Last summer I took a fiction-writing intensive with the absolutely lovely Meg Wolitzer. For that class, I wrote the first chapter of a novel that had been in my head for some time. As the class discussed the proper path for my anti-heroine to take over the rest of the novel I had become eager to write, a classmate suggested this touchstone. “There’s a Sufi saying,” she said. “First there is a whisper, then there is a knock, then there is a kick in the head.” In other words, the inevitability of my character’s path would be made clear to her even if she refused to accept it at first.
Cut to six months later. I have not finished my novel. I have not even written Chapter Two.I have an outline, but that’s not the same as writing it, especially when you’re not sure the outline is any good.
Plus, who am I kidding? I don’t have time to write a novel. I have three kids with eleventy-hundred extracurricular activities. My email inbox hums daily with the tyranny of the urgent. I’m already over-committed to other projects. I have, for reasons that at the moment escape me, a puppy to take care of. So I do and I go and more and more recently I feel like I’m working all day but not getting anything done.
“I think you need to get back to writing,” my husband told me last month, and last week, and last night. He’s mostly telling me this because he’s tired of me being cranky. But he remembers, even though he had to take up the slack when I wrote my last book, how happy I was doing it.
This morning a dear friend sent me this essay on writing by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan. (My friend and I saw her while out to dinner together last night.) “Thought you might be interested in this,” my friend wrote. Egan starts her essay by saying:
When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again.
Have I waited too long? Can I start again?
I still wasn’t ready to accept what the universe was telling me. So I went on Facebook, the perfect place to hide from whatever the universe is trying to tell you.
And it was there that I got kicked in the head just by clicking a link.
A writer friend had posted a link to Alexander Chee’s “21 Lies Writers Tell Themselves” from The Awl. I thought it would be fun, easy-to-digest stuff like “Facebook isn’t research.” Then I read Lie Number Six: “My writer’s block prevents me from humiliating myself.”
If there is some idea you both cannot write about and cannot let go of, the problem is usually not with the idea… you may have Stockholm Syndrome with your writer’s block. You may even have dressed your block up with the aura of a tragic romance…
From here, you can go forward with one of two narratives. One is the actual book that you were thinking of and are too afraid to write; the other is a story of yourself as a complete failure. Both will be incredibly detailed and nuanced, but one will be potentially publishable while the other will only ever appear in your private theater of pain (seats one, immediate seating available)…. You need to reverse the polarity—you need to make it so that you are afraid of not finishing, afraid of not getting the writing done, and that you’ve protected yourself only if the writing is done.
Kick. In. The. Head.
At some point, as Julia Cameron has pointed out, it becomes harder to be a blocked creative than it is to create and to do something less than perfect.
For whatever reason, writing gives me purpose and gives me joy. It just does. And maybe I have gotten sick enough of missing it that it’s time to sit down with my fear.
By the way: I keep Googling around for this Sufi saying– a whisper, a knock, a kick in the head– and I can’t find it. Maybe there’s no such saying. But there should be.
Anyone else want to try this with me?