This is a piece of writing about not writing. Every writer experiences this in their own uniquely terrifying way. If we peered into the psyche of every writer, we’d see this amorphous chimera of a creature; the tangled roots of the writer’s particular creative wounds, childhood patternings, beliefs around creativity, purpose, and work attached to the underside of its ravenous belly, feeding it toxic information that is then passed onto the suffering writer. The litany of intricate causes and contributing factors in what is commonly known as “writer’s block” is extensive and exhaustive.
Sometimes, all a writer can do is write about not writing.
The curse of perfectionism is a close cousin to addiction. Combine that with an aberrant condition that I call ” fear of lack of an idea”, and what you get is a challenging psychological bind for someone who loves writing as much as I do.
As a younger creative, I too experienced it as a BLOCK; a monolith of total and utter nothingness. I would desparately want to write fiction, but my inner critic had strong opinions about the right kind of ideas that constituted true creativity. Very often I would feel a kind of constriction, like someone had their hands around the very part of my mind where the ideas were attempting to flow out. Pen poised on the page, the sense of an imminent outpouring would be reduced to a laboured trickle of half-birthed sentences, scratched-out phrases and jeering blank space.
So I resorted to copious journal-writing. There, my inner critic couldn’t thwart me, and if I read back over them now, there are so many sections where my recurring themes and emerging style are apparent. For example, I have always written about the sexual experiences I was having at the time in my journals. And its connection to body image, relating, gender dynamics, and love.
As a younger writer/ theatre-maker, I chiselled patiently away at the block I seemed to have around taking my creative impulses seriously, and then cultivating sustained, loving attention to bring them into being. I had enough ‘successes” to challenge my Inner Critic. I doggedly did Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”, the blocked artist’s rite of passage.
Yes. Every damn list and arduous Morning Pages session, every painfully self-absorbed excavating-your-childhood AGAIN exercise.
I had to cure myself of my memories of being a precociously bright child, who could create clever, pretty things three times as fast as anyone else my age, winning adult approval with seemingly no real effort on my part. My creativity process up until middle adolescence was like lighting a fire. It started with the spark of an idea, and with easily-found twigs and branches, very quickly flourished into a crackling, marshmallow-toasting fire.
Gather round. Look what I made.
Sometimes it even felt accidental. I did what I did, but I couldn’t really get the hang of how I was doing it before I was winning first prizes in short story and poetry competitions, and representing my primary school for an essay-wriitng competititon on some dull civic theme.
The problem was, I didn’t trust my own creative writing voice as a young adult, and I didn’t value or even see the subjects I wrote well about. I wanted a different kind of creative voice. I didn’t know what that sounded like exactly, but it alienated me from my own developing voice for many, many years. I also hid my creative writing in my theatre-work as an actor, director and publicist. I hid it in the writing of short scripts, radio plays, monologues, programme notes, theatre press releases, theatre company manifestos, character exploration.
Now, most often, as a published fiction writer taking my writing seriously, there’s actually effort involved. (What?!) I can still fluke a 20-minute publishable flash fiction piece or a decent poem written over a coffee every now and then. But mostly, patience and effort are now involved. Experience has taught me over the last few years that when I tend to any of my ideas for a piece of creative writing, I generally get a creative outcome I’m satisfied with.
So, why, lately, have I regressed to an earlier phase of my creative development, and stopped trusting my ideas? Rather than taking them out for coffee, and listening to what they have to say, I’m circling them suspiciously, trying to glean information from them without getting too close, like an email one suspects might contain a destructive virus.
Why do I feel again the near-lethal grip of my perfectionistic persona around my ideas, throttling them as they attempt to express themselves on the page or the screen?
I suspect many writers suffer from perfectionism. The curse of perfectionism is a close cousin to addiction. Combine that with an aberrant condition that I call ” fear of lack of an idea”, and what you get is a challenging psychological bind for someone who loves writing as much as I do.
I have a persistent terror of both the blank page and the stilted, sketchy idea.
My ideas must emerge, faultless, complete and incisive the first time. Mustn’t they? Or I fear I must be a complete idiot. At least, that’s what I used to feel as a teenager and all through my twenties.
It made my essay-writing at University an equivalent of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell. I’d spend nearly all of the time given on the assignment procastinating, deliberating on the different questions, then researching and writing copious notes. I’d have to get extensions, and sometimes extensions on extensions, and even then I’d only start writing in the last 3 or 4 days, and I’d have to work all night and day on them, because often I’d be doing two or three of them at once. For most of my undergraduate degree, I thought I had to start with the introduction, and write an essay in a mostly linear fashion through to the conclusion. If ever I attempted a plan, I aborted it, because it was an unfamiliar way of working to the precocious child in me.
