"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Writer's block and how to use it (1985) by Victoria Nelson

"[....] If you are still determined to try your cabin in the ​woods, consider taking a spouse or friend with you. It is of​ten a mistake to go entirely by yourself. As any peasant can ​tell you, the wilderness is full of demons that feed on the ​souls of solitary humans. If you are going only to chop wood ​and set up a primitive living situation, you are not likely to be ​bothered by them, being too occupied with material con​cerns. But if you are going with the sole intent of tuning into ​your unconscious, you may be swallowed up by what comes ​out. Moreover, you may be bored and frustrated—what else ​is there for you to do, after all? Writing is not a twenty-four​ hour occupation."

In 1985 Writer's Digest Books published Writer's block and how to use it 

by Victoria Nelson. Having just finished Nelson's Gothicka this week, I was preparing to start The Secret Life of Puppets. Instead, I found myself detouring to and enjoying Writer's block and how to use it very much. 

My notes below are  insights and summations I thought useful and would normally enter in a commonplace book.

*   *   *


[....] Properly ​interpreted, writer's block is the best thing that can happen to ​a writer. Resistance to writing is a vital regulator of the crea​tive process because it obliges us to suspend our plans and re​consider the nature of our relation to the creative forces in​side us, forces that are, in the final analysis, gifts—ours by ​virtue of grace and not possession.

[....] It is an aggressive reaction, ​a loud shout from your unconscious calling your attention to ​the fact that something is out of adjustment. The block is a ​signal to readjust the way you are approaching your work; it ​is not the problem itself. Accepting and responding to the ​message of the block is the way in which every writer ma​tures and receives the blessing of his unconscious self, the ul​timate source of creativity.

[....] Inability to write means ​your unconscious self is vetoing the program of your con​scious ego. Even as you seem to identify yourself totally with ​the side of you that says yes, another side of you is saying no ​even more forcefully.

[....] The key to the dilemma lies not in ​any failure of willpower—blocked writers, as we will see, ​usually have too much will—but in the relationship you have ​cultivated with your unconscious.

[....] The un​conscious is a tough country with strong defenses; trying to ​muscle your way across the border won't work. Instead, you ​must work to reestablish diplomatic relations with your un​​conscious, a process of painstaking negotiation that may take ​a long, long time.

[....] Above all, it is play, the child's fresh ​spontaneity waiting to come forth in writing, or painting, or composing music, or any creative act.

[....] The adult writer who wants to recapture this joyful spirit ​from which all creativity springs must have the humility to ​recognize, first of all, that he has forgotten how to play.

[....] The child in myself de​mands emphatically, "I want to have fun now. I don't want to ​wait, and I don't see why I should." Viewed from this per​​spective, procrastination simply means delaying pleasure, ​the pleasure to be gained from the

playful act of creation.

[....] Creative disci​pline grows out of pleasure, not out of tyranny or self-abuse. ​Those people who have a strong natural tendency to do what ​they like are those most likely to find discipline an easy re​sponsibility to assume. Their overriding need to satisfy ​themselves is the solid foundation that sustains them during ​the long tedious years of training.

[....] Loving oneself—as opposed to the narcissism of being ​in love with oneself, with all its attendant insecurities—is ​one of the most difficult life tasks to master, and it is integral​ly related to die creative process.

[....] Often, all we have learned as adults ​is how to hide, out of sheer self-protection, the extent of our ​own dis-ease; in the name of modesty and self-sacrifice, we ​​go right on abusing ourselves.

[....] love's opposite will move in to fill the empty space. Despair ​results from surrendering to the hateful inner voice that in​cessantly whispers, "You're no good." This self-hatred is a ​force that must be firmly countered, never given in to. To be ​free to play, you must have the strength to keep your demon ​at bay.

[....] If you tap a large hidden reservoir of self-hatred ​every time you establish contact with your unconscious, you ​are not likely to want to stay in touch with yourself. In fact, ​the block springs up to shield you from this withering blast ​from within. The despised block is actually protecting you— ​in a primitive way, certainly, but in response to an even more ​primitive emotion. How else can you be protected if you ​refuse to acknowledge the deeper unease?

[....] have you imposed unrealistic expectations on a ​creature whose true potential may lie in a direction totally ​overlooked by you? Who, in fact, is the real child here?

[....] Sometimes you ​must tear up the application to Harvard ( an overambi​tious project) as being beyond your child's capabilities. Oth​er times, you must realize that, out of a critical lack of self​confidence, you have forced your Harvard-educated creative ​energies to endure the ignominy of kindergarten!

[....] what seemed at first a ​barrier—your resistance—is actually the secret door to your ​unconscious. Hurl yourself against it and you will only suc​ceed in bruising yourself. Approach with love and careful at​tention, and it will open of its own accord. This is the way ​you discover that your writer's block is actually a building ​block in your unfolding development as an artist.

CHAPTER 2: ​STARTING COLD: Beginner's Block

[....] The bravest act a writer can perform is to take that tiny step forward, put down the wretched little word that pricks the balloon of inflated fantasies with its very mundanity, and then put down another word directly after it. This act marks the decision to be a writer. That first word put on paper bridges the gulf between the person who imagines what it is like to write and the person who writes.

[....] to be a writer, a person must first actually write, and write a great deal.

[....] A long-distance runner is not a person who desires to run. And not only does a long-distance runner actually run, he or she probably does so every day.

[....] A novel is something that stands at the end of a lengthy process called writing. It is not a preexisting Platonic form embedded within you, only waiting to emerge on the page (or, as some would have it, to be "dialogued"). 

[....] As the poet William Stafford has said, "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them." The words, in effect, create the idea. [My emphasis]

[....] The chores are the prize. They're it. They're all you get.

[....] Only the fact that I love to run—to the end of the block, down the beach, whenever I can seize the opportunity—will carry me through the years of grinding practice necessary to develop my running powers to their full capacity. The core of the running or writing experience is pleasure in the act. It sweetens the tedium of training, it carries me on lighthearted to my goal.

[....] Persons stalemated permanently in such a position (that is, before they have written enough to qualify as writers with writer's block) tend to display this symptom as the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of a more generalized compulsive neurosis in which—to make a long story relatively short—the desire to perform a given act is pitted against the inability to do so. Such an impasse is often linked to a fear of maturity and accomplishment.

[....] it's the shock of using new muscles, of having no idea what they're capable of, that freezes us at the outset. The less you have done of something, after all, the harder it is to do.

[....] A person who is out of shape is in the same boat as a person who has never been in shape at all. You cannot impose expectations from your past, when you were in shape, onto the present, when you are not.

[....] focus on the first word or sentence you are putting down. Do not look back, to what might have been, or forward, to what may never happen. Concentrate on the moment of composition. After you have written your first sentence, go on to the next. Nothing else in the world except you and that sentence exists. Remember that your muscles are stiff and must be slowly relaxed, not forced, into the task. While it may be true that you no longer possess the energy of earlier years or that life has indeed hardened you into attitudes mat dam up an easy flow of words, still you possess the supreme advantage that is usually lacking in youth: patience. And patience is the most valuable quality a writer can have.

