I have a friend who is struggling to complete a dissertation. Entire days can go by without writing a single sentence. Sitting at the computer is an exercise in fear and frustration.
To say my friend has writer’s block is — well, you know, just another label. But like so many labels, it has a measure of usefulness. It’s interesting to read the Wikipedia entry on Writer’s Block. It describes the condition not only as the inability to write, but also “as the affected writer viewing their work as inferior or unsuitable, when in fact it could be the opposite.”
Eek. Even when I am voluble in my literary output, I never quite dodge the bullet of thinking my work is “inferior or unsuitable.” I usually come up with a more colorful or earthy way of describing it. I don’t think this is humility. True humility would be the ability to simply write at the best of one’s ability, to learn from constructive criticism, and then go about one’s business, not worrying too much about what other people think. No, I’m not there. I have a running commentary within me that gleefully points out every weakness, muddled argument, vague description, or ambiguous meaning that can be found. I’m too busy judging my writing to block it!
How do we let go of writer’s block? Of the tendency to condemn our own handiwork, without even bothering to get a second opinion? Like so many writers (Anne Lamott leaps to mind), I just muddle through — I do the writing, I post it to this blog or send it off to my editor, and then hope for the best. I suppose that’s better than not writing at all, but there’s a level on which such self-damnation really sabotages my joy; which means I am not being faithful to the fruit of the Spirit; which means there is sin lurking in there somewhere.
My friend is a person of faith, and so we have talked about the relationship between writer’s block and sin. Like me, my friend works hard to avoid allowing recognition of sin to become an occasion for self-shaming. Saying “I sin by beating myself up” is not meant to be an occasion for further self-flagellation! Rather, by acknowledging our own woundedness, brokenness, and willful turning away from God’s love, we simply create the space within us to turn back to the source of life.
I wonder if there is some way to open up the writer’s block experience as a doorway into contemplation? It’s funny: I sit to rest in silence before God, and my mind chatters away, filled with distractions. My friend sits down at the computer, only to encounter the most unwelcome silence. But what if the silence of writer’s block were to be an occasion for prayer? And for me, what if I met the voice within me that says my work’s not good enough with the same gentle silence by which I greet the distractions that arise during prayer? It seems that silence really can be a writer’s best friend. But like silence in all areas of life, it must be welcomed in order for that quality of friendship to emerge.