Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Problem of Not Writing

When it comes to writers, we take it for granted that the experience of not being able to write, the so-called ‘writer’s block’, has to be agonizing. Yet, many people, not just writers, cannot bring themselves to do things, important things. Unlike writers, they do not clothe their distress in dramatic language (we have not yet heard of ‘lawyer’s block’ or ‘teacher’s block’). They suffer quietly without enshrining their inactivity in drama, and then, they either do their work, or do something else. What would happen if we applied similar standards to writers? If you are a writer and cannot and do not write – would it not be natural to suggest that you do something else, and stop calling yourself a writer. After all, not everyone has to write. So, either writers are gluttons for self-dramatization and suffering, or (perhaps and/or) our intuitive ideas about writers, who they are, what they do, and how, are not entirely correct.

So let us present an unintuitive proposition: A writer is not a person who writes, but a person whose process of self-development depends on writing. The horrors incurred by not being able to write are then not just horrors of not completing a task at hand. It is not about one’s work, it is about self that without the necessary process – writing - cannot evolve with experience. Not writing then is not akin to failure at work, but failure at being oneself. This is why not being able to write can feel like slow death; why a suggestion of giving up writing altogether is chilling. It is as if someone suggests you jump through an ice-hole in a frozen lake, let yourself be trapped under the surface, looking out to the blue sky through a foot of ice, slowly numbed until there is nothing else. Perhaps.

The implied difference between writerly and other professions need not exist. For those whose continued, evolving selfhood genuinely depends on their work (be it teaching, gardening, or lawyering), the process of not doing it would incur as much suffering as writers seem to experience during their ‘blocks’. And to the skeptic’s voice, accusing me of freely granting hard-earned ‘writer’ status to thousands of suffering souls hovering over their computers not writing a single word, I can only respond: “What is it to you?”

10 comments:

J.D. said...

I understand your point and agree. To add: Teachers and lawyers hardly "suffer quietly without enshrining their inactivity in drama."

Like writers, they torment their coworkers, families, bosses, et cetera, with their drama because they cannot perform the duties of their calling.

The difference is a few writers have chosen to record their sufferings for perpetuity, so we are aware that they dramatize their suffering.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, j.d., for this comment. Your point is well taken. No doubt people in many occupations do torment their families and co-workers when they cannot do their jobs. And you are no-doubt right, also, that writers' states of not being able to write have become salient precisely because they write about them. Do you think perhaps that the dancer Martha Graham was correct when she said: “The difference between the artist and the non-artist is not the greater capacity for feeling. The secret is that the artist can objectify, can make apparent the feelings we all have” (cited by Howard Gardner, 1993, Creating minds: An anatomy of creativity seen through the lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Graham, and Gandhi, p. 298)? Or is the only difference, as you suggest, that, like snails, we writers leave a trace behind us?

J.D. said...

I think you have hit on one of the factors with which we can measure the power of an artist (including writers): Picasso, for instance, had a greater capacity for feeling--a hypersensitivity, a dial tuned to a different channel. He was picking up hi-def emotions before hi-def existed. Ditto Plato, Shakespeare, Faulkner, others.

More pedestrian artists can describe those feelings we all have. The greats transcend normal emotions and give us something we couldn't find in life, which is why they are remembered.

Terry Finley said...

Good article.
Thanks for sharing.

Terry Finley

http://theterryfinleysite.blogspot.com/

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much, Terry. I did not know about your website, on short stories: very interesting. We have added it to our list of sites.

Lenze Willi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lenze Willi said...

I am not a writer although I suffer from writer's block. Although not a writer there are many things that I need to commit to paper, documents to produce and disseminate. These are invariably dry reports or recommendations coughed up for the commercial world. But in producing them I am often seized with an empty mind, I have no idea how I should begin, where I should take it and so on. This usually leads me to understand that it would help enormously if I left the PC and mowed the lawn for an hour or two.

I have also suffered badly from 'salesman's block". Periods when I quite sharply have no idea at all about how to find a potential customer, how to approach one, how to present the product, zilch. Instead I can only shy away from any attempt at work, and instead engage myself in various diversionary activities while still half-heartedly going through the motions of selling. But there is no feeling there, no power. A potential client would be embarrassed by my half-hearted, apologetic, hopeless routine, both of us aware that I am not persuading anyone to do anything. A block as effective and as real as writer's block. Is there any connection? Does the writer sell his ideas? Does the salesman tell a story? You could persuade me of this connection. Further, I think that we could find many more similar blocks that reflect the same issues. So can we think that this 'block', although more visible and coherent in the case of the writer, is in fact a disruptive state that occurs to the person in general. A condition where he is unable, for a period of time, to exercise something that he is normally master of?

That's all.

Lenze Willi

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Lenze, for this comment. You say you are not a writer, but you then write a rather effective story about having an empty mind when you need to write something, and about feeling blank when you ought to be meeting a client. I think you are right: the "block" is a disruptive state, and it happens generally. I certainly find that. Does it come, perhaps, from being able to make plans, and then thinking that we are in charge of them?

Lenze Willi said...

Hmmm.... My feeling is that the block comes from a temporary inability to develop thoughts about the future. Or perhaps simply an inability to describe them. You suggest that I wrote, "a rather effective story" but my feeling is that what I wrote was an account about something that had happened rather than a story about something that had not yet happened. My 'block' then concerns my inability to invent the future rather than my ability to recount the past. Could this be described as the difference between a journalist and a writer. I agree that both of them "engage in writing behaviour" but there remains an essential difference in the essence of what they do. Perhaps.

Keith Oatley said...

What an interesting idea, Lenze. I was thinking that, when we construct a plan in a voluntary kind of way, we assume we are in charge of it, so we are distressed when something seemingly involuntary occurs, and we don't do what we intended. But, on your proposal, our blocks occur when we do not imagine the future strongly enough, just as a novelist may fail to prompt us to imagine a story vividly enough. If we can imagine our plan really well, it pulls us along—is that it?—gives us the go to get going with it.

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