[....] Persons who have reached a point in their lives in which they wish to focus their interest seriously on writing and concentrate on developing their abilities often paradoxically experience this moment as expulsion from Eden. The apple has been bitten; self-consciousness enters the picture. You decide, to your eternal loss, that henceforth you are no longer to Play, you are to Write.

[....] Your writing will develop much more naturally if you resist the temptation, for the time being, to crown yourself Writer and continue to think of yourself as someone who is just playing around. Remember that the despised word "dilettante" comes from ditetto, delight or joy!

[....] Abuse of time, moreover, is more likely to inhibit writing than any other single factor.

[....] we abuse time far more often by attempting to be unrealistically strict with ourselves than by being too lax. Laziness or procrastination in writing is almost always the direct response to an internal edict that is far too severe. It is the same yo-yo behavior apparent in the dieting/overeating phenomenon. Instead of embarking on a positive program of healthy eating, dedicated dieters put themselves on a gulag routine of fasting with occasional breaks for carrots and broth. This extreme maltreatment of the organism produces, in time, its antithesis: an orgy of chocolate-cake eating. Similarly, the attempt to impose on oneself a stringent regime of writing usually produces its direct opposite, no writing at all. The psyche revolts against harsh new habits.

[....] There is much to be said, in terms of plain animal comfort, for being a nine-to-fiver in the literary world.

[....] Many beginning writers work sporadically at first. This is the natural way to ease yourself into a creative medium. Gradually you will gather momentum. Over time, this rhythm settles into a semi-regular routine, but it is often not until five to seven years of serious writing have passed that you are equal to (and more important, look forward to) a daily routine. During those years your child has had the time and space, thanks to your gentle care, to mature into a staunch ally, not a lazy, rebellious indentured servant.

[....] inspiration and not perspiration may have to be your guide at the beginning. You must write when you want to write, keeping as close to your original pursuit of pleasure and the spirit of play as possible.

[....] The single most common mistake in setting up a writing schedule…. is to say to yourself: "Well, my schedule is too full at the moment to do any writing, unfortunately. But come semester break/summer vacation/retirement/Christmas, I will have eight hours a day to write, write, write!"

[....] A total blank. Why? Because, after cutting out all training (and fun) for a lengthy period of time, you are sitting down to the emotional and creative equivalent of the Boston Marathon. Inside you the child is writhing in anguish that you have so mistreated her by setting such a difficult task. Run the marathon cold? No, thanks!

[....] if you genuinely like to write, you will find time for it as a matter of course.

[....] The organism works always on the basis of preference/ Nevertheless, logic and planning can be used in pursuing preference. Visualize the following questions and alternative responses as a kind of decision making flowchart:

Question 1. Can unnecessary items be cut out of my busy schedule to give me time to write? If your answer is yes, you have your time. 

If it is no, proceed to the next question: Question 2. Is my schedule going to be this full for the next year? If your answer is no, then wait until the time opens up. Less than a year is an acceptable waiting time (but just barely). 

If your answer is yes, proceed to:

Question 3. Have I in fact made an existential choice, i.e., decided against writing as part of my daily experience, just by having this kind of life? 

If your answer is yes, ask yourself: Question 4. What unrealized hopes/fantasies does my desire to write actually stand for, and how can they be realized in my life as I am living in this very moment?

[....] "wanting to write" is a time honored fantasy for many, equivalent to escaping to a desert island. This is harmless daydreaming that only turns ugly when you begin judging your fantasy by real-world standards that patently don't apply: I keep thinking about writing but never do it, therefore I'm a failure and a fraud.

[....] It's easier to start playing if the toys are already laid out.

[....] Writing is a lonely vocation. By putting yourself into a lonely environment as well, you risk turning Prospero's cell into a padded one.

[....] If you are still determined to try your cabin in the woods, consider taking a spouse or friend with you. It is often a mistake to go entirely by yourself. As any peasant can tell you, the wilderness is full of demons that feed on the souls of solitary humans. If you are going only to chop wood and set up a primitive living situation, you are not likely to be bothered by them, being too occupied with material concerns. But if you are going with the sole intent of tuning into your unconscious, you may be swallowed up by what comes out. Moreover, you may be bored and frustrated—what else is there for you to do, after all? Writing is not a twenty-fourhour occupation.

[....] Far from being alone with your work, you are much more likely to be alone with your compulsion not to write.

[....] Many joys are to be derived from the early stages of writing. For one, you are not yet broken into the yoke of a writing career, and thus you can enjoy all its spiritual rewards with none of its real-world responsibilities. You have not yet begun to worry about repeating yourself. You are experimenting. You are truly writing for yourself, and no one else.

[....] keep your attention firmly fixed on the excitement and difficulties of each moment of writing, of the specific problem you are grappling with or the passage you were able to bring up to its fullest level of expression—and what a triumph that is.

[....] Relax and enjoy it. Do not try to look too far ahead, or you will be paralyzed by the prospect of possible achievements you are not nearly ready to make. Respect your own efforts, feeble as they will undoubtedly strike you from time to time. Most writers start from zero, and it is far easier to get better than to get worse.

[....] attitude is far more important than time or place. Do your writing where and when you prefer. Approach writing as a duty, a hallowed mission, or a vehicle for your need to be important, and your desire to write will shrivel inside you. Approach writing in a relaxed manner, and your desire will not desert you.

[....] you're just fooling around. What you're doing isn't serious. It's not part of a professional trip. It "doesn't count." It's play.

CHAPTER 3: ​PROCRASTINATION: Laziness Is Not the Issue

[....] the New Year's resolution, a.k.a. "willpower," plays an integral part in perpetuating the whole frustrating cycle. Writer's block is far more commonly found in the presence of too much, not too little, will.

[....] not wanting to write is, under certain crucial circumstances, as healthy and natural an impulse as the act of writing itself.

[....] For our purposes, it is more productive to accept the block for precisely what it is and say, "At the moment I don't want to write." Only by taking direct responsibility for this state of affairs can you proceed to (1) discover why you don't want to write—no, why you refuse to write (there is almost always an excellent reason that is a credit to your unconscious integrity)—and then (2) determine if an alternative path to writing is available.

[....] pervasive cause of chronic writer's block has nothing whatever to do with writing… the deepest, most pervasive cause of chronic writer's block has nothing whatever to do with

the tangle of conflicting orders, counterorders, and outright mutiny raging in the bunker of his soul.

[....] Originally, the term [procrastination] was descriptive, not judgmental, a neutral word meaning simply "postponement." Although procrastination now frequently has a pejorative connotation, it does not describe a motive.

[....] "Laziness" and "lack of self-discipline" are glosses supplied by your ever-obliging demon. To say you don't write because you procrastinate is the same as saying you are sick because you don't feel well; it is a tautology, not a diagnosis.

[....] might best be described as a state of determined, though tortured, inactivity. Inactivity is usually viewed as a passive condition. In fact, however, it is as clear-cut an action as shooting skeet or flying to the moon; it represents the decision not to act.

[....] it means to push a task away from yourself.

[....] the real nature of procrastination: It is a reaction.

