Monday, February 26, 2007

Crisis Analysis

I am a big fan of ‘how to’ writing books; I could open a generously stocked library with my collection, so I do know that there are always chapters devoted to, and even WHOLE books written on the subject of creative block.

There’s a lot of debate about whether creative block exists. Lots of authors are disparaging about the condition, suggesting that it’s a self-indulgence. Certainly those writing to order, like journalists, laugh derisorily and say ‘yes, well try telling your editor that you can’t meet your deadline because…’ Certainly when I’ve had a deadline for an article, I’ve never succumbed to creative crisis (though I’ve probably handed in a less well constructed piece, but I’ve always met the deadline).

But whether or not it’s officially acknowledged lots of people have experienced it - from the minor confidence wobbles to full blown paralysis. The worst experience I ever had was in the final year of my Fine Art degree. It was a terrible time to get it (and this probably contributed to the pressure) but I was very lucky to have a gentle tutor who was sympathetic. The Pull Yourself Together school of thought doesn’t work well with this condition.

For me the experience is characterized by something (a voice, a demon) in my head telling me I can’t write, I’m rubbish, why am I wasting my time, etc. (I realize that this sounds like a serious psychiatric disorder, but since it’s only telling me I’m crap and not to go out and murder someone, I’m fairly certain it’s not that condition!) I don’t know what it’s like for other people but I know that their experiences are similar. It’s utterly paralyzing.

As I recovered from my crisis in college I realized that what had happened was that I’d lost my faith – not a religious faith, but my faith or belief in my creative ability. I’d taken it for granted; damn, until it was gone, I didn’t even know I had it.

I understood something else aswell: having had postnatal depression after my daughter was born, I think that creative block and depression are close cousins. Or is depression the result of the creative crisis? Of course not being able to create is not the worst thing in the world to happen to someone, but if your good mental health depends upon you doing something creative, it is fairly damaging.

I haven’t got the answer here other than being gentle with yourself. I don’t know if it’s more naval gazing to be trying to rationalize it, but I do know beating yourself up about it when that’s what your demon is doing, isn’t the remedy.

I read somewhere recently that artists need their inner critic/demon/voice in order to get better, edit their work and so on. What you don’t want to do is silence it for ever because those critical faculties are essential. Maybe creative crisis is part of the writing process, perhaps it’s just a question of balance.

I’m not very good in the cold weather. I know that getting up and moving is the best thing for this, but I find it nearly impossible to do. I often say to people that I’m going to be one of those old ladies who sit in their chair, can’t move and die of hyperthermia. Creative crisis is a bit like that. You know that writing/painting/sculpting/whatever it is is the best cure, but you just can’t find the energy/belief to do it.

Julia Cameron has a trick that worked with me in college. In 'The Right to Write' she calls it an 'artist date' and it's about wooing your creative conscious. It needs to be nourished. I think of it like a bank account: you have to fill it up in order to draw on it. You may not be short of resources, but making the deposit can sometimes be a pleasure all of its own.


hesitant scribe said...

Writer's Block is a fascinating area. I am completely with you on the old demonic voice that tears at away at our hard won word choices, criticising us into a corner. I've found Dorothea Brande's approach, in On Becoming a Writer, most useful. She talks about the writer having a dual nature, the creative versus the critic, and that we need to learn how to harness the gifts of each.

Another good book is Understanding Writing Blocks by Keith Hjortshoj. Loads of theorising and methods used to overcome blocks.

I've just realised, after 10,000 words, that I've been telling the wrong story in the wrong way. That's why I hit a bit of a wall. I need to sit back and think of the novel as a completed whole. So I'm planning again, and then some reading of fiction I aspire to, helps me to get past those stagnant times.

I'm sure you'll find something that works for you. I need complete privacy to write, or I feel self-conscious and the critic becomes stronger than the creative.
I also need a clear direction, and an end vision of where I'm headed, or I find I can't move on.

