What is it about writer's block? I often feel stalled, or indecisive, or ambivalent, or confused, or discouraged, all in the moment when I want to put pen to paper in a meaningful way. What is it that we want to accomplish anyway? Something well said and well sung, is what I would say.
Just one good idea could be enough to carry me through to the development of a pretty good song about that one thing. After all, I've done it hundreds of times. But it's not enough just to do what we've done before. I want to make a step. I want to move on and up. I want something wonderful.
Inspiration, that's what's needed. But something is keeping it from us. Something is either in the way, or just not allowing the inner eye to come upon something of wonder or beauty or consequence in a way that engages us. In a way that eclipses our doubts, our lack of confidence generally, or our lack of confidence in any of the ideas before us.
I must admit to a certain encounter with writer's block in preparing this article. It may be that I was experiencing some lack of confidence in having to pose as an expert on this topic, when I'm just a songwriter who may have discovered some of his own remedies and wants to share them. Sitting down to write to a family member or an old friend is the model I have used to get started when I'm not sure where to go.
Just out of curiosity though, this morning I took a look at what Wikipedia had to say about writer's block. I often find that helpful. Here are a couple of interesting paragraphs:
"The condition was first described in 1947 by Austrian psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, who described it as being caused by oral masochism, mothers that bottle fed and an unstable private love life."
I was a little disturbed to find this dire description of pathology, not what I had expected, but the article goes on to say: "The growing reputation of psychiatry in the United States made the term gain more recognition. However, some great writers may have already suffered from writer's block years before Bergler described it, such as Herman Melville, who quit writing novels a few years after writing 'Moby Dick'."
"Other blocks may be produced by adverse circumstances in a writer's life or career: physical illness, depression, the end of a relationship, financial pressures, or a sense of failure. The pressure to produce work may in itself contribute to writer's block, especially if they are compelled to work in ways that are against their natural inclination."
One idea that I have explored about writer's block, was that it was not a block at all. But it was our greater mind telling us that it was suspicious of our insistence that true inspiration would serve our presupposition. It's as if that vast sub-conscious and super-conscious resource of wisdom and understanding was unwilling to be limited only to ideas that our grasping, jealous, ambitious, hungry-ghost self is demanding. That the more lucid presence deep in all of us, was unwilling to have a filter imposed on its gifts. There must be a better way of saying this.
I remember reading that the 9/11 Commission refused to look into evidence that some people had clearly made money from shorting certain stocks in what seemed to be insider trading based on prior knowledge of the destruction of the towers. Because no link could be established between the traders and Al-Qaeda it was assumed that no crime had been committed.
If you impose conditions on the creative process, then you may defeat it. And that is when you will experience that feeling of frustration that you interpret as a block. If you let the sub-conscious mind speak freely, truth to power and all that, you may be confronted with an unwelcome idea. Or an idea that requires some processing, some soul searching. Or, as is most often the case, simply information that is not relevant enough to your hopes to show an easy path to progress with your original idea. This is why good writing can take a lot of time, and that may include rewriting as well as just living with an idea until you can 'socialize it' among all your creative faculties.
For me, it may be a matter of writing many pages, even random jottings of ideas that have been suggested by a previous idea, or the implications of an idea, without any strict editor function deciding if something is suitable. Let the editor wait until you have three or four pages of blue sky speculation before sending it up to the big boss in the frontal lobes.
Albert Einstein said, "It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer."
Play may have a role in this process. I think about the three-year-old with finger paints. The little person may throw the paint in every direction, delighting in the accidental splashes and juxtaposition of color. It may be unbearable for an adult to watch, especially if that adult is the one who will have to clean up. But this is the kind of thing we would encourage with creative writing. Let it be nonsensical, non object-oriented or unfocused, until there's enough there for the editor to appraise and decide what goes with what, and what doesn't fit or doesn't seem promising.
We need to be generous with our time, but the process can be taking place while we're on a bus, or just waking up in the morning, or taking a walk. These are the times when I have the expectation of inspiration. Also, it does seem that there are times when heightened emotion can bring clarity or insight. For me flying was always one of those times. Anxiousness can distill ideas into a clearer glimpse of what is important. Some have said that a death sentence clears the mind as well, although we'd be happy to try all the other ways first.
In his wonderful book "The Courage to Create," Rollo May has given us many helpful concepts. He wrote, "... anxiety is related to the gap between the ideal vision that the artist is trying to create and the objective results ... This fundamental contradiction, arising from the hopeless discrepancy between conception and realization, is at the root of all artistic creation, and it helps explain the anguish which seems to be an unavoidable component of that experience." "... Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Camus and Sartre have proclaimed that courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair."
In the book he quotes the closing section of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."
"Creativity is the most basic manifestation of a man or woman fulfilling his or her own being in the world ... if you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself." - Rollo May
Here's an excellent interview with Rollo May: The Human Dilemma (Part One):
Rollo May: The Human Dilemma (Part One)
Another who has written well on the difficulties of the creative process is Lewis Hyde. He has taken up the conflicts that creative people encounter in a world where art is commodified and money introduces many problems with creativity. His book, "The Gift" has been a valuable resource to so many artists since its publication in 1983. He describes one of its central tenets: "This book is about the alternative economy of artistic practice. For most artists, the actual working life of art does not fit well into a market economy, and this book explains why and builds out on the alternative, which is to imagine the commerce of art to be well described by gift exchange."
Hyde drew on the teaching of Marcel Mauss. Mauss wrote about aboriginal societies where . . . "the man or woman who is deemed worthy of adulation, respect and emulation - is not the one who accumulates the most goods but the one who disperses them. Gift economies, as Mauss defines them, are marked by circulation and connectivity: goods have value only insofar as they are treated as gifts, and gifts can remain gifts only if they are continually given away. This results in a kind of engine of community cohesion, in which objects create social, psychological, emotional and spiritual bonds as they pass from hand to hand."
"Love is something when you give it away, you end up having more." - Malvina Reynolds
Here's Lewis Hyde in a good presentation of his ideas:
One last voice I would recognize on this topic of creativity and its impediments is that of Abraham Maslow. Maslow developed the famous concept of the hierarchy of needs that must be met before the person can become self-actualized. The basics of food, water and shelter, then safety, relationships, love, self-esteem and finally self-actualization. In his book "Motivation and Personality" he wrote: "Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What human beings can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature. This need we may call self-actualization . . . It refers to man's desire for self-fulfillment, namely to the tendency for him to become actually in what he is potentially."
In this interview, he discusses how he began to study psychological health rather than pathology in humans. Here he describes the characteristics he found among his healthy subjects in the dimensions of honesty, humor, social awareness, efficient perception, freshness of appreciation, the peak experience and ethical awareness. He goes on to talk about freedom, creativity, and trust.
Abraham Maslow and Self-Actualization