[....] Take note of what has already been said about the nature of writer's block: that it is a healthy reaction of the organism to an inner state of imbalance. Procrastination is no limp failure of will; it is an exasperated protest.

[....] unless both sides agree. Accomplishing this task is not nearly as easy as it sounds, because you will always be tempted to use the old neurotic way in hopes of achieving the new healthy results. "Right," you say, "I will stop this nonsense at once." But that is an ego command, and ego commands are not only doomed to failure in this situation, they are what got you into it in the first place. Resistance is almost never overcome forcibly; force almost always hardens and entrenches it.

[....] The starting point for understanding why you procrastinate is to treat yourself with enough respect to assume that behind your inactivity lies an excellent, if not readily apparent, reason. And this reason is to be found in an altogether different attitude or trait inside yourself that precipitated your procrastinatory rejection.

[....] external irritations represent nothing more than a projection of internal conflict onto the world. They are in no way causes. It is, in fact, the inner environment that needs some work and attention.

[....] in most cases of chronic block, it is not what you want to write, or deadlines, or the like that is stopping you. It is the nature of the command to write. How have you presented your desire to write to your creative child—or, if you prefer, your unconscious self? Have you asked or have you commanded? Have you given him a choice of projects? Have you given him the choice of when, where, and how to write the project, or have you (having so little faith in yourself, your abilities, and your natural creative rhythm) screamed: "Get busy this instant, or else!"

[....] People who accuse themselves of procrastination are not procrastinators. They are accusers. Far from being lazy, they are driven by such extremes of self-distrust and compulsive overcontrol that they throttle the spontaneous contact with self that all creative activity requires. 

[....] procrastinators are not lazy good-for-nothings but rather, as a rule, excessively conscientious strivers, overwhelmed by their own self-demands.

[....] Let us now leave the bogus issue of procrastination and move to the real inner conflict it masks.

[....] indicates a failure in self-love, not discipline. You are not a procrastinator. Your unconscious is trying to protect itself from further abuse in the only way it knows how: by shutting down communication. Ease up on the negative self-labeling and it will feel safer about contacting you again.

CHAPTER 4: ​TOTE THAT BARGE, LIFT THAT BALE: ​The Master/Slave Relationship

[....] Unlike most of the jobs and chores that occupy our lives, the act of creating a work of art involves the whole person. That is at once its great blessing and its curse.

[....] The burden of the creative writer is to be sensitive much of the time to whether or not she is in touch with herself, for this state has an immediate effect on the ability to imagine something and put it down on paper. 

[....] The elusive and maddening nature of being in touch with yourself is simply that it is a state that cannot be controlled but only allowed. 

[....] adjusting yourself to the creative demands of your unconscious, not die other way around, and represents self-regulation to the situation.

[....] "Listening to the situation" is something a tyrant finds hard to do

[....] The creative experience can and must be guided, but it cannot be controlled. Control in its extreme form represents the attempt of one small segment of your psyche to declare absolute power over the rest. 

     For it seems true, as the British writer of supernatural fiction Arthur Machen once suggested, that the human soul, 

so far from being one and indivisible, might possibly turn out to be a mere polity, a state in which dwelt many strange and incongruous citizens, whose characters were not merely unknown but altogether unsurmised by that form of consciousness which so rashly assumed that it was not only the president of the republic but also its sole citizen. 

     These strange fellow citizens of ours, as we all come painfully to realize in the course of a lifetime, are highly independent, egalitarian souls. They do not take kindly to dictatorship, and the forms their rebellion takes are as varied and devious as the human heart itself.

[....] among your inner contestants is that proud being, your creative child.

[....]Every word you write is the product of a dialogue between your conscious self and your unconscious, and with every word, you move closer toward fruitful partnership or war.

[....] the minute you try to exert excessive control on the flow of unconscious ideas, it stops, for your creative child refuses to be your slave. 

[....] Relax your will. Literally unclench the muscles of your mind. Take a walk, listen to music. Then, if possible, proceed with writing.

[....] If your resistance persists, put aside the project for a longer period of time. Keeping your mind completely open and nonjudgmental, allow whatever doubts, hesitations, or other feelings you may be having about the work to enter consciousness. This may take a day, a week, or longer. Awareness of what is going wrong or right with your project takes its own time in emerging into consciousness, especially if you are not accustomed to listening to yourself….

[....] calculated delay has allowed the creative process to proceed undisturbed in the unconscious.

[....] The existential truth about oughts is that we don't do them. That's why they're oughts to begin with.

[....] Any command made by your ego that the unconscious finds unpalatable, it will not perform. Period.

[....] 1. You can only write to write, not to be famous. Expectations of future glory tend to stifle creativity.

[....] beware the fallacy of the Master's Example.

[....] in reaching for the brass ring of discipline you have grasped the nettle of control.

[....] creative discipline is based upon spontaneous, pleasurable play, not a Spartan regime of stern self-control.

[....] discipline is training that produces a certain pattern of behavior. 

[....] Tasks, in fact, tend to become distasteful only to the degree they are forced.

[....] Only a writing routine that has the consent of the total psyche can provide a foundation solid enough to sustain you through the years of drudgery and tedium all creative effort requires.

[....] trusting the organism, not her ego.

[....] Most blocked writers have a conscious expectation of results that far exceeds their unconscious preference, and the "block" is nothing more than the gap between these two opposing perspectives. 

[....] Each time you attempt to work faster than your inner rhythm, it will break down. That is your signal to let up and allow the unconscious once again to set the pace. You determine your limits by testing them gently but repeatedly, then respecting them—no matter how unlike anybody else's mey are.

[....] The abused organism needs time to heal its wounds, to recover from the all too-familiar pattern of command-rebellion-punishment and to begin to establish a new one. Such a gentle reorganization can, however, occur. And it is a far pleasanter process than whipping yourself. The key is to be able to give up pain for pleasure, and most people find this very hard to do.

[....] a man who stops wanting to punish himself and starts wanting to be kind to himself. 

[....] to gain true discipline, it is necessary to learn to treat yourself with at least the same courtesy, respect, and affection you accord your spouse, friends, and even the Safeway bagboy. 

[....] As Cocteau said, "Art is a marriage of the conscious and unconscious"; it does not spring from an unequal relationship. 

[....] ego is an Important, powerful, and positive component of the total psyche whose duty is to guide and structure the inchoate outpourings of the unconscious. The unconscious, in turn, is by no means always your "better half; it can sweep you into a crushing depression or even psychosis. And there is sometimes a fine line, as we will see, between the spontaneous desires of the creative child and the infantile destructiveness of some unconscious impulses.

[....] tiny acts of will, as we shall see, get you where you want to go much more efficiently than great big acts of will that are hollow and unsupported by desire.

[....] Resolving entrenched writer's block often means having the courage not to write for long periods of time. As long as you find that happening to you anyway, why not risk a positive silence for a change? Dare to aim for less and you write more, in the long run. Your long-term productivity will increase in direct proportion to the care and acceptance you lavish on your short-term silences.

[....] Many blocked writers experience the "free" week of work as an enormous relief. To choose consciously not to work increases your sense of self-mastery and decreases your self-blame, feelings of impotence, and the like.

