All that is necessary for the survival of the fittest

is an interest in life, good, bad or peculiar--Grace Paley

Juliet Waters

Juliet Waters
Location
Montreal, Canada
Birthday
August 01
Bio
Montreal based writer, book critic, single mom. Currently working on a book about a year learning computer programming. Visit me julietwaters.com, or familycoding.com.

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SEPTEMBER 24, 2009 8:28AM

Blocked

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  Rebus Charivariques

From Rebus Charivariques, A French Alphabet book published in 1840

Lately I’ve been experiencing a bout of blogger’s block. I went on vacation in early August, to a place where internet access involved fighting other family members for the one working computer.  I decided it wouldn’t kill me to give up blogging for a couple of weeks.  But, I’ve been back for well over a month and plugging myself back  into the big collective buzzing brain of the blogosphere  has been a lot harder than I though it would be.

I want to be clear. This isn’t writer’s block. During the six or seven weeks I haven’t been blogging, I have been writing and publishing other things.

This is different.

I’m something of an expert on writer’s block. I’ve struggled with it all my life so my bookcase is like an ongoing cocktail party of writing gurus. There  you’ll find the matriarchs of inspiration books:  Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and Brenda Ueland If You Want to Write, three Natalie Goldbergs,  two Julia Camerons, and both the Annies,  Lamott and Dillard.

Way off in the corner, all on her own, is Joyce Carol Oates. I can only recommend her if you want to give up writing, or fetishize it to a whole new level of masochism. There will be no nurturing of your fragile talent in The Faith of  The Writer.  JCO will keep you guilty for every moment you don’t spend writing or reading.  Because without a rigorous writing practice  you’re “doomed to remain an amateur: an invidividual for whom enthusiasm is ninety-nine per cent of the creative effort.”

Doomed! And if you’ve ever had that niggling feeling that you will be punished for your creativity JCO is happy to inform that, yes, in fact you will. “Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it.  The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment”

My favorite writing guru, however, is Lewis Hyde. While the other gurus are good for daily inspiration during a dry spell, or the occasional kick in the head during a period of banality, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World  has given me the big picture. Hyde gives me the reason I continue writing whenever I find myself staring down the monthly inventory of punishment.

The Gift is notoriously impossible to summarize, but I’ll give it my best shot.  Hyde believes that artists are always in a paradoxical place between the market economy and what he calls the gift economy. While they should never lose sight of the realities of the society they live in, and should be careful to protect themselves economically, art has essentially grown out of ancient rituals of generosity that have disappeared over centuries of capitalism. In the gift economy status is earned by generosity and the endurance of our gifts, not from wealth and the profits from planned obsolescence. Artists have a certain responsibility to preserve what remains of the gift economy, and those who lose sight of that responsibility will end up paying the price creatively.
 
I love my writing gurus, but sometimes I look to teachers from other creative fields. Sometimes the solution to my writing rut is some kind of wordless creativity. That’s when I take out Drawing From the Right Side of the Brain and start sketching upside down running shoes. A couple of year back Linda Barry’s What It Is got me into a creative  process that’s kind of like  doodling while I’m on the phone with my muse.  Another one of my favorite books on creativity is by the choreorapher Twyla Tharpe, There’s an  exercise in The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life  called Egg, which  is basically just sitting on the floor and curling tightly up into fetal position. As Tharpe points out, in this state you have nowhere to go. You can “only expand and grow.”

Tharpe believes profoundly in the relationship between the mind and the body.  As do I, which is why I’ve become increasingly interested in the neurology of writing block.  A few years back I discovered The Midnight Disease, a book by the Harvard Neurologist Alice Flaherty.

Flaherty found the subject of writer’s block so difficult to pin down that she separated it into two chapters: Writer’s Block as State of Mind, and Writer’s block as Brain State.  These are not really two different kinds of writer’s block, but two different perspectives on the same problem. Flaherty has a scientific discomfort with much of the psychobabble that seems to go along with writing/self-help books wounded inner children and shadow artists.

When it comes to creativity she speculates, the brain works a little like the heart. The writer’s ability to pump out work “depends on his energetic state (normal motivation with absence of depression and fatigue) and ability to co-ordinate the rhythmic contractions (skill, good work habits, avoidance of procrastination)….Just as the blood that the heart pumps out eventually returns to feed it and prime the next contraction, so a writer’s output is the basis for further ideas. When that output falters, there is less inspiration and energy for further work, a vicious cycle that has given many writers the literary equivalent of a heart attack.”
 
So where does blogging fit into this?  Why does it feel like a different kind of block?

Flaherty suggests that the criterion for whether or not you're blocked is whether or not you’re suffering.

But let’s be honest. The criterion for whether or not you’re blocked is whether or not you’re writing well.  Even the best writers get into ruts where they know the words on the page are just words, and not the magic that makes great writing. And even if you are writing well---and here’s where JCO has a point--if your writing really is mere enthusiasm, and you’ve surrounded yourself with readers who are looking more for distraction than depth, are you fooling yourself?

There was a moment last summer when I did take a step back, looked at my blog, and noticed how much of my writing had become about t.v. and  breaking pet stories.  My brain felt controlled less by creative energy than by a dependable cultural cycle of distraction and what I'd call comfort writing. What I was writing was fun and easy, but it didn’t result in much that was going to last. I began to wonder, was blogging itself a  form of writer’s block?

I still think no. I’ve come to the conclusion that a certain amount of your writing should be mere, doomed enthusiasm. Not all of it, but at least some of it. Otherwise everything you write starts to take on a kind of relentless overintensity that becomes its own rigidity.  (Yes, I’m talking to you JCO.  I’ve read your other books as well.)

Like Hyde, I do think that artists should protect themselves professionally and financially, and I also think artists should give some of their work away for free to keep our best cultural instincts alive. And ideally they should give people what they want.

But something in me, and in us, I would argue, wants to give it away just for the sake of giving it away. Not for status, or legacy, or proof of our generosity, or the endurance of our creative labor.  But because giving it away for free is our way of building the psychic, social and cultural energy that sustains us all.

Runners don’t sit around in a state of angst about how much running they should do for free.  They pretty much just do it. And sometimes they focus on technique, and sometimes they just get out there and run for distance. And sometimes, I hope, they just go for a walk.

Over the last few years blogging has become that kind of practice for me. Just writing for the fun of writing. Just publishing for the feeling of connection.  Just hooking my writing brain up with other