Expressing ourselves creatively—whether in words, wax, pixels, movement, or whatever—can be pleasurable. But often it isn't. We can't face the activity in which we most want to lose ourselves. The very thought of it makes us queasy. What's going on?
Writer's block may be unique—perhaps basket weavers never get weavers' block?—but any act of creative expression has its own perils. Anxiety leads us to think there's something to fear, even when there isn't. And fear, needless to say, is the antithesis of flow, that engaged state of mind in which whatever you're doing feels nearly effortless.
I collect fears. Here is a selection of them based on interviews I've done with writers and from students I've taught. Do any of these sound familiar?
- The worry that the work isn't good enough
- The fear that I have no talent.
- The fear that, if anyone notices my work in the first place, they won't like it.
- The fear of appearing foolish.
- The fear of not being able to finish a long project, or of dying before it's done.
- The fear that I've wasted my time.
- The fear of offending somebody.
- A terror of leaping into the abyss of the imagination.
- Feeling I'm in over my head, that I won't be able to do this without appearing stupid.
- The fear that I'll run out of ideas and never be able to produce anything again.
It may be that no one is immune to such fears. "Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing without blushing—shivering and wishing to take cover?" wrote Virginia Woolf (quoted in Lyndall Gordon's Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life).
The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace, who, like Woolf, committed suicide, was interviewed in 1997 on NPR's Fresh Air. Asked by Terry Gross whether, when he was a teen tennis player, his self-consciousness interfered on the court, he said, yes, of course. He went on to wonder whether perhaps those listening have "this part in their brain" that allows them to turn off thoughts of "what if I double fault on this point, or what if I miss this free throw, or what if I don't get this strike with the entire bowling team hanging around."
Wallace at first figured "this stuff" doesn't occur to professionals, then added, "but when I hung out with pro players for the tennis essay, it occurred to me that they have some kind of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off." Such self-consciousness, he said, is "literally paralyzing. You can end up like a bunny in the headlights." Wallace couldn't turn it off and gave up tennis.
We'll never know how well he was able to turn it off while he wrote, though it's obvious that he used his anxiety creatively by writing about it, sometimes fictionalizing it and sometimes not.
DOES IT MATTER TOO MUCH?
One of the students in a recent online class of mine was serious about her writing, to the point of researching an MFA program to attend. She turned in her first two assignments. Fine. But the due date for the third one came and went, and although I'm extremely flexible about deadlines for these noncredit classes, she wrote me more than once to apologize:
"Oh, I'm so sorry my assignment is late. I wasn't going to email you with a list of excuses because it's no one's fault but my own. Over the weekend, every time I sat down to try to write something I blanked out. I think it is possibly a bit of anxiety because this is the kind of thing I would love to write. It would be a dream for me to publish an article or something, anything, someday.
"Is this writer's block? I should have at least 50 things I could write about. I have been carrying a notebook and pen everywhere I go for 5 days, just in case an idea pops in and I can write it down right away. Nothing. Blank screen. My husband tried to throw some ideas at me last night. I couldn't write about any of them, and then my stomach got in knots. Well, I apologize, and want you to know I am usually a responsible person, and take the assignments seriously."
MAKE IT SMALLER
My best suggestion: Trivialize the task. That's the phrasing of a tip I read somewhere years ago in an essay about time management. I adopted it as one of my mantras because it really works. For a writer, for example, what this means is accepting that a creative career or a creative life is a long evolving process, not a single product—and certainly not an unpolished draft of a product.
It helps to think of yourself as playing at whatever you're doing. If it feels like work and nothing but work, maybe you're doing it wrong. Because you can't fail. You just try again, or you try something else, or you try in a different way.
Some choices really do matter. Take Philippe Petit, the fellow who more than 30 years ago stretched a cable between those New York towers, 1350 feet high. And then walked back and forth on that cable eight times. (Show-off!) In a documentary, Man on Wire, Petit says he remembers thinking, "Death is very close."
For me, that puts sitting down at my computer to play with words into a more realistic perspective. How much does any one day's output—merely a single bit of creative effort—really matter? I mean that in the most profound existential sense.
Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry