perfectionism running through her veins with an incessant brain twitch that irks me and manically taunts “Naa, read it again. Something doesn’t sound right. Read that sentence over. No again. Find a better word. Not good enough. Find another one. Okay, read it again (times 20).” This is not the exaggerated truth either. It’s become my worst nightmare. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone mad. Perhaps I have. This is going to be a tough one to explain to my patients –just kidding. I’m not a psychiatrist, just someone who may be in need of one.
So could I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Out of some good fun I thought I’d take an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder test. I have to add that this test is online. It’s an accurate diagnosis too, given by the one and only Doctor Web (I hope you sense my sarcasm here). If you’re curious like I was, try taking the test here: http://psychcentral.com/ocdquiz.htm. You might giggle at some of the questions or you might panic. Giggle, please. It might do you some good. This test is beyond ridiculous. You have to read some of these questions. They’re kind of silly. For example, Question 10 reads: Have you worried about acting on an unwanted and senseless urge or impulse, such as physically harming a loved one, pushing a stranger in front of a bus, steering your car into oncoming traffic; inappropriate sexual contact; or poisoning dinner guests? Well there was this one time at band camp…
So upon taking the test I clicked submit and waited for my results. I scored a 2 (0-7 –O.C.D is unlikely). Well thank goodness I thought. Now I suppose I can return to reading and re-reading, editing and re-editing without a concern in the world because I’m okay. I’m okay. For a moment I thought…ah well, never mind. Just because I may read my writing 10 times over (sometimes 20) before I submit my post or I make sure that every comma is properly placed, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me (don’t judge me). I just want my writing to be perfect (even though it’s far from it) and I don’t think I’m a writer who is any different than the others. It just means I care and I’m concerned about whether my reader will understand me. It’s writing without giving up. I haven’t lost my marbles, err I mean words…yet.
Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where –”
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
–Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll
The adventures in writing are often a lot like the adventures Alice experiences in Wonderland. Like Alice, a writer is immersed in another world where peculiar and awe-inspiring things occur. This world exists within the writer’s mind and is made up of ideas. Some are strange and some ordinary. These ideas grow larger, shrink in size and unexpectedly float away in a pool of tears just like our dear Alice did. Although you may not be stuck in Wonderland, the world you have become a part of as a writer sometimes reflects Alice’s. Exploring challenges as a writer means exploring the possibilities of an undetermined path that language as a vehicle takes you. Sometimes this vehicle breaks down and when you once thought language was your best friend, it then becomes your enemy. All of a sudden you’re in a dreadful place; a threatening underworld where a writer never wants to be. Seduced by hope, you anticipate the next bus that will drive you away from the writer’s block you’ve been strolling down for quite some time. More pressure sets in and it seems as though you aren’t leaving anytime soon. At any moment you’re dreading the Queen of Hearts screaming, “Off with her head!” If you don’t get rolling with that paper, the only thing rolling will be your head. You fire up the typewriter and put your fingers in motion, eager that you and your imagination will work together and write a marvelous piece. Suddenly your writing flow is interrupted by a giant fork in the road. Your subconscious is aware that an unknown entity is hanging over you and is judging every word you type. This overwhelming unknown entity is known as every writer’s worst nightmare. It’s known as writer’s block.
It begins when the typewriter which sits on your desk lures you in and beckons you to astound it with your words. You follow the white rabbit of ideas down the rabbit hole where writer meets typewriter. You’re Alice in a writer’s wonderland filled with imaginative characters popping out from everywhere. Although you’re weary, you decide that you’re going to explore the possibilities of a new adventure masked by excitement and the fear of the unknown. A vortex of thoughts and ideas swallow you up. You’re engulfed by a viable, breathtaking and awe-inspiring realm of imagination determined to be ceased by you, the writer. Ideas collect like old friends and fill your mind with noisy chatter. With a piece of paper and pen in your hand, you take those ideas by the reigns and jot them down as fast as you can. The sound of click, click, click swells the room. This beautiful sound is a sign you’re in a writer’s paradise but you must be careful not to wake the big bad writer’s block who is fast asleep and snoring.
Anyone knows that an adventure isn’t always filled with excitement; it’s also filled with challenges. Along the way you meet the Mad Hatter of problems which confuse you and frustrate you. Suddenly you’re startled by the big bad writer’s block who emerges from the darkest corner of your mind. It’s fierce, unfriendly and throws you out into a sea of incomplete thoughts. While you’re struggling to stay afloat, your mind goes quiet, thoughts disappear from thin air, your characters stop talking and your energetic fingers which were vigorously typing on the keyboard stop moving. The wonderful adventures in writing suddenly become less than wonderful. All you can do is hope that your imagination will open up and lend you a hand. Some guidance from the Cheshire Cat and some advice from the Caterpillar would suffice at a moment like this. Despite writer’s block interrupting your adventure you can’t allow it to defeat you. You must continue down the uncharted path even though it’s narrow and your writing feels bigger than you. No matter where you end up in thought, if you follow your heart and intuition you will get there. After all, writing is the art of freedom determined to go down a different path each time, sometimes uncharted, opening up a different world for the reader.
What is it about a writer’s failed attempt to complete a work that makes them feel as though they’ve burned out and can’t seem to tear down the wall built between a thought and a pen and paper? The answer lies here: forming sentences on paper is one of the most challenging ways of getting your point to trickle down from a thought, to a work, to an audience. Overcoming this challenge is sometimes easier said than done. We are often:
The Perfectionist: It goes far beyond the perfectly placed commas, the dotted i and crossed t. You want your writing to be powerful and most of all perfect. With this comes the pressure to produce something flawless and great.
The Bound Autonomous Writer: You try to avoid writing with so much structure and more with liberty but there is a voice which echoes a certain subtle response to the pressure and compliance inflicted by the thought of someone reading it and possibly hating it.
The Failed Writer: You’re afraid of your writing being trashed or hearing the words: “Your writing is horrible.” You create because your passion for writing causes you to. For some of you it’s your dream to succeed as a well accomplished writer and would hate to have your dream crushed. With this hanging over your head you lose confidence and become unproductive because you would rather not write than face your worst nightmare.
The Writer with Reader Phobia: You’re always on your toes, fearful of the day someone reads your writing and hates it. Putting yourself on the frontline with words, you’d rather remain anonymous.
Rest assured because we (us writers) are not alone. There have been many writers who have suffered from what most writers would regard as the unspeakable; that they had writer’s block- gasp! In fact Samuel Coleridge, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway all experienced writer’s block during their career as writers. Can you imagine a room filled with these five writers? What would their conversations have been like? How would they have gone about venting their frustrations about writer’s block? Would they have admitted it to one another or would they have danced around the issue by refusing to come clean? Despite having writer’s block, they all went on to write amazing works that would one day have readers admire and grow very fond of them. What does this mean? It means writer’s block is something that happens to even the best of writers.
I’ve experienced writer’s block many times while writing and I’ve never ceased to prevail. Most of my writer’s block woes are due to the above. There is a solution to this problem. Sometimes all it takes is seeking a little inspiration to get your mind glued to the process of creating again. Sometimes our minds need a change of scenery. I usually examine visual works of art or I’ll listen to some music. The usual soundtracks to my writer’s block blues are Bon Iver, Radiohead, a little Lana Del Rey, some Brand New and a whole lot of Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix to get my soul back to its happy place. This is of course in an effort to regain the writer in me.
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 5)
Follow the Queen’s advice. Perhaps the next time you’ve encountered writer’s block and you feel like throwing in the towel, err I mean pencil, take a moment and believe. Although writing may seem impossible at the moment you have to believe in the impossible. Essentially possibilities grow from a place of impossibilities. All it takes is having a little faith in yourself and having a lot of faith in your writing. You may be afraid that your reader will hate your style of writing and you may be afraid that they will misunderstand the point you’re trying to make. Facing your fears is half the battle. I have learned that you can’t please everyone. I have learned to believe in the impossible. The greatest way to face my fear was starting this blog. One thing is true, I have conquered the anonymous writer I once was and I’ve emerged as a confident one. I have learned to love my critic and not to fear them. In the end it makes you a tougher writer who is willing to withstand the wrath of the fire-breathing reader.