[....] this exercise gradually helps blur the barriers between creating and noncreating until the week of creative work becomes the holiday instead of the other way around.

​CHAPTER 5: ​WHEN YOUR BEST IS NEVER GOOD ENOUGH: Perfectionism and Criticism

[....] How much writing can you really do when an insidious voice is always whispering that your best is not only not good enough but awful, worthless, ridiculous?

[....] perfectionism is a real spur to artistic achievement and one of the vital ingredients distinguishing art from self-expression. Without the slightly obsessive, controlling urge to excel, artists do not have that fine cutting edge, that need to make completely (the literal meaning of "perfect"), which produces all real works of art.

[....] You knpw you have crossed the border from persistence to paralysis when every fragile word or idea withers under the glare of disapproval and faultfinding from your demonic Judge. 

[....] "fear of perfection," mat is, breaking off in the middle of your effort because you have started so well, so flawlessly, that you are afraid (no, you know) you are incapable of carrying the whole tiling off at the same level

[....] sheer failure of nerve

[....] The spectacle of naked excellence can be frightening, even repelling, and one's strongest impulse is sometimes to say, "Torch it, for God's sake!" 

[....] the "reverse Midas effect." This happens after you have finished a preliminary draft and reread it only to discover that an amazing transformation has occurred: What you thought was pure gold in the throes of composition has turned into something brown and odorous. The resulting effect on your pride is so devastating that you either throw it away or embark on an ill-advised course of drastic and usually fatal revision. Curiously, reading the offending piece a third time, you may find it neither good nor bad, for attitudes toward one's own work constantly shift and change.

[....] Excessive perfectionism is self-hatred in still another mask.

[....] The Judge has no place in first-draft composition.

[....] your own self-contempt is acting upon you almost as an impersonal force. 

[....] Self-insult must be stopped at the source; you have to face the bully down.

[....] The real way to put conviction in your voice is to realize that you are facing a life-or-death situation. This encounter with your self-hatred is potentially as dangerous as being accosted by a crazed gunman, a special kind of madman who will spare you if you oppose and reject him, but will almost certainly kill you if you give in.

[....] series of meek surrenders can become just as addicting a habit as alcohol.

[....] you must believe in it completely before you can say it with sufficient strength to silence the torrent of abuse.

[....] write first, perfect later.

[....] your readers…. are potentially capable of a truly disinterested dislike of your work. [emphasis mine - JR]

[....] you must learn to live with it just as much as you must learn to live with their praise, which can cause problems of its own.

[....] There are people utterly wrong about your work who are heartbreakingly persuasive in their reasons; mere are completely inarticulate people who intuitively sense what your work is all about. This is the maddening, elusive nature of criticism: We want it to be an absolute, and it is not. It never is. 

[....] Does the information you are receiving from the outside resonate with what you are feeling inside? If so, it may be worth doing something about. Tuning into relevant criticism and tuning out the irrelevant becomes a delicate matter of sorting the seeds, slowly and painstakingly. 

[....] impossible to accomplish if a domineering inner Judge is constantly running radio interference or agreeing eagerly with the worst criticism.

[....] Have they allowed the voices of their critics to form an unholy chorus with their own internal demon, thereby providing a spurious justification for self-hatred?

[....] Cynthia Ozick has stated: Writers have a little holy light within, like a pilot light, which fear is always blowing out. When a writer brings a manuscript fresh from the making, at the moment of greatest vulnerability, that's the moment for friends to help get the little holy light lit again."

[....] If you are just starting out and feel extremely tentative, it is perfectly acceptable to spend years accreting your work in the dark; many writers begin in this way. [Emph. mine]

[....] You are likely to be crushed by the [negative review] when it inevitably comes, if you have not had some experience of all kinds of reactions and thus have learned how to define yourself independently from them.

[....] praise, which we naturally (but mistakenly) feel no need to defend ourselves against, can be just as insidious as rejection—and it is no more likely to be true (the chances that it is are about fifty-fifty). Its inflationary effects can remove you just as far from your real self as a bad notice can.

[....] In too large doses, praise can have a paralyzing effect on your work in the form of a block: A piece that has garnered accolades can become an impossibly hard act to follow. 

[....] Before your work "goes public," take a quiet moment by yourself and write a review of your own, in the third person (for the sake of distancing):

[....] if Critic Y thinks you are the absolute greatest, some of your own recorded reservations about your work can help keep you from experiencing a dangerous inflation. 

(Remember: The wrong kind of praise can be as lethal as a pan.)


[....] There is an almost mathematical ratio between soaring, grandiose ambition, when it is not firmly anchored in the daily trivia of production, and a severe creative block.

[....] fantasies of grandeur are more likely to form when your mode of self-expression is not yet clearly defined and you seek to align yourself with the masters.

[....] only human nature, however, to want quick results, to try to find a shortcut through the whole tedious process of producing excellent writing.

[....] contact with the deeper stratum of your self that the creative act requires has just been rudely broken by radio interference from the shrill voice of that ham operator, your ego.

[....] Self-consciousness of any sort, but especially of the prematurely self-congratulatory sort, is death to spontaneous performance, whether you are pole-vaulting or writing a poem.

[....] the state of inflation, just as pernicious to the writer as that of self-loathing.

[....] Without the inner conviction of talent and worth, one could not have the strength to endure the endless rejections, in* suits, bad reviews, and corkscrew twists and turns of a profession in which, more than any other, advancement depends almost entirely on the judgment (often whim) of others—editors, critics, readers

[....] Writer's block occurs as a healthy check only to an intrusive and persistent ambition that exceeds your present abilities by too great an order of magnitude.

[....] forget yourself, surrender your intrusive ego to your work. [Emphasis mine]

[....] It took Joyce ten years to write this book and the rest of his life (another seventeen years) to complete Finnegans Wake, but write them he did.

[....] What, in fact, is the difference between healthy ambition and destructive grandiosity

[....] Narcissism, in the nonspecialist meaning I give it here (what one writer has aptly dubbed "ego-ridden powerlessness"), is a

[....] malady to which we all occasionally succumb, but only in a few does it persist past all cure.

[....] The truth is that a "big ego" conceals a deep and overriding sense of worthlessness just as the seemingly hang-loose habit of "procrastination" hides a rule-bound compulsive personality. The egotism has formed as a compensation, a kind of daily self-armoring against an unbearable inner feeling of self-loathing.

[....] twin psychic poles of grandiosity and utter selfcontempt

[....] worship of the self is a kind of pathetic psychic cargo cult….  it can never truly satisfy; it is only a substitute—in this case, for genuine self-respect.

[....] the more insistent the feelings of worthlessness, the more frantic the attempts of the ego become to repress them. 

[....] writer's block has the potential, usually not properly heeded, of working positive, healing effects on a psyche headed for narcissistic entropy. By halting the creative act the block asserts that the emperor has no clothes. By stripping off the mask of false vanity, it provides the suffering writer a clue that she should be examining herself at a deeper level than mat of pipe dreams.

