Sunday, May 16, 2010

In Paralysis: A Dream About Writer's Block

I've noticed some blog posts elsewhere about writer's block.  I actually have nothing helpful to say on the subject, so if you're a writer and have or have had writer's block, look further.  I have no answers.  Just a desire to describe my own experience.

Here's what I finally realized.  I'm afraid of three things simultaneously.  Any one of them would probably be sufficient to fuel writer's block; the three together are doing dirty, nasty things to my insides.  So, of course, I thought I'd blog about them.

Fear Number 1:  Fear of Rejection

This is pretty easy to explain.  My grandfather called it ordeal by market: you try to sell something that is, essentially, a part of yourself.  But you're selling it to people who can't afford to view it as anything other than another widget they would need to sell in a huge widget market.  It's not personal to them; widgets come in different colors and patterns, but all that really matters is whether this particular widget will sell.

So I'm afraid to write anything that's going to be rejected and deemed unmarketable.  Also contributing to this fear is my reading.  I read something pretty crappy and I think, "Oh, wow -- if that got published, and I get rejected, my work must be even worse than that." 

Fear of rejection is just fear of getting hurt.  We're hard-wired to fear getting physically hurt, to flinch or duck as the occasion requires.  That's actually smart genetic programing.  But no one will actually punch me when they reject my manuscript or refuse to represent me.  They'll just hurt my feelings.

I should have a thicker skin, built out of a logical analysis of publishing trends and percentages.  I shouldn't take it personally.  I shouldn't feel vulnerable with every scene I write that it will be deemed boring and lackluster.  (That's my current specific anxiety, by the way.)

I shouldn't.  But I do.

Fear Number 2:  Fear of Success

There's a theory that there is no such beast as "fear of success," that all humans want to succeed.  If I think I'm afraid of success, I'm actually wrong; what I fear is failure.  Thus "success" is a gateway to more failure, and that's why it scares me.

I don't agree.  It would be pretty easy to construct a childhood scenario in which an impressionable child came to equate "success" with bad things -- like if he got hit every time he got an A in school.  But that's overkill.  As any writer (pretty much anyone I can think of) can attest, success is a bit like a multi-course meal where one is expected to eat it all, the good stuff and the bad stuff.  We all have those foods we love and those we dislike.  I might hate something another person adores, but I would have to eat my share.

Well, I may never find out what this particular dish tastes like, but I know I fear it nonetheless: exposure.  I get a few dozen readers here each day, on average.  I just assume you all know me.  You aren't strangers, even when you actually are strangers.  I trust you, and feel as though I know you.  I don't feel exposed when I post here, or encourage the handful of people who follow me on Twitter to come over and read what I've written.

But if I were to get published, thousands of people will be reading a book with my name on it.  If they hate the book (see fear of rejection, above), that's one thing.  But if they love it -- well, it sounds delicious, but it could also mean some subset of readers would think they love me.  I'm not talking about stalkers.  I don't expect to prompt that degree of devotion!  I'm talking about the way I feel with certain writers -- they suddenly interest me, and I want to know more.

That's one reason why writers have their own websites, so that they can control the information their readers and fans can access.  That's actually a comfort to me, because here at Promantica I'm very relaxed and happy.  I figure the website is just like a more static blog.  Easy peasy.  Until 1,000 people I don't know follow me on Twitter.  I understand a "platform" is a good thing, and I'm game.  I am.  I'm just terrified.

Fear Number 3:  Fear of Doing Nothing

In ten weeks, I'll be going to Orlando for RWA's national convention.  I've never been before, but I have been to professional conferences, so I'm aware how they work and what they're like.  I understand there will be opportunities to meet with agents and editors to "pitch" my book.  I understand I shouldn't pitch anything I haven't finished.  (Especially after this post!)

So, what if I don't finish it?  It doesn't have to be completely polished, but it does have to be done.  And it can be; I'm not a slow writer.  I'm just paralyzed with fear (see fear of rejection and fear of exposure, above) and thus not writing a lot.

I don't need to write for the money, although the money could be useful when the time comes to get rid of the 1970s blue porcelain bathroom fixtures downstairs.  (Trust me: they're ugly.)  I could even (radical concept!) get a real job with a real salary.  But I want to write novels.  I think I could be good at writing novels.  I might even be good enough to get published.  Just not if I never finish anything.


I'm afraid of failing, succeeding, and doing nothing.  It's no wonder I have writer's block.  But I know that all of what I've written here is nonsense.  Yes, it will hurt my feelings when I get rejected and yes, it would make me nervous to have more people know who I am.  But I've survived worse things, so why worry?  Just write; hands on keyboards/butts in chairs, right?

I had a dream last night in which a young woman (not me; I have "movie dreams" in which all of the characters are fictional) is kidnapped and held hostage in a large, rambling flat on the top floor.  One guy did the kidnapping, and it's his intention that she not leave.  He has two buddies; at first, they help keep the woman captive but gradually they wonder if they're doing the right thing.

Here's the crazy dream-logic part: she never checks to see the doors and windows aren't locked.  She can probably leave any time she wants, but she doesn't because she's convinced she can't escape.  In the end, one of the less villainous guys brings her a lot of crochet cotton in cream and purple (pretty sure the color isn't significant, but I thought I'd mention it) and a pattern to make elaborate lace decorations for a linen garment.  But it's a lot of crochet cotton, and the captive woman realizes she can crochet all that cotton into ropes that can be fashioned into a ladder so she can escape.  (Or she could just walk out the door of the flat and down the stairs.  It simply wouldn't be as dramatic.)

Here's a tip about dreams:  Everyone in them is really the dreamer.  So I'm the captive (hello, paralysis) but I'm also the kidnapper and his feckless friends.  I need to supply the raw materials for the captive to crochet (using a keyboard and word processing program, don't you think?) her way out of this situation.  I need to realize that it's stupid to kidnap a nice storyteller and think that solves anything.  (I have no idea why she was kidnapped; I'm still working on that question.)  I need to see that what feels like an inescapable prison is actually just a cluttered flat with three messy guys living there, and how likely is it they don't have a spare key lying around.

Most of all, I have got to see this as farce and not as a paralytically terrifying horror show.


  1. We all have fears. I know I do as a newbie author.

    Good luck if you pitch. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you that everything you wish for comes true.

  2. And your personality and your finished WIP will power you through: if not, imagine (in a non-skeevy way) that everyone you talk to is an Empress sans clothing. That will make for an even playing field. :)

  3. Most of all, I have got to see this as farce and not as a paralytically terrifying horror show.

    I think you've got it! One of the things I've learned is that at LEAST half of writing, if not more, is conquering your own mind in your own way. A single psychological trick doesn't do it for me. I have to develop an army of them, for all kinds of variations on being bored or stymied or trying to write while stressed from the outside or just tired.

    The thing I really hate is that the feelings of inadequacy never go away - the scale just changes. But as a friend of mine says, that's a "quality problem."

    Please feel free to say hi if we run into each other at RWA. I'll likely have free chocolate at the Literacy Signing...

  4. Thanks, everyone -- this problem, like my novel, is a work in progress. I'll be updating this issue and my negotiation of my own fears from time to time, I'm sure.


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