Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Writer's Block

Fear of the blank page is very common, even among experienced writers. The best-selling author often freezes at the thought of following his or her blockbuster with a second book that won't disappoint. Rather like stage fright, which can afflict even the greats (Laurence Olivier and Judi Dench among them).

The poet William Stafford once said that as soon as he felt writer's block coming on, he simply lowered his expectations and so never really experienced the fear. This sounds flippant, but it suggests to me something of value: that we should worry more about revising, developing and improving a first draft than obsessing over the first draft, making that "perfect" and making ourselves tense in the process.

I often asked my university composition students to make a rough outline, and so when they began to worry that they didn't know how to get started with an essay, I would remind them, "But you already have a beginning: build on that." Writing a few sentences--or even one--is a beginning, even if you end up changing those sentences: you have broken through the initial barrier. Many writers start their day by warming up on the keyboard by doing e-mail for 20 minutes; Julia Cameron is one. Her book, The Right to Write, is valuable. But my advice to writers is generally to write, not to read about writing.

Advice to beginning writers is plentiful. Colette, the French author of "Gigi" and many other works, advised a young writer to "look for a long time at what pleases you." Simple observation, then describing what you see, can be a basic tool in getting started. So, too, you can use past e-mails and journal entries as prompts. I typically begin with scribbled notes, then compose on the computer, revising as I go.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says that "good writing is often about letting go of fear." What is it that we fear? That no one will care or bother to read what we write, or they will criticize it. Or we tell ourselves, "I don't know enough to be a writer, never having pleased my English teachers since, deep down, I am not good enough."

Writing is often a daily struggle to prove to ourselves that, since we can speak, we can write. We know the basic grammar of English since we use it every day (I don't mean the names of the 'rules.') And we have read a lot, absorbing at an unconscious level the ways sentences work. Above all, we have something to say that must be said, that others must read.

Consider, too, the famous writers who persisted despite bad reviews and rejections: "Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott, you'll never be a writer." This is what a publisher told Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, the most popular book for young people in the 19th cent. A 1925 review of Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby called it "an absurd story." Joseph Heller, who had tried 21 publishers before he found one for Catch-22 (hence that number), which was called "an emotional hodge-podge" by one myopic editor before the novel found immediate fans in the early 1960s. And so it goes.

These and other authors moved beyond the rejection and the fear of future criticism because they believed in themselves and in what they were doing as writers. Something to ponder for those who find themselves staring at a blank screen or paper instead of writing.

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