The Truth About Writer’s Block
by Dawn Raffel
I’ve never been a wake-up-at-five-in-the-morning-and-write-every-day kind of gal. I have nothing but admiration for people with that seat-of-the-pants-to-the-chair discipline, but that’s never been me. Instead I tend to wait — to cogitate and agitate — until I absolutely must put something on paper, until, whether because of an imposed deadline or internal pressure, it’s simply imperative. Partly, this is because I’ve often worked two jobs while raising two kids, but that’s not the whole story. I’m sure that given infinite free time, I’d be more productive on the page than I am now, and I’m equally sure that I’d still find myself procrastinating and sometimes “blocked.” Procrastination, in its weird way, is part of the process. While I’m procrastinating, I’m never really free of the task; I’m turning the creative problem over and over in my mind, consciously and unconsciously, reformulating the terms. At some level I am saying no to the easy, knock-it-out solution, the tried-and-true, the familiar. I might not be typing words on a keyboard, but something is marinating.
At a certain point, however, procrastination can morph into all-out blockage, silence, the freeze every writer dreads. Writer’s block issues out of fear — but of what? Some people speculate that it’s fear of failure (the story in your head is never as good as the one on the page, and what with Goodreads, Amazon, and BN.com, there have never been more critics). Others assert that the deeper fear is of success (i.e. a critical or commercial success in the marketplace might mess with your familiar low self-esteem or force other changes in your life). My gut feeling is that it’s something else: Writer’s block stems from fear of what might appear on the page if you’re writing honestly, if, as a teacher of mine used to say, “you have your pencil in the right place,” if you are writing toward jeopardy.
Writing well is a destabilizing act. A comfort read reinforces the readers’ and writer’s mutually agreed-upon ideas of how the world works, and it has its place; it’s entertainment. But literature challenges our fondest beliefs—about the world, about other people, about ourselves. It is mind-altering. Its creation transforms the writer, however subtly, and every revision is a revision of the writer’s intellect, the writer’s memory, the writer’s relationship to self. When you are writing well, when you are solving a creative problem with a new and strange and unforeseen solution, there is every possibility that it will scare the hell out of you. This is the bad news and the good news. This is also, of course, why we do it: We might learn something true.
Writing well will cost you. So how do we avoid being paralyzed by fear? I wish I knew. My best shot to date is to trick myself, even though I should and do know better, into writing “just a few sentences.” I know full well that “just a few sentences,” if they are good ones, creates an entryway into a world, one that is full of promise and terror, and from which there might be no turning back. I also know that pretty much every time out I hit “the wall” at what turns out to be roughly the three- quarters mark of whatever I am writing. I become convinced the whole enterprise is a failure, I’ve wasted my time, and there is no way through to completion—at which point I have to procrastinate some more, until I find a little opening, a pinpoint of light in that brick edifice. A flaw through which to chisel. To recognize a challenge is not the same thing as to overcome one, but it’s a start. I sometimes refer to awful drafts of work that eventually succeeded as a reminder that this too shall pass, that no wall is impenetrable.
Prediction isn’t my strong suit, but it’s a safe bet that I’ll never be known as prolific, and I don’t think I want to be. Every book, every story, every essay I have written has changed me in some way, even this one. The fear doesn’t go away, and it shouldn’t. But the fear of the fear abates—sometimes we even grow nervy with fear—and what abides is the faith that the work is worth it.
Reprinted and adapted from Bleed, the blog of Jaded Ibis Press.
Dawn Raffel is a longtime editor at magazines large (5.5 million circulation) and small; fiction she has edited has twice won the National Magazine Award. Her memoir, The Secret Life of Objects was a Wall Street Journal bestseller. She is also the author of a novel and two story collections. The Los Angeles Review of Booksrecently commented, “Her style slides with weightless grace across the surface of the world. But in so doing, it also puts pressure on that surface, revealing the water that waits, in roaring silence, on its underside.” Raffel has taught in the MFA program at Columbia University and at Summer Literary Seminars in Russia and Lithuania. She taught the popular “What Makes an Editor Keep Reading?” class at the Center last spring.