Long periods of harsh drought

hand holding penI recently watched a biography about Woody Allen, in which the comedic legend said that throughout his career, he’s never suffered from writer’s block.

No kidding. In addition to his numerous essays and plays, Allen’s been writing and directing a movie a year since the 1970s. His voluminous output makes Shakespeare look like a literary lightweight.

Unlike Allen, I suffer from writer’s block pretty much all the time. I don’t know why. I used to write a lot more when I was younger, but in those days my writing was more careless and less structured. I just jotted down whatever thoughts popped into my head and called it good.

So interestingly, when I took courses to improve my writing, they made me not want to write anymore. I focused more on structural perfection than interesting content. Instead of jotting down all those frenzied ideas, I was too busy rewriting the opening sentence until it was grammatically sound. And then I’d get so frustrated that I’d rip up my writing.

So I think perfectionism plays a role in my chronic affliction. You can’t dam a flow without compromising the stream. But unlike a reservoir, those ideas don’t pool up and swell. Unless they’re unleashed, they dry up and vanish.

And where there once gushed a river, all that’s left is a tricking stream. And not only is it shallow, but it’s also murky and stagnant.

For any writer, the inability to create can be a cruel and insufferable pain. A desiccated imagination can make even the simplest task — such as writing a thank-you note —  seem like an arduous trek through the 40-Mile Desert. Whenever such dry spells develop in my life, they’re always long and harsh and unforgiving — a never-ending drought with no inspiring drizzle.

I’ve never understood writer’s block. It’s like the appendix of creative ailments — a malady with no obvious purpose. Only the human mind could concoct such a ridiculous, self-limiting issue. It’s like being a baseball pitcher who has no arms, or a pilot who’s too afraid to fly. Why would the human mind harbor a skill, then prevent that skill from being fully expressed?

Again, I think it comes back to perfectionism. All of us strive to be the best we can be, and none of us wants to fall short of our own expectations. When it comes to your craft — whatever it may be — the standards you set for yourself often far exceed the standards by which you judge others.

I think all of us want to create something that’s meaningful and lasting. It’s a noble aspiration, and one that’s unmistakably human. When you’re a writer, you trust your work is going to far outlive you. (Unless you’re Woody Allen, who plans to achieve immortality by not dying. And at this rate, it appears he might pull it off.)

Writers have to write. Lofty goals and good intentions get you nowhere. I know this, and yet the editor on my shoulder keeps trying to dam the flow — to limit the stream of ideas that wants to gush through my fingertips.

Even now, I’m fighting the urge tinker with the previous paragraph. I can still hear my English 241 professor lecturing me on the improperness of what she called the “alone ‘this,’” by which she meant a “this” that’s used to sum up a previously stated idea.

If she were reading this blog post, she’d most certainly strike through the sentence that says “I know this” and write in red ink: “Do not use ‘this’ to summarize a thought! State in full what you mean!”

These are the voices I hear whenever I write, fussy and stubborn and uptight — and more concerned with structure than substance. And when they chorus too loudly, they temper that surging creativity until it’s merely a trickle — leaving a murky stream where there could have been a river.

But I’m ready to flick that miniature editor off my shoulder and unleash the flow. I’m tired of this dry riverbed carved through the middle of my mind. I’m craving rain, and I’m ready for the drought to end.

Writing is like life: you just got to jump in and allow yourself to be carried away in the current. Whether the water’s surging or whether it’s merely a dribble, sooner or later we’re all going to end up downstream.

I know this … which is why I’m working to pull away from my perfectionism, and to learn to float along with the flow.

20 comments on “Long periods of harsh drought

  1. My goodness, I’m so glad I’ve never taken a creative writing course. I still get writer’s block from time to time, but at least the problems are all my own and not ones that somebody else has invented for me, such as “Never use the word ‘this’ to summarize a thought but instead state the idea in full.”

