I 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.