[....] all fantasies require some fuel to keep them going. And when none is forthcoming in reality, artificial measures must be taken to sustain the false system. The classic shortcut for bridging the gap between excessive ambition and unrealized accomplishment is alcohol

[....] danger that one will gradually become fixed on the means, not the end, feeling unable to contact the unconscious in any other way. Then brief euphoria leads ever deeper into immense despair.

[....] Dependence on a substance is a fulltime occupation, and no one writes well while chronically drunk or stoned.

[....] a childish egotism that stubbornly refuses to mature with physical aging is often a symptom of this mysterious disorder. After all, what other medium than alcohol or drugs better preserves and magnifies the characteristic adolescent mood swings between elation and despair?

[....] aura of "genius" that hangs over literary endeavors like a poison cloud is intimately related to the problem of egotism.

[....] In any other profession, it would seem self-evident that alcoholism or madness would be a minus, not a plus, but the arts have been infected by a curious romanticism on the subject.

[....] Those artists who, as humans, are saddled with the terrible afflictions of mental illness or alcoholism create their work in spite of their infirmities, not because of them. That prosaic struggle, not the romantic patina of their disabilities, holds the true potential for heroism. 

[....] a correlation does seem to exist between a sheltered, intense childhood environment and a propensity for artistic expression, with self-absorption and childlike behavior persisting through adulthood. Some artists, in fact, seem to enjoy long—lifelong—childhoods, a quality that promotes the close and ongoing relationship with the unconscious.

[....] Submitting your talent to a long, exacting training, maintaining and carrying it through to fulfillment, is an extremely adult undertaking requiring a very different inner orientation than the childish egotism arising from inferiority feelings

[....] we are men and women first, artists second. To grow as a writer, you must first grow as a person.

[....] True works of art do not spring from a desire to be famous; they grow out of a deeper stratum of emotional and spiritual resources

[....] block represented the deeper knowledge of his unconscious that his abilities and experience were not yet on a par with his high intentions for the poem. Countless other writers as well have had to set aside their Towering Achievements and turn to more accessible channels for their talent. The opposite of inflation is small, steady steps during which ego is subordinated to work. Less is more. Aim lower and you may hit the target.

[....] Is there any way of returning to the large project with lowered expectations and the idea of finishing or refining it in a modest, focused spirit? Or is it time, finally, to let go.

CHAPTER 7: ​DIVINE CHILD, PROFANE ADULT: ​The Myth of Unlimited Possibilities

[....]  overwhelming vagueness about what they are actually able to do, as opposed to what they might someday do, if they get around to it.

[....]  best way to maintain this comforting ignorance of one's true creative limits is by doing nothing and imagining everything.

[....]  To take action, to write, means turning one's back on the never-never land of adolescence, where anything and everything is always about to happen, could happen, but usually never quite does happen.

[....]  Wendell Berry has identified not one but two creative muses: the Muse of Inspiration and the Muse of Realization.

[....]  the daydreaming block. Daydreaming and fantasizing are absolutely necessary to the creative process; in fact, they make up the precreative experience, the incubation period of art. But images in your mind are nothing in themselves; they must be made manifest to be considered art. If fantasizing is prolonged indefinitely, the person floats in a diffuse and generalized dreaminess that never finds a focus or expression in art.

[....]  Since to complete the work would make it only too clear whether one had really produced the Great American Novel, the would-be writer's only recourse in protecting his narcissism is to leave everything he starts unfinished so that he can sustain his fantasies.

[....]  no initiation rite in modern American life is more shockingly abrupt than giving up the casual delights of student life and entering the structured adult world of duties , restrictions on personal freedom, and hard tests of one's abilities and work. 

[....]  "thesis block" ….means of prolonging a carefree extended childhood as well as avoiding long-buried feelings of inadequacy.

[....]  reluctance to leave the world of imagined future prospects for the world of real acts constitutes a kind of existential stage fright at the threshold of life.

[....]  finally one would have to commit oneself to playing a single role and no other.

[....]  Over a lifetime, this almost universally experienced phenomenon of adolescence can harden into a permanent posture as the Hamletesque split between posse and esse widens into a chasm.

[....]  a form of neurosis which H. G. Baynes has described as the "provisional life," that is, the strange attitude and feeling that one is not yet in real life.

[....]  it is not yet what is really wanted, and there is always the fantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about.

[....]  a constant inner refusal to commit oneself to the moment.

[....]  The one thing dreaded throughout by such a type of man is to be bound to anything whatever. There is a terrific fear of being pinned down, of entering space and time completely, and of being the one human being that one is.

[....]  pueri and puellae [pueri [boys] and puellae [girls]]

[....] After perfectionism and narcissism (and feeding into both), the puer aeternus phenomenon is thus one of the great cornerstones of writer's block.

[....] urgent inner command not to define oneself, not to grow and develop into that sad and limited creature, a minor (or possibly even a never-published) poet or whatever.

[....] one stays interestingly, potentially great the rest of one's life.

[....] occurs not merely among people who daydream a great deal and write very little but also…. among people who show a tremendous early promise and have a great deal of attention focused on their first works.

[....] To leave the limelight of precocity and enter the gray world of slow maturation can become a frightening, impossible step to take

[....] eternal youths produce no early significant work while secretly nourishing a sense of their own specialness. 

[....] such a person, "concreteness suggests craftsmanship, and getting down to craftsmanship means dirtying one's hands."

[....] in the case of the writer, finally something happens: A corner is turned, paradise is lost, and the eternal child enters the world of age and death.

[....] could not bear to descend (as he saw it) from the world of infinite possibility into the world of limited acts.

[....] Those eternal youths who, unlike Branwell [Bronte], live on, bear the heavy burden of their aborted emotional development and unrealized talent.

[....] For I have lost the race I never ran.

[....] in later years, alcoholism or mental illness may undermine their abilities or cut short their working lives.

[....] pueri are not busy people; they have too much, not too little, time in which to write. 

[....] those who have plenty of free time in which to write are precisely the ones who are least able to exploit this opportunity; the lack of boundaries in their lives causes them to flounder.

[....] unformed person

[....] limitless time offers just more rope to hang himself with.

[....] submitting to the rigors of a real job, no matter how menial, can have a beneficial carryover to writing.

[....] constraints imposed by a job may allow you to accomplish far more in those few precious hours that are left.

[....] world of limits, which paradoxically liberates you from the prison of limitlessness.

[....] you can allow yourself an hour a day—before work, during lunch hour, on the weekends—to "play."

[....] the chief puer symptom—chronic daydreaming about writing or being a writer, but very little writing

[....] if you are experiencing many fantasies about writing without producing anything, you are also likely to be afflicted with the psychological sets described in Chapters 4 and 6—namely, the master-slave vicious circle coupled with inflated expectations. 

[....] the block immediately rises at this futile attempt at self-tyranny. Instead of understanding it as a signal to ease up and modify your self-demands to something more suitable to your real-life personal habits, however, you mistake this healthy and practical reaction for more laziness.

[....] slide slowly back into the comfortable, seductive ooze of your daydreams.

[....] transition from puer dreams into adult actualization is a developmental process that occurs gradually, much like physical growth, over a period of years.

[....] [attempting] to pole-vault over your natural rate of development with imaginings of not-yet-achieved grandeur, you can expect the process to take that much longer.

