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Nothing Good comes from A Blank Page

by Molly Moynahan

"Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression."  Isaac Bashevis Singer

"You can't rely on inspiration. I don't even believe in inspiration. I just believe in working. Work generates work. What frustrates me horribly is not knowing what I'm going to do next. And so you force something to happen. . . . You can't sit around thinking. You have to sit around working." David Long

I have never had writer’s block. I’m not actually sure what it means not to be able to write. One of my ex-boyfriend’s once said, “You are totally neurotic about everything but writing. With writing, you just let it go.” I was curled up in a fetus position when he said that, wailing about my lousy relationship with my father.        “What do you mean?” I asked, uncurling slightly.       “I mean, you don’t judge yourself. Good, bad, you just do it.”

I sensed criticism. “Is that bad?” I asked, sniffling. “No,” he said. “It’s just rare.”

"We can't be as good as we'd want to, so the question then becomes, how do we cope with our own badness?" Nick Hornby

I have been thinking about writer’s block because I’m trying to coach another writer to stop having it so we can do a project together. This writer, a vastly accomplished journalist, is trying to change his genre, and it’s causing him to balk. At first I secretly scoffed because I’ll do anything writing-wise. At the moment I am in the middle of a novel, I’ve just finished a guide to writing college admission essays, and I’m putting together a treatment for a Television Comedy. I’m waiting to hear from the director of a play I had read in Chicago last year, and I’m also working on the aforementioned project with the writer’s block writer.

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." Margaret Atwood

I write constantly. Sometimes my own writing makes me laugh or cry and sometimes it’s boring and/or embarrassing. But I don’t protect myself, so it is what it is. That portrait of the self-important writer holding up his hand for silence while he treats the audience to his brilliance just doesn’t work for me. I know I’m pretty good. I have also failed. This column, for example, is a sample of failure. I sent this column in to my wonderful publisher last month and he said it was “all over the place.” I read his comment and reread the column and agreed with him. However, I was miffed. I thought I could get away with being all over the place because I have natural talent. Well, talent gets you halfway up the mountain; the rest is up to you.

“Prescription for writer's block: Begin.” Cynthia Ozick

One theory I have is when you listen to yourself and decide you’re good, it’s frequently a recipe for disaster. Years ago I was a determined, occasionally talented, actress. I was cast as Grandma in Albee’s The Birthday Party, directed by a scary director who was considered a genius by my college’s theater department. He was consistently mean to me. One day during rehearsal the guy doing the lead did something new that involved spitting and I didn’t react. I was too busy trying to remember my lines and avoid the director’s rage. Of course this counter-intuitive behavior caused him to have a fit and call me a bunch of things that made me cry.

However, I was sure I could win him over and during the dress rehearsal I thought I found my stride. What I remember was listening to myself and thinking I was effective. Actually, I was contemplating how the director would apologize to me for his brutish behavior and possibly cast me in his next production. Needless to say, I walked off stage and he was paralyzed with rage.

Okay, he was a diva and it was ridiculous to be so brutal with someone who was trying so hard, but I never forgot the contradiction between my self-evaluation “Oh, you are so good!” and his feedback, “You stunk up the place. “

Just before the first performance I told myself, “Stop listening and start living.” The next time the actor did something spontaneous, I punched him. The director was thrilled, the actor not so much.

How is this connected to writer’s block? Stop judging and start writing. You are not capable of judging your own work so leave it alone and get on with it. There is powerlessness in writing fiction, poetry and drama that resists any attempts you make towards control until it’s actually written. Thus, writer’s block will simply feed upon itself as you make every effort to exert control. This consciousness of self is deadly because while you may want to deny your audience, although I believe that is foolish, you definitely must deny yourself, or the writing will be filled with stuff no one will care about, or relate to other then your mother, and if you have a mother like mine, she won’t relate to it either, because she has an uncanny ability to recognize bullshit.

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