Then, I’d annoy my fellow students and baffle my lecturers by getting a Distinction or a High Distinction. My ideas on achievement were so warped that I’d rather not hand in an essay at all and fail the subject, than hand in something I suspected I would only get an average mark for. Average for me was anything below a Distinction. God only knows what I could have achieved if someone had recognised I needed help around this. But I presented as an extremely bright student with a troubled personal and family life (my divorced mother was dying from a long, painful battle with various forms of cancer from my middle high school years to the end of my second year of University.)
So they attributed all of my disorganization to the problems at home, and no-one saw that actually part of the issue was my lack of a clear, methodical process to write an essay. I wasn’t given any tools that would help me develop the patience and humility necessary to start with a plan, be calm and methodical around research, giving myself more time on the actual writing of the essay. And the insane thing was I didn’t realise there might be an easier way, so I didn’t seek out any books on effective essay-writing. (They’re out there, right?) You see, just like my childhood self, I still hadn’t developed the how – some kind of positive, supportive process for writing. I was still painfully re-inventing the wheel every time I wrote an essay, and still in some ways, fluking it.
It wasn’t until my final undergraduate year, and then my Honours year that I grasped how much easier it was to start with a flexible sketch of a premise, a few possibilities of direction, and write the body of the essay first in chunks that didn’t have to be linear. Then, as you got a sense of it all, adjusting the introduction to fit the main body, swapping sections around in the final drafting process to enhance the flow of the argument, then writng a conclusion, which referred back to the introduction and summed up your findings.
A Revelation. Cue singing angels and radiant light pouring through clouds onto my poor tortured forehead.
This, dear readers, was knowledge hard won for me, with tens of thousands of dollars wasted on failed and repeated subjects. I could probably have done at least two degrees for the price (and time) I took to do one.
Now? I have a better understanding of creative process, the phases of becoming that a piece of writing moves through before it feels fully-formed. I’ve learnt to trust the whisper of an idea or a single sentence scrolling through my head, or an image that flares unbidden in my imagination. I’ve learnt to get it down in writing, no matter how sketchy or disjointed or bizarre. My perfectionistic persona has taken a beating through a bumpy life-road after middle childhood, and has relinquished its hold over me. But it still lurks in the background at times, stopping me from patiently meting out tentative words onto a page. My perfectionist does not like the bare-boned, scrawny idea and doesn’t want me to spend time feeding and fattening it up. I’m battling with it even now as I write this.
My perfectionist does not like the bare-boned, scrawny idea and doesn’t want me to spend time feeding and fattening it up. I’m battling with it even now as I write this.
For me, now, I don’t exactly have Writer’s Block. A more apt term would be to call it Writer’s Blur. I have plenty of ideas, but I’m having trouble focussing on any of them in order to bring them into clarity.
I can forget that this virtual space can be just for me, sometimes. It’s not only for when I have the ideas I “think” will stimulate, impress, or make my readers happy. What do I really know about that, anyway? I try always to write from a place of integrity, and sometimes, that place is one of uncertainty, or vulnerability. Sometimes it’s a bleak, desolate absence of my ability to just do it, Do I have the humility to heed the humbler idea?
Then, there are fellow female erotica authors who I admire and respect enormously, and whose blogs, and the quality of their writing totally inspire, and then (on a bad day) kind of paralyse me. Some days, I feel excruciatingly new to all this.
Surely my “virtual parlor”, as I first conceived of it when beginning this blog, can also be a place to record my creative journey, process, and aspirations; to muse on challenges, mourn creative losses, in balance to writing about the successes, the measurable achievements, the clear and blazing concepts.
A vulnerable truth: Apart from one page yesterday, I have not written any creative fiction for three months. I have not written a completed creative fictional anything for one year. One. Whole. Year.
So this post is first and foremost, for me. I’m allowing myself the forbidden luxury of processing something important for me online and in public. And in making my failure to write public, I guess I am creating the possiblilty of support, kinship, and some virtual “hurrahs” when I overcome this particular monolith of an obstacle. Are you with me? This writing about not writing, just as I am starting to unblock the flow, may be the crucial element needed to move me forward. This not writing is making me very tired and uneasy.
Sometimes, wriitng is suffering. Sometimes not writing is what causes the suffering. It’s an itch in my fingertips, a static sporadic buzz behind my eyeballs, like a badly-tuned radio. I feel it some days as a vague restlessness, other days as a melancholy tinged with existensial ennui.