    Never using the word ‘this’ to summarize a thought but instead stating the idea in full does not seem like something that would necessarily improve my writing. If the teacher said, “Never use ‘this’ to summarize a thought but instead state the idea in full” to me, I’d probably tell her that a rule about never using the word ‘this’ to summarize a thought but instead stating the idea in full sounds like far more trouble than it’s worth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Come to think of it, that so-called rule of hers had to be a personal preference. I’ve never heard of it anywhere else. And besides, who says a “this” can’t be alone? Maybe “this” wants to be alone. Maybe “this” has had a series of bad relationships and wants to focus on itself for a while. We don’t know. It’s presumptuous and condescending to say that “this” needs a partner to live a full and meaningful existence. “This” is getting by just fine without going on blind dates or attending singles’ events, thank you very much. If “this” wanted a relationship with a verb or a noun or even a preposition, it could easily go out and get one! “This” is an independent and completely fulfilled word, and I for one will support its right to remain single, if that’s what it so chooses.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. In writing workshops, they say to write your entire article, letting the ideas flow freely without stopping for any corrections. After you are done, you can go back and edit, fix spelling, move paragraphs, etc. Some facilitators even say to close your eyes or cover the monitor with a towel so you are not tempted to stop and “fix” stuff. If you rethink every word, you will never write anything. Works for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I used to do this (uh-oh, there’s the “alone this” again). I think I was a much better writer when I was younger because I did just what you’re saying — writing and letting the ideas flow freely.

      I was an editor for two years, and that’s what I blame for changing me. We were so focused on structure and form that after a while, that’s all I could see. Then I would apply all of that grammar perfectionism to my own writing after work, which stifled my once-creative output.

      It’s been a long time since I’ve edited anything for a living, but I’m still trying to unlearn all those bad habits and not to rethink every word. It’s an ongoing process — almost like quitting smoking!


  3. This is exactly why I like to write longhand in a notebook, to just let the words flow. There’s no delete key so I can only do minimal editing. There is more of a chance that my family will find my notebooks and read my irrelevant ramblings, it isn’t password protected, it’s mortifying, but at least it’s out of my head.

    I hope your dam is removed and the flow resumes (great metaphors by the way!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Nicole! That’s a great idea about writing longhand. I try to do that on occasion when I find that staring at a computer is putting a damper on my flow. It’s true that you can’t password-protect them, Fortunately for me, my handwriting’s so bad that nobody can make it out — including me.

      When I was high school, I filled volumes of spiral-bound notebooks, which I still have. There’s something permanent and lasting about them. Even though I don’t write much longhand anymore, I’m still always tempted to buy a blank notebook every time I’m at Big Lots or Dollar Tree. There’s nothing that sparks the creative flame so much as a new, empty notebook. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Apparently, I read somewhere that writing longhand uses the creative centre of the brain more than if you type. I think there’s something in that, I am able to write for hours this way – it’s gibberish, but it’s on the page!

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’ve convinced me — I’m heading to the dollar store right now for a new spiral-bound notebook. If you’re familiar with this blog, then you know that gibberish is my specialty. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Allen, I’m sure your former English professor meant well, and was merely trying to encourage you to expand on “this, “that’s all. But, in so doing, she seems to have overlooked English principle 104.7-54,#%&* which specifically states, and I quote, “The word ‘this’ should never be used without its companion word…that” unless the word ‘that’ precedes the word ‘this’ in which case ‘this’ would then be used improperly, and thus render the word ‘that’ completely useless.” Obviously, you simply overlooked this very WELL KNOWN principle. All she was saying was, that by failing to use the word’s ‘that’ and ‘this’ together—something your former English teacher also failed to do, I might add—your construction was wrong. Thus, when using the word’s “this” and “that” in their respective positions (this and that) they will compliment one another, and neither will be caught alone in the middle of a big bad sentence. Just avoid “that and this” being used that way and ‘this’ will take care of itself like that.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. You had me at Woody Allen – I adore him. But I enjoyed reading your post and can certainly relate. The rhythm of writing and flow of water – wonderful analogy!

    Liked by 1 person

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