[....] Fantasy is the raw material of art as well as daydreams. Producing a work of art, however, means getting your hands dirty.

[....] If you can write and finish just one thing, you have taken a step away from your ghostly dreamland into self-actualization.

[....] A puer, after all, is an enchanted creature, half in the other world and half in this; to reverse your bewitchment, you must perform some spells of your own. And writing is exactly that: a hex against oblivion.

[....] This metamorphosis will only happen if you first submit yourself to two humiliations: first, beginning your writing, and second, since finishing anything is impossible for the true eternal youth, carrying it through. Out of that long and tiresome struggle comes grace.

[....] Put your heart into a genuine finish and allow yourself the experience of closure, a very important rite of passage for a puer.

[....] If you can finish one, try finishing others.

[....] harder to finish one work than to begin a dozen others. 

[....] act of completing your work is habit-forming. 

CHAPTER 8: ​THE WHOLE IS LARGER ​THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS: ​Notes and Plans that Refuse to Make a Book 

[....] note taking—or even that dignified activity "research" ….comes to supersede the act of writing and becomes the hurdle they never get past.

[....] Note taking is not the same process as writing. Taking notes is mechanical/analytical, not creative, even when the notes do not detail "hard data" but the soarings of your imagination. Because of the qualitative difference between the two processes, it's harder to make the switch than you might think.

[....] Old notes…. congeal

[....] notes lose their tenuous connection to the dynamic creation of a work and settle into their own rigid reality. 

[....] It has ceased to be fluid, you can't design it any longer, you can't model it.

[....] They are there, on paper, in black and white. If you fear that lonely first encounter with a blank page, the temptation to hang on to what you've already managed to capture in the net of your awareness—your notes—is irresistible.

[....] security blanket

[....] Chronic note taking….  habitual among people who are obsessive and controlling, who are in fact deathly afraid of losing that control, of opening themselves up to the experience of discovering the unexpected inside themselves.

Rollo May: 

[....] What people . . . do out of fear of irrational elements in themselves as well as in other people is to put tools and mechanics between themselves and the unconscious world. This protects them from being grasped by the frightening and threatening aspects of the irrational experience.

[....] Here we are concerned rather with the obsessive note taking that, by its very difference from the creative process, tends to possess the writer and become an end in itself.

[....] let go the edge of the swimming pool and kick off unsupported into deep water?

[....] preliminary stages leading up to the act of composition: ….germ of an idea ….irresistibly attracted ….begins writing

[....] Announcing your literary plans is an activity closely related to note taking, though it usually involves the spoken rather than the written word. [Capote-JR] Like note taking, it is intended to calm your inner anxiety—or panic—about jumping off the cliff. Nevertheless, it often serves only to distance you further from undertaking your work.

[....] it is up to you to determine your own specific limits and preferences: At what exact moment does the outline become the Outline or does describing the project to others replace the "real thing"? That there is such a point for every writer is indisputable.

[....] "one daren't overplan; so many things are generated by the sheer act of writing."    -Anthony Burgess [My emphasis]

[....] you must be sensitive to the moment when you cross the line from true preparation to—let's be honest—stalling.

[....] What if you have accidentally gone too far with your notes so that they now imprison you? How can you break out of jail?

Step 1 Put away your notes…. mess them up…. a little chaos

Simplify and unstructure

write the first sentence.

[....] once you begin actually writing the piece, how much closer you have moved to the mysterious unknown center of your story-to-be by imagining it instead of describing it.

[....] it is still impossible to anticipate everything, least of all the texture and final impact of the work. 

[....] far safer not to capture every last detail before you begin to write

[....] Start dismantling the rational superstructure now.

[....] [after creating] sufficient shambles, the potential work of art they [the notes]have suffocated will come alive again.

[....] following steps: 

1. Write something entirely different off the top of your head, without notes of any kind.

2. Reapproach

4. If nothing happens, shelve this project for the time being; it may still be too radioactive. Reenter the world of the living and go on to something else.

CHAPTER 9: ​BEATING A LIVE HORSE: ​Writing Over the Block, Obsessive Rewriting

[....] but perhaps you can write better if you leave the mistakes. —Jorge Luis Borges

[....] If you make the decision to go ahead, two further choices await you: (I) You cm force yourself to write, like the person who becomes a parachutist to overcome a fear of heights (psychoanalysts call this type of compensatory activity "reaction formation"), or (2) you can sit down and allow yourself to write as your imagination leads you.

[....] A more cautious, less conflicted way of sneaking up on the problem would be to say, "Tomorrow I'm going to sit down and see what happens. If I write, fine. If I don't write, fine."

[....] Allowing yourself the blameless option not to write is very difficult for most writers. But consider that the blame itself may be causing the not writing.

[....] quality of your writing may very well mirror your inner resentments and ambivalence about being forced to do it.

[....] beginners (less than ten years of serious writing)

[....] you are blocked, the reasons for your resistance must be satisfactorily resolved before you can plunge ahead and start perspiring; you cannot leapfrog over any step in your creative development.

[....] it compels your ego to follow the timing of your unconscious. The block represents the taming of an overeager will that must learn painfully and slowly how to adapt itself to the deeper rhythms of the psyche.

[....] Your whole attention, in fact, should be focused not on what you ought to be doing, but on those unforced patterns of composition that seem to be emerging of their own accord from your unconscious.

[....] surrender to yourself and to your deepest creative needs for expression

[....] Surrender, not control, as Delacroix said, is always the path…. [to the] hidden, inaccessible side of you

[....] When your will senses an impenetrable block rising and you have gently tested a number of ways around it, none of which has worked

[....] you must accept a temporary truce and knock at the door of another project—and keep knocking at doors all over the neighborhood until someone lets you in.

[....] you must be prepared to accept your condition totally, as opposed to railing against it or forcing it. 

[....] give up your dreams of that instant miraculous transformation always just around the corner and surrender to the block.

[....] be conscious—in your decision not to write, instead of letting your unconscious do the work for you. 

[....] Quit forcing and stop writing. Give the block a chance to speak to you…. should cause you to experience tremendous relief.

[....] compulsion to rework projects to death. 

[....] obsessive rewriting is a highly effective manifestation of writer's block. Like note taking, it is something to be let go of so that you can get on with the real work.

[....] Here I refer to the tendency to kill a living work by repeated surgery, amputations, transplants, skin grafts, and the like under the merciless glare of your analytical (not creative) attention.

[....] you, the mad scientist, produce a patchwork monster that bears little resemblance to your original conception.

[....] The work, like pastry crust, has been overhandled.

[....] quality of the writing experience comes to resemble not a master jeweler polishing a diamond, but a cat torture-killing a mouse.

[....] freshness of effort brought about by a constant assault on the new and unknown.

[....] habit of holding on to the past maddens its sufferers.

[....]  [If a] glacier-like pace turns out to be a natural rate of development, which no power on earth can speed up or alter in any way [then that might just be your natural level – JR] 

[....] Obsessive rewriting that goes beyond these limits is arrested development, and to be avoided.

[....] obsessive reviser never experiences closure. The piece exists in a permanent unhealthy symbiosis with its author.

