Writer’s Block: More of a "Spaghetti Snarl"

From Hillary Rettig’s book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block (Infinite Art, August 2011). (c)2011 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. Permission granted to copy and distribute so long as this paragraph is included, and a link is provided back to www.HillaryRettig.com

One of the worst impediments to overcoming writer’s block is the word “block.” Many of us, hearing it, consciously or unconsciously envision a giant boulder or a monolith a la 2001: A Space Odyssey – and how the heck are you going to get around that? At best, you might scale it like a mountain climber, or chisel away at its edges.

1-5 monolith--for-web

Not this!

Fortunately, your block isn’t a monolith; it’s a giant spaghetti snarl with at least a dozen (or, more likely, two dozen) “strands,” each representing a particular obstacle or trigger. Some strands are probably immense hawsers, while others are tiny shoelaces or dental floss.

The strands are all snarled together, and that’s your block:

The fact that your block is really a snarl is great news because a snarl can be untangled far more easily than a monolith scaled or chiseled. And that’s exactly what you need to do – identify the strands so you can start coping with (and, ultimately, eliminating) them. Another wonderful difference between snarls and monoliths is that, while chipping away at the monolith never gets any easier, with a snarl, the more you untangle, the easier and faster subsequent untangling gets. (And you can start with the easiest strands.)

Here’s a typical spaghetti snarl from a blocked fiction writer:

*Not sure about the direction of my novel
*Not sure if I’m any good at writing
*Not sure if I can finish
*Not sure if people will like it or if it will sell
*Not sure it will get published

But this!

But this!

*Worry that since I’m not that familiar with the publishing industry that I’ll be taken advantage of or get the raw end of the deal contract-wise
*Afraid my questions will be stupid or that people who have more experience will see my questions as annoying and pointless
*Afraid I won’t be a success, or that if I am I won’t be able to repeat it
*Afraid if I get published that people will judge my appearance
*Don’t have a good environment for writing (stuck writing on the couch with laptop and lots of clutter)
*Get distracted by TV and Internet
*No time
*Family is a distraction
*Personal worries (including financial worries) get in the way of writing
*Worried that I may be judged for my choices in writing/genres
*An ADD diagnosis that has left me insecure and ashamed, and also makes it harder for me to organize big projects
*Afraid of losing privacy after being published
*Last job (not writing related) had both a negative environment and an abusive “boss” so there’s some residual trauma.

The above strands map closely with the barriers to productivity discussed in this book – and especially with perfectionism.

Here’s another snarl – this time from a graduate student unable to write her Ph.D. thesis:

*Need to preserve “together” facade to colleagues; embarrassing to reveal she’s struggling
*Confusion/conflict over the direction of thesis
*Conflicts about writing about (and thus mentally reliving) some intense, “shocking” and possibly traumatizing field work
*Desire to cling to benefits of student life: health insurance, relative lack of responsibility/authority
*Fear of not getting hired despite her best efforts
*Feelings of fraudulence and not belonging
*Horror (justified based on the student’s experience – HR) of work/success being stolen
*Ambivalence about assuming authority
*Rampant sexism/misogyny – by thesis advisor and father
*Perfectionism, which, among other manifestations, caused her to grandiosely expect to be able to write her papers
effortlessly (Chapter 2.2). Of course, she couldn’t, and so she was constantly “failing” and, consequently, undermined.
*Invalid, self-punishing comparisons with others (Chapter 2.9)
*Single parent stresses; conflict between parenting and graduate student roles

No wonder these writers were blocked! Every time they tried to write, each strand became an internal voice that not only created fear, but argued persuasively that they should be doing something else. Below, I discuss the metaphor of a forest path that I frequently use to describe this problem.