What is the point of anything if I’m not writing?
And then, when I do get something written (like yesterday), the ennui evaporates. The melancholy lifts. The static stops. I am of the world once more, not apart from it. To write rights both myself, and my perceptions of the world.
When I first started writing erotica, most of it was lush, or playful, showing men and women relating positively, female characters revelling in their sexuality and their pleasure. I still want to write those kind of stories, but I’ve always been interested in the darker, fractured side of human nature and dynamics, and so of course now, some of those stories are wanting to be told. After all, this is the same person who was drawn to absurdist playwrights tackling bleak ideas about the search for meaning such as Samuel Beckett, and who leapt at the chance to direct scripts with, for example, a beheading, followed by a necrophiliac sex scene with said now-headless corpse. (If you will forgive the triple entendre, we pulled it off. With the help of a head-sized cabbage as a crucial prop.)
Perhaps that is why my perfectionistic, inner censor has returned with a renewed interest in my current creative aspirations. She liked what I was doing when I was expressing the positive face of sex and relating, and left me alone. We both concurred that to inspire and arouse our readers were wonderful and worthy aspirations. (You see, my perfectionist may have exacting standards and sadistic tendencies, but apparently, she isn’t a prude.)
If I write the darker sides of sex and relationship, I think she fears that readers will equate that directly with my own life, or be less inspired, less aroused, less interested in my work. She fears I’ll be sending negative messages out about men, sex and relating.
The truth is, I do want to inspire, but I also want to be authentic, and to encompass the dark and light of sexuality. Sometimes, sex hurts someone. Sometimes, sex has hurt me. To see those stories told is just as important.
On this theme, an artist friend sent me an apt quote only yesterday.
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’.”
Cesar A. Cruz
I have this current story called Wet Satin Plaything that I’m trying to finish for a submission call deadline in three days. I’ve been writing it, on and off, for about two years. What keeps stalling me is firstly, some elements are based on a former unhealthy relationship that I had, and secondly, the fictionalised ending is rather dark, and depicts the female character as very angry, and with more than a hint of femme fatale.
How she ends the relationship is not how I ended it. My ending was heart-wrenching for me at the time, but comparitively prosaic and well within the normative experience of relationship- endings. I want her anger and actions to come across as sanely angry, as a justifiable retaliation to how she’s been treated, not as a hysterical madwoman. I want readers to empathise and understand her actions. To explore feminine anger in a sane manner is important to me. Anger can be about suddenly, lurchingly, feeling one’s personal boundaries transgressed and violated where previously you felt only numbness. Anger can be a catalyst for both transformation and the necessary emotion to leave a destructive dynamic, particularly for women, when messages from family and society suppress women’s permission to develop a healthy expression of anger as part of their emotional palette. I would want this story to comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.
“Women have quite often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing out reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.”
`Susan Sontag from On Lies, Secrets and Silence
In fact, I have another idea for a story that I’m excited by, but I’m also perturbed by its macabre quality. I’ve frantically typed out the entire plot and story structure, but once again, writer’s blur descended for very similar reasons to the story above.
There’s also my idea for a collection of themed erotica stories, and my novella. Both of them are stalled for another reason that I suspect has something to do with my lack of experience around writing longer pieces; believing I can sustain focus and energy for a longer work, but I’ll save musing about that for another time. The gremlins plaguing that block have different faces. Though my perfectionist, I suspect, definitely plays a part.
Am I afraid I’ll lose what audience I’ve gained? Yes, and no. If I lose some, I know I’ll gain others.
So, in wriitng this post, I’ve explored several things, but what has taken me by surprise is that I’ve actually uncovered the nature of the obstacle to pursuing a new direction some of my story-telling wants (needs?) to go. In writing this, I feel like I’ve reasoned with my perfectionist persona. I’ve told her I believe I’m strong enough to weather negative or unexpected responses, and to reveal (intentionally and unintentionally) some darker aspects of my own sexual, relational experiences. In fact, in order to be in integrity with myself as a writer, a feminist, and a woman, I need also to write these kinds of stories. As a woman who has experienced both the trauma of rape and multi-orgasmic Tantric bliss, I’ve always known this moment was coming.
Let’s give Julia Cameron, one of my earlier creative recovery mentors, a moment in the spotlight, shall we?
‘ The art of making art exposes a society to itself. Art brings things to life. It illuminates us. It sheds light on out lingering darkness. It casts a beam into the heart of our own darkness and says “See?” ‘
~ from The Artist’s Way
Wish me more than luck – and look out for signs of progress…