[....] you can never be judged for what you have not completed.

[....] "eternal child" who imagines everything and writes nothing

[....] note taker who writes an outline instead of a book,

[....] obsessive rewriter who, like many house remodelers, refuses to acknowledge that the end must come.

[....] Sometimes your motivation may be only fear of moving on into the unknown

[....] What is wrong with simply putting the manuscript aside? If you can manage to leave it alone, the passage of time may provide the closure you are unable to give it

[....] The vice of obsessive rewriting can be turned to your advantage as a stylist. 

[....] Tell yourself you're just killing time while saving up energy for that one last rewrite…. indulge yourself by fooling around with something new.

CHAPTER 10: ​HAVE YOU A GLASS SLIPPER IN A SIZE 13? ​Forcing Your Talent into the Wrong Mold 

[....] imposition of a whole false writing persona, whether style or genre, upon yourself. The way out of this impasse involves the difficult task of discovering your true identity as a writer—a lifelong, constantly evolving process with no guideposts except blind instinct to tell you whether you are on the right track.

[....] writer's block serves as a lie-detector test that determines whether you are forcing yourself down a particular path for reasons of ego and/or finances and/or others' advice or example, or are writing straight from the heart.

[....] classic "ought" bind, you have constructed a long list of how your career "ought" to go and what sorts of things you "ought" to be writing, to the point where your self-demands have effectively estranged you from your true sources of inspiration

[....] a special brand of suicide that can be performed by writing beneath, above, or even alongside the true current of your creativity: The esoteric writer attempts a "breakthrough" book to reach a mass audience; the author of Westerns tries to "get serious."

[....] Many writers commit this great mistake: They assume that writing commercial fiction is easier than writing "literature." Both in technique and in spirit, it is not. It is simply the mode some writers can express themselves in and others cannot.

[....] If you cynically take up a popular genre while your true inclination lies in another direction, you may never do it as effectively as the "naturals" do

[....] If you have only been imitating, you will find the transition to a different style (though not necessarily the instructor's favored kind) not only relatively easy but also a relief.

[....] If, however, you have been truly writing out of the core of your as-yet unformed artistic abilities, you will find any alteration grating and unnatural.

[....] In the desire to improve and perfect your craft, you will find it almost impossible to resist the guidance offered by others, yet the effect of even laudatory remarks is often to throw you off center and out of touch with your own instincts.

[....] If you have not learned how to listen consciously to this internal guide, or if you simply refuse to pay any attention to it, writer's block often intervenes as an unconscious and involuntary ethical self-regulator.

[....] You can prostitute yourself up as well as down; many serious writers live as much of a double life as the crassest manipulator of the best-seller racket.

[....] Why try to be what you think you should be as a writer, when discovering with humility what you are, no matter how unpleasant this news may be to your ego (I am a sporadic writer, I am a writer who will never make a dime, I am a writer who will never be taught in a literature class), carries so much more inner resonance, both with yourself and with your readers? I submit that the vast majority of cases of writer's block examined in this book can be labeled healthy, instinctive reactions to an attempt at self-falsification—whether you are trying to live up to a self-image as an eight-hour-aday writer, a world-famous writer, a perfect writer, a best-selling writer, your father or mother's idea of a writer, or whatever. 

[....] writers who are seriously and chronically blocked arc usually out of touch not only with the simple, the innocent, and the playful but with their own basic identity.

[....] If you put off the experiment too long, if you squelch your desire to explore some of the less conventional byroads of your psyche, your writing muscles may stiffen in one mode and you may lose the creative flexibility to realize your dream.

CHAPTER 11: ​NO CLOISTERED VIRTUE: ​Using Your Writing to Hide from Life

Writing to Hide from Life

The Prodigy's Dilemma

[....] The writer is stuck with a devouring technique that has already digested the meager life experiences of its very young owner and now begins, as it were, to feed off living tissue.

[....] a prodigy who suddenly becomes blocked may actually be experiencing a healthy signal from the unconscious—a signal that he is not ready to be locked up inside himself. 

[....] prodigies who weather the crisis of young adulthood often abandon fiction and poetry and turn to essay writing, journalism, and criticism, all of which provide a strong rational framework that can support a fragile personality at the same time that they conceal emotional underdevelopment and related conflicts—traits that imaginative writing mercilessly exposes. 

[....] Victorian England produced the greatest essayists of English literature from its aging prodigies—but not the greatest art.

[....] the resentment directed against a dominant parent stays unconscious and is expressed in die form of a block; or, if the person is actually able to write, he may be crippled by periodic bouts of self-destructiveness, such as episodes of alcoholism, the function of which is to keep him in a state of childlike dependence, saying to the parent, in effect, "You made me like this—now you can take care of me!"

[....] Do not allow the great expectations of others—family, friends—who thoughtlessly quiz you ("But what are you doing nowV) to make you feel guilty once you have made the decision to stop writing.

[....] You are not blocked; you have made a decision to do something else with your life.

[....] if you are a young writer with a substantial ouevre behind you and now, in spite of your most earnest desires to continue, face a monumental block, that block is life. Accept it and enter without looking back. If the work is something that truly belongs to you, it will lead you back when you are ready.

[....] temptation to hide out in the putative safety of your imagination when you need to be facing something directly in your emotional life afflicts not only prodigies or ex-prodigies.

[....] because too much unresolved emotion is tied to the project at hand

[....] accumulation of avoided problems hangs like a dark cloud over one's entire personal life

[....] some find it a relief to turn to expository writing or daily journal keeping

[....] ten, if you simply wait for the storm to pass and the wound to heal, the block, lifts of its own accord. But you must constantly make a gentle discrimination between justifiable hibernation and outright avoidance of deeper conflicts.

[....] Keep constantly checking*—keep knocking on the door—to see if you are ready to go back.

[....] Another way to trigger the "hideout block" is to seek to construct an artificial womb of peace and tranquility within which to do your writing

[....] Art is not a refuge from life; to try to make it that diminishes both the work and its creator.

[....] Of all the "hiding from life" blocks, however, none is more striking, and more cleverly disguised as its opposite, than the phenomenon of logorrhea, or compulsive writing.

[....] Compulsive writing is, in fact, a cleverly disguised way of hiding from some of the deeper demands of literary and emotional experience.

[....] These writers give birth to book after book…. because they are in flight from their personal demons and writing provides the necessary fortification within which to hide.

To some extent, all humans avoid facing the deeper strata of life. 

[....] compulsive writers experience that confrontation in some other part of their psyches, causing them to flee into writing. 

[....] journal and diary keeping, as well as dream recording, allows you to continue writing regularly during such times (as well as providing excellent training during your entire writing career). The daily act of translating reality into language keeps the door wide open for a return to art.

CHAPTER 12: ​BITCH GODDESS/BASTARD GOD: ​Success and Writer's Block 

[....] Feeling envious takes energy. Use that energy in perfecting your own work and actively putting it forward, and a negative emotion becomes a positive act of self-realization.

[....] (There are no absolute assessments of literary worth.) ….multicultural and historical perspective, which so few writers trouble to acquire, can not only help you disidentify with your own work's critical reception (as discussed in Chapter 5), it can also make you skeptical of success determined by chance trend and cheerfully (well, almost cheerfully) unfazed by crushing failure.

