Shoot the Sheriff: How to Overcome Writer’s Block

"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ~ Sylvia Plath.

So, there I was in front of the students at Zelda Glazer Middle when an aspiring writer asked the dreaded question: "How do you overcome writer's block?" 

Ah, youth! She probably didn't know that her innocent query was the equivalent of asking an actor about the Scottish play in a theatre. It is verboten. 
Still, I was kind and answered from my own experience. 

Whenever I have suffered from writer's block, it's because I have smalled-up myself. Usually it's a reaction to post-publication depression, anemic royalties, and/or unfair/devastating reviews. If all three happen at the same time, watch out! 

But even in the midst of disaster, I've noticed a pattern of expectations versus results. It takes an enormous amount of energy to conceive and finish a poem or short story. Imagine what it takes to complete a book of poems, short stories or a novel and then, to encounter critical and/or commercial failure? 

Don't get me wrong, I love writing. It's the most fun you can have without taking your clothes off. And writing, like making love, which requires tenderness and attention, should be approached with anticipation and joy. If it feels like a chore, then you're in the wrong business. 

Whenever I've gone through a period of writer's block, it feels as if I've dried up. It's no longer pleasurable. Then, insidious questions begin to flood my mind:  What makes you think that your writing is any good? Is this rejection and public humiliation worth the effort?
Writers from every culture face these kinds of questions and life is hard enough just being human. But when you add racism and historical/cultural influences--some people are entitled to speech and some are not--then, the questions take on an added dimension. We doubt our right to speak or to promote our own work. We lack confidence in our own voice.

And given the reticence in Jamaican/Caribbean culture, which is a direct result of 400 years of colonial propaganda designed for convince us that our lives are inferior to those in the "mother country," other questions bubble up: Who the hell do you think you are?
I've heard it in my head whenever I picked up a pen. I've felt it when I've read in front of an audience, especially in Jamaica. We are notoriously hard on each other and it's a symptom of tendency nurtured by either fear or envy, "Sammy plant piece a corn down a gully," that fears success and will kill anyone who does not conform or dares to let her light shine. 

On the Plantation, we have proverbs that caution against success, "The higher monkey climb," and names for the ones that drag others down, "Crabs in a barrel." Or the really nasty one, "Neyga cyaan see neyga prosper." But more, anon. 

To make the choice "to stay eager," I've had to figure out ways to bring myself back to writing without the thought of publishing because writing and publishing are two different processes. 

Whenever I am writing verse, I am only thinking about finding the right word, metaphor, and rhythm that best express the ideas and emotions in the poem. I like to think that I am writing from the Spirit. 

Publishing is another matter. Publishing plunges me into the world of samara where measuring, competition, and ego rule. Any writer who says she is not competitive is a boldfaced liar. We all have bills to pay and would sell our mothers for a lucrative publishing contract. 

So, as with everything else in life, it's a balance between the Spirit and Ego--your life's passion and material desires. Both should be acknowledged. We drive ourselves crazy when we step over into the chaos of ego/samsara and forget to create out of who we are. Writer's block is an affliction not only of the mind, but also of the spirit. 

In those dark moments when envy and anger cloud my mind and I feel as if I am drowning in self-pity, the self-defeating voices creep in: "Look at X, she is getting all of that fame, attention, and money, and all I have is my cat. And on some days, not even he likes my company." 

We crave validation from others because writing is a form of communication, which implies exchange/ transfer with at least one other person. Sometimes it's hard to find that ONE person. Your mother doesn't count. 

How do I climb out of the hellhole of thoughts that I've created in my own mind? How do I big-up myself, even when the world seems so huge and I am so small? 

Here are some starters: 

Breathe deeply and reorient myself. Just as there is a time to reap, there is a time to sow. Seventy-five percent of the living, reading, and researching never makes it into a finished piece of writing, so every now and then, it's necessary to step back from the writing, change my routine, and dig deeper into listening, reading, resting, and living. In those times, I remind myself with the wisdom of my mother who would say to me with her Rock of Ages voice, “This, too, shall pass, my son. This, too, shall pass. Be kind to yourself.” 

Spend time with my friends and family. Writing is a solitary vocation that takes up much of my daily life. There have been occasions when I've viewed writer's block as a blessing. It gave me time to reconnect with my friends and family who reassured me that I was not alone--even if the cat wouldn't come near me. 

I count my blessings. I am grateful for all the opportunities I've had over many years of writing and publishing. I am proud of every book that I've published. I've never published a book merely to say that I'm a published author. 

Remember my heroes. In particular, I think about what Bob Marley said at the "Smile Jamaica" concert: "The people, who were trying to make this world worse... are not taking a day off. How can I? Light up the darkness." Occasionally, this increases my anxiety about writing, but it has proven, at least on one occasion, to be an inspiration with Bob Marley and Bradford's iPod.
Sheriff John Brown always hated me
For what I don't know.
Every time I try to plant a seed.
He say 'Kill it before it grow'

Fear is a natural part of human life. It has kept the species alive for millennia. But, then, there's irrational fear that paralyzes healthy living. "We're all weird." But some of us are still stuck in the zeitgeist of the Plantation. We fear if one cog goes loose, the culture will fall apart. It won't.

Enter the Deputy or anyone from your past/present who says you are not good enough or you'll never make it. I don't have to go on. You know your own daemon better than I do. It's not their fault. They merely provide the triggering event. You can take it from there. 

Freedom came my way one day
And I started out of town, yeah!
All of a sudden I saw Sheriff John Brown
Aiming to shoot me down,
So I shot - I shot - I shot him down and I say:
If I am guilty I will pay. 

The problem is the Sheriff and for your survival, you have to shoot the Sheriff or the inner critic--whatever you want to name her. Or 

Trick the Sheriff. Sooner or later, if you are passionate about writing (as opposed to the idea of being a writer), you will feel the urge to write again, but your heart won't be in it. You'll have to fall in love with the process of creating to regain your confidence.

If the part of my mind that generates creative work through poetry by using rhythm and metaphor has shut down, I turn to non-fiction by writing articles and blogging. It gets the juices flowing because I'm going through the creative process of researching, distilling, and combining information about something that I am passionate about while at the same time being of service.

Then, follow the advice of Mary Heaton Vorse: "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."

Here are a few other sites that may help you to overcome writer's block: 

I mean, who wants to end up living here?


Cynthia James said…
Love this piece on how to overcome writer's block. Shoot the Sheriff ... O so honest, O so true! Cynthia
Give thanks, Cynthia.
Another title could have been, "Keep the Faith."

One Heart,
Nicole Moore said…
Hi Geoffrey - thanks for this, made me smile. I've always tried to deny writers' block until just recently when it reared it's ugly head so I ended up blogging about it yesterday:
I liked your references to Bob Marley too!
Nicole Moore said…
Hi Geoffrey, Thanks for this advice (hope it works as it didn't 1st time). I ended up with writers block and wrote a blog post about it yesterday
Liked the Bob Marley references!

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