Write Out Your Snarl

It would be great if, right now or very soon, you would put this book down and make a list of all the strands in your snarl: meaning, all your fears, worries, resource deficiencies and other barriers to productivity. Try to write something concerning each of the categories mentioned in Chapter 1.1: conflicts over the project, fear of failure or success, resource deficiencies, etc. (I discuss most in greater depth later on, so you will probably want to start your list now and expand it as you read.) Also be sure to cover the five elements of the quintuple punch: fear of failure (or success) around the current writing session, the project as a whole, your overall writing career, and the act of writing itself, as well as procrastination’s addictiveness.

Try to distinguish between obstacles and triggers; and try to figure out what triggers your obstacles are creating, and vice versa. (The main use of the obstacle and trigger labels is to help you understand more fully the complex nature of your productivity barriers.) Be sure to examine incidents going back to your childhood, as most cases of procrastination have early roots (Chapter 6.1). Cast as wide a net as possible, capturing both issues that seem monumental (the hawsers), and those that seem tiny or trivial (but may, in fact, not be).

Characterizing your snarl can be deep, intense work – one student described her list as a “grenade.” You’re looking at the types of hurtful incidents, losses, rejections, humiliations, mistakes, failures and other stuff that many people strenuously avoid examining. And you might, in consequence, feel rage, grief, remorse, shame, humiliation and other difficult feelings. So please make sure you are doing this work with abundant support, including, if needed, professional support from a therapist.

And take heart, because what you are doing when you write out your snarl is very powerful and healing: you are moving beyond the moralistic and disempowering “blaming and shaming” mindset to one of calm objectivity, which is the precursor to effective problem-solving. The amazing thing is that, often, simply naming a fear will either alleviate it or immediately present a solution:

“Not enough privacy? I guess I’ll use the guest room for my writing room. It just sits there empty most of the time, anyway.”

“Not enough time? I’ll call up some friends and see if we can swap babysitting, or if they can drop off the kids at school.”

“Distracted because my friend called and we fought? From now on, I’ll tell her to only call after my writing time. She probably won’t like that, so I will need to be strong in the face of her pressure. And maybe I ought to rethink this friendship, anyway – it’s draining me.”

And, finally:

“I hate that I’ve been stuck on this stupid chapter for weeks. Well, let’s just take a moment and see if I can figure out what’s happening. OK, one thing is that my hero and heroine are supposed to be warming to each other in this chapter, and I just don’t see it happening. WOW, I think I just hit it. They really do hate each other. They can’t come together. I think I’ve confused the hero and villain, or maybe I need an entire new character for the romantic lead. Wait! What about George, that funny bus driver in Chapter 7? I really liked him, and the heroine really liked him. I would love to write more about him, and I could really see them together. OK, so where else could they meet? Maybe the bus breaks down on her street. Or, she meets him at some community event…maybe they both like to birdwatch? Or, maybe she likes to birdwatch and he’s out there looking for his cat, who might have eaten the rare bird she’s looking for…” (Continues writing the scene.)

About that last example: YES, getting unblocked is frequently that easy – once you move past the moralizing and shame. As discussed in Chapter 5.4, work often stalls when you either haven’t thought it through enough, or are trying to force it in a direction it doesn’t want to go. Journaling will often solve these problems, and when you use it, even a piece of writing that seemed hopeless can come together almost magically.

So journaling will eliminate or shrink some strands of your snarl. Others will require more work, and probably the involvement of family, friends, writing colleagues, mentors and professionals (e.g., a therapist or doctor). Some strands will require years to solve, and still others – such as a disability or chronic health problem – may not in fact be entirely solvable. But they are still worth working on, because (a) the payoff, in terms of personal productivity and happiness, is often far greater than we expect; and (b) even the hugest problems often turn out to be much more easily solved than we expect, if we just eschew perfectionist self-abuse.

Whatever you do, don’t waste time feeling guilty or ashamed about your barriers. As mentioned in Chapter 1.1, they’re all reasonable, and in nearly every case you didn’t even cause them. The more you can pin them down on paper, the sooner you’ll be able to resolve them, and the faster you will become prolific.