[....] blocks that success, its presence or absence, can generate in the writer.

[....] fear of success occurs as much in those who are far from achieving recognition as in those who are close to crossing the threshold

[....] Stage fright, a kind of cosmic reluctance

[....] you have sabotaged your chances out of an inner and unacknowledged sense of unworthiness—the demon of self-hatred at work again.

[....] second possible reason for backing away from success is an unconscious conviction that you were not ready for national (or even public) exposure

[....] Lack of publication, after all, represents a kind of incompletion or limitlessness; a work becomes truly real when it is in print and has an audience.

[....] A gentle, non-bloating assessment of the situation is most likely to produce good results—instead of years of paralysis.

[....] The sensible message of the block (which may be a shrewder indicator of your personal strength than you realize), as we say in Chapter 11, is simply this: Cultivate your still-developing art in relative privacy until you have gained enough maturity to assume the responsibilities of public exposure (and possibly success).

[....] A longstanding writing routine can collapse (and has collapsed, many times) after the "petty" demands of earning adaily living are removed.

[....] external plenty and internal famine 

[....] Finding your center again after being swept into this maelstrom is no easy thing to do.

[....] You think: Why sit down and write yet another novel/ story/poem to be sent out fifty times with no results?

[....] Some experience relief in laying down their pens after years of frustration; others do not.

[....] the vast majority of writers live out their literary lives in just such a penumbra. Only a handful stand in the sun, and even those have put in a tenor twenty-year apprenticeship in the shadows.

[....] benign neglect can exert a healthy influence on your work, healthier than the glare of publicity and the review machinery of national publication. 

[....] even favored writers often end up having their wrists slapped for failure to conform to the prevailing literary sensibility. Here, only the strength of the inner attitude will save you from going under.

[....] The ensemble ethic supports not just the individual writer but the tradition he carries as well. We, as writers, are bearers of a culture, a language, and a tradition—a fact we often brush aside in our egotistic quest for personal acclaim.


[....] This book has examined an array of silences geared to fend off the unreasonable demands of a psyche in disequilibrium. But even in a writer, silence is not always, or even mostly, bad. Silence is often as blessed a condition as its opposite…. the systole and diastole of the creative life.  [My emphasis]

[....] It must be admitted: Sometimes your creative child is silent…. for no reason at all.

[....] the key words "laziness" and "stalling" (read: procrastination) are the buzzwords of an autocratic, punishing consciousness. You are unaware that anything is happening because your unconscious is shielding its sprouting seeds from the harsh glare of your judgmental ego

[....] vital that you consciously adopt a positive, accepting attitude toward your own silence. Patience, acceptance, and trust are the virtues your consciousness must cultivate while your unconscious is active in that other room, behind the closed door. 

[....] an artist's "waiting," funny as it may look in cartoons, is not to be confused with laziness or passivity. It requires a high degree of attention, as when a diver is poised on the end of the springboard, not jumping but holding his or her muscles in sensitive balance for the right second. It is an active listening, keyed to hear the answer, alert to see whatever can be glimpsed when the vision or the words do come. It is a warning for the birthing process to begin to move in its own organic time. It is necessary that the artist have this sense of timing, that he or she respect these periods of receptivity as part of the mystery of creativity and creation.  [My emphasis]

[....] persist in developing your skills of active waiting,


[....] commands obedience is the silence of emotional grief as it works through to resolution in the deeper strata of your psyche. 

[....] mourning is an active condition not to be confused with the "hiding from feelings" discussed in Chapter 11.

[....] full energies of your unconscious may be taken up in the knitting and healing process, leaving nothing left over for creative endeavor. Surrendering yourself to this unseen, sometimes even unfelt, process requires simple blind faith that progress is somehow being made.

[....] Mallarme's block may well have represented the victory of his own humanity over an artist's narcissism.

[....] art is not necessarily superior to life; it cannot be vulgarly employed in an effort to cancel out the real losses life imposes on us.


[....] the invisibility or inaccessibility of unconscious processes tempts us to worry over all our silences. Because the conscious self receives no messages, it assumes the unconscious is doing nothing.

[....] you must be prepared to accept and acknowledge your "block" as an unidentifiable active silence. Give your creative child some credit. You may never know exactly why it has drawn back from you, but you must respect its wish to do so.

[....] gratuitous silence imposed on the ego is part of the inherent irrationality of life.

[....] the source and continuity of their art is rooted in "meaninglessness"—that is, something outside their conscious control.

[....] Jean Cocteau…. lamented that it never seemed possible to "do what one intends": I feel myself inhabited by a force or being—very little known to me. It gives the orders; I follow. The conception of my novel Le EnfantsTerribles came to me from a friend.. . .I commenced to write: exactly seventeen pages per day. It went well. I was pleased with it. Very. There was in the original life story some connection with America, and I wanted to say about America. Poof! The being in me did not want to write that! Dead halt. A month of stupid staring at paper unable to say anything. One day it commenced again in its own way.

[....] the collective anticipation of their audience gives their few works special intensity of impact.

[....] An uneven artistic output is a natural condition of creativity for many.


[....] The day you find out you're a writer is usually not the day you finish your first story or poem or the day you are first published, but much, much later. It is the day you realize you possess a certain cluster of traits that forms the writing obsession. Far from feeling crowned by laurels, you are likely to experience a reaction akin to hearing, on your twenty-first birthday, that you are descended from a venerable line of Transylvanian vampires and that you are one, too; there is no escape! 

[....] some of the psychological stigmata of the creative person: hypersensitivity, self-absorption, devouring ambition, and all those related traits that tend to cancel out the romantic aura the profession holds in the eyes of the uninitiated.

[....] Before severe depression sets in, however, here is a simple distinction between neurosis and art.

[....] What is neurotic is to hate yourself for doing/not doing either of these activities [writing, or ceasing to write, based on messages from the child within]. 

[....] the frissons of egotism and other eccentricities often found in the creative personality are, like a mild dose of asbestos poisoning, occupational hazards—nothing terminal.

[....] In silencing the voice of relentless self-hatred, the writer gains in fulfilled humanity as well as art. 

The consequences of that triumphant silencing, if renewed daily, will echo for a lifetime. [My emphasis--JR]

*   *   *

Between the years 1980 and 2000 I spent every day fantasizing about being a published writer. I spent some days actually writing, most days reading about writers, and drawing my plans accordingly. This writing career pipe dream, like my academic career (junior high, high school, and college) broke up on the rocks of undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder. But by the year 2000, I had made peace with the fact that I was not going to finish writing any fiction. 

Victoria Nelson's invaluable book will be a welcome tonic to many who have never figured out how to balance a commanding ego and the subtle, playful, unconscious authorial daemon that is so quick to go on strike. Nelson's book is filled with explanations of the ways in which writers sabotage themselves, and offers sensible solutions to reestablish and maintain contact with one's creative voice. It is a book about being mindful: listening to the creative part of the self and minimizing the guilt-tripping drill sergeant we all know too well.


23 November 2022

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