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Sunday, February 6, 2011

JTG on Writer's block - a piece I wrote a few years ago now...

After the birth of my third child we had the chance to spend four months in Toronto as a family. I look back to that period of enforced maternity leave as an “elderly primagravida” - aged 39) with some nostalgia now. With older boys safely ensconced at school I had the days to myself, of course with babe in tow, but still, once I had mastered the art of getting pushers down subway stairs and through heavy doors (hint: ask someone to help) I could take off to such joys as the series of free lectures on creative writing run in the public libraries by published Canadian writers.

On this particular day it was Sarah Sheard, and she was talking about writer’s block.

“Perhaps,” she suggested languidly, early in her talk. “Perhaps if you don’t write, you are not really a writer. You can’t consider yourself a writer. Perhaps you never will be one.”

I had settled the baby down for a sleep and was all ready myself to sit back and be crooned by a soothing lullaby of how, of course, one day you will be a writer, (especially having come to the talk) one day you’ll just magically get there, as if just by imagining you’d like to be one, that one day you will become a writer. I was jolted from my reverie. What?

Not a writer? Never a writer? I had all my excuses at the ready - three kids and a job and a house and a dog and a cat and, and, and. All the other participants would look at me and the baby and nod comfortingly, no, that woman has excellent reasons for not being quite there, not just yet.

But no, that is not what I heard. And I was really sitting up now.

Sarah Sheard is, we heard, a psychotherapist and mediator. A mediator? Do mediators use provocative therapy? Perhaps psychotherapists might. In any case, she’d got us all listening now. Everyone was sitting up. No-one wanted to hear that, (especially having come to her talk) they may never one day fulfill this most private and secret of ambitions, the reason we were all there – to dream ourselves from the illusion into the reality of becoming writers.

After I got home I wiped off the sweat I’d broken into sitting in that room with all those other wannabes. Not a writer? I’ll show her. I dragged out all my excuses and rummaged through them, looking for the spikes of faulty logic I could snap off.

Here they are. I challenged them all. You can too.

1. No time.
If it’s not too many children (or even just one) its ageing parents, work you’ve brought home, the toilet cistern to fix (or organise to get fixed) Mount Kilimanjaro of washing/ironing/cooking and mice-infested kitchen to clean - it is all so enticing when you have allocated a morning, a few precious hours, minutes even to yourself to sit and write.
But something can go, has to go - all you have to do is name writing as your ‘Hobby’ – make it official. (Maybe the telly really could go. It really could.)

2. Too tired
Closely related to (1) but equally unconvincing. Apparently we need less sleep as we get older, and if we’re young there’s no such thing as tired (parents with sleepless babes are excused for however long it takes until the programme works). Personally I don’t go for the early morning asceticism so favoured by ‘real’ writers (who also brag nauseatingly about it, don’t believe them unless they have a string of publications. Then believe them.) Every real writer needs to find a spot somewhere in the day or night, but I can’t tell you when that is going to be for you. Late nights once you are really revved up may not be any more ideal than early mornings, but you need read no further if you’re having problems stopping writing.

3. No ideas
Rubbish. Go and look at something, touch something, listen to something. It’s all there. Dig out your old letters, go to the art gallery, clean out the waste paper bin or more productively your cupboards. Go to a cafĂ© and sit alone and eavesdrop. You’ll even look like a ‘real’ writer.

4. Ideas but no talent
This has to be untrue because the reason you want to be a writer was because somebody, somewhere, sometime, told you that you could do it. Your English teacher, your mother, a friend. Someone whose opinion you value. It was true, what they said about you in the past. So it can still be true now.

5. No persistence
Now this might just be a teensy bit true. This one seems to divide the published writers from the unpublished. I know many now-published writers who boast volumes of rejection letters. But where do you find persistence if you don’t have it naturally?
Well, (sigh), perhaps you’re not a writer, really. Perhaps, well, you might just never become one…
(did that do the trick?)

6. No luck

Again, it’s possibly true. Don’t you hate that story about the manuscript left lying around at a party in San Francisco and picked up by Tim Winton’s agent…yeah, well, you just have to go back to (5) above.

7. No discipline
Find it. A group or someone to nag you. A space in the diary. Competitions, writing seminars (though these can institutionalise writer’s block as well!). A handy writing how to do it self-help manual. A coach with an action plan, visualisation, homework, goal setting. A structure to your work (eventually – but start with any writing - anything!)

Writer’s block feels aimless, the summit of the mountain is covered in mist and we can’t see the start of the road. That seminar got me started, because I told myself I would be a writer, and I defrocked all those excuses. In the years after we returned home I did end up publishing – a novel, a children’s novel and an anthology. It all started with a few lines, a few lines that grew.

So my advice is, tell yourself the same. Then just take the first step, as the famous Chinese proverb goes. The mists will clear along the way.

© Jane Turner Goldsmith