Sunday, June 20, 2004

Just Keep Playing Your Scales

This week's New Yorker, the annual fiction issue, has a fascinating essay on a subject near and dear to the heart of many writers: writer's block. Written by the magazine's dance writer, Joan Acocella, it thus becomes perhaps the first of her pieces I've ever read (sorry, but I don't do dance, and I don't do much fiction either--if you don't count anything by Richard Ford, Paul Theroux, Mark Twain or Henry James).

But do read this piece if you get a chance--it's a treat. Acocella delivers up a nice compact narrative history of "artistic inhibition," concluding that writer's block is a largely American phenomenon, which society has come to assign a kind of "bleak dignity." And of course our therapeutic culture coupled with our Amway-snake-oil-salesman underbelly gives rise to products designed to cure what ails us. She mentions a guy who sells tapes (for the low, low price of just $77) designed to help one blast through their blockage. One of his suggestions: repeating to yourself such affirmations as "I am a richly talented writer." That oughta work every time. Hell, I could sell advice like that for a lot less...

In the end, I think she gets it right when she raises the possibility that a philosopher named Ian Hacking is correct about how once you invent a category, people have a way of fitting themselves into it. "Possibly, some writers become blocked simply because the concept exists, and invoking it is easier for them than writing."

In the end, professional writers know that rookies overvalue inspiration and undervalue perspiration. If you condition the mind, fingers and especially your rear end to sit in a place every day and write, you will write. It may not be as elegant as Shakespeare and it may not get published, but at least you won't have writer's block to blame. Of course, there is always one other possibility, an obvious one that too many people overlook: you may not have anything much to say. In which case, put your pen or your PC away, and get back to it when you do. Or even better yet, stick it out and get in the habit of downloading thoughts from brain to page, and eventually you'll have something.

But let me bring in to the discussion a couple of writers whom Acocella doesn't mention but who I think have something valuable to add. Bonni Goldberg, in Beyond Words, argues that "the only true obstacle to writing creatively is a lack of faith that appears as fear and self-judgment." I've said it before: writers have to stubbornly ignore those negative, rule-laden voices of their seventh-grade English teachers, who were probably non-writers, and who taught that writing is merely comprised of mastering the rules of English composition and grammar. Instead, the way we learn to write is to read, and then to try it ourselves, and finally to seek guidance and advice from other writers. That's it. Goldberg also helpfully talks about the different cycles of the writing process--percolation, revision (rewriting) and going public (publication or other forms of sharing it with readers). And percolation of course is key. I've always said that we need to read about one million words before we can ourselves write a sentence worth reading. And no matter how experienced or accomplished you might be or how long you've been at writing, if you stop reading everything and learning everything you can from your environment, you'll also be affected in your own writing.

But let's give an old master the last word on this father's day, shall we? Gruff old Norman Mailer, who has sat his ass down in the chair for many decades of toil, has understandably been dismissive of the sillier aspects of the aspiring writer industry. When asked once at a public event where he finds his inspiration, he unsmilingly shot back "It finds me."

He expands a bit on the theme in The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing. "There may be too much of a tendancy among young intellectuals to thing that if one can develop a consciousness, if one is able to brood sensitively and incisively on one's own life, and on the life of others for that matter, one will be able to write when the time comes. That assumption, however, may not recognize sufficiently that the ability to put words on a page also comes through years of experience and can become a skill nearly separate from consciousness and bear more resemblance to the sophisticated instincts of fingers that have been playing scales for a decade."


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