Maybe you could try Brande's suggestion of writing first thing in the morning, before you hear or read anything (and when you still half asleep), or last thing at night when you're very tired, and the critical voice quietens down a little.

The other thing is to change medium for a bit - do something practical. This works for me, and I often get all inspired again whilst doing something completely different (like macrame, or horse riding).

Good luck! x

Carol and Chris said...

JJ - I am not going to be able to give you any advice on how to beat the block but what I can do is provide you with a 'doing something completely different' (although I'm not convinced you will come away feeling inspired). Having just spent the ENTIRE week with my in-laws you can stop me going completely insane :-)

Seriously - There is some great advice being given by your fellow writers....I'm sure you will be able to beat this.

C x

JJ said...

Hi there

Thanks for your support. It's getting better, a little better, a little bit at a time. I took some care writing yesterday's posting which made me write, and is a safe place for me (article type, not fiction) The demon has always beaten me, I always give up. But not this time. I'm not giving up and at some point the demon has to realise that, shut the fk up and let me get on with it!

I am restarting chapter one hesitant scribe, but nothing is wasted. The work I've done up to now has put me in the position to realise a)where the story starts and b)some of the original stuff is not part of the story but was acquainting me with my characters. I'm on my own tonight so am planning to get some work done. CANNOT show up at coffee a whinger again! You are so right about doing something else different - that's the date with your inner artist theory I think. I went back and read 'Small Island' not because it's like my writing, but because she writes with such beautiful and individual voices.

C, much as one loves one's in-laws, they are hard work full time. I am officially very good with parents (ask Ivan) so I will woo them tomorrow night!


Lucy Diamond said...

Hope you've had a good writing day today. I think that getting stuck is part of the whole process - it's just frustrating and a bit scary when it happens. Don't beat yourself up about it, though. You'll get through it.

Glad you've sorted out your characters and story opening. That seems a good, positive step forward. 'Nothing's wasted' is a good thing to be telling yourself, too. It's all part of the journey, if that doesn't sound too cheesy!

Keep going, anyway. I'm sure you can write through the block!

Helen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen said...

I've just deleted my last comment (which I've now added underneath) as I noticed I had added in a paragraph in the middle that should have been at the end. That'll teach my to write a comment whilst my 3 year old is busy unpacking my parcel from Dermalogica!

My comment is as follows!

Like Hesitant Scribe I wrote about 20,000 words before I realised that it wasn't exactly as I wanted it. I decided to write a couple of chapters at the beginning but then went off completely differently (third person instead of first, adding in more detail, taking the flaky bits out etc, trying to give my character more depth).

So I restarted my book, but like you said nothing is wasted. I have used the good bits from this and ignored the rest. I also went on to write a plan for each chapter. This may not work for you, but for me it helps when I think s**t what happens now and I can consult my planner. (even though I'm only on chapter 3 in my plan and chapter 8 in my book!!). Often something from there sparks me off.

Now I need to crack on and sort out this lethargy towards my non-fiction work!

hesitant scribe said...

Hope this finds everyone well, and satisfied with where your up to.

JJ - beat that Demon down!

Yes - I'm trying to console myself with the thought that nothing is wasted. I have discovered what I want the novel to 'be', how it is structured, so that's very positive!

Plus I had a fantastic riding lesson today and starting to feel like I know what I'm meant to do even if I'm not quite doing it yet... a bit like writing this novel ha ha!

liz fenwick said...

Hang in there JJ. I'm with you at the moment but I do know it will pass. Did you see the link on Caroline's blog very appropriate.

JJ said...

Hello everyone

Thanks for all your lovely words. I'm feeling more positive, but I haven't yet managed to test that feeling out by getting back to the novel.

The last few days have been spent doing webmaster stuff, preparing info and Dreamweaver lesson, meetings, party, sleeping to catch up with lost sleep at having a life. And today I have to make a start on an article due on Monday/Tuesday.

I just hope when I get down to writing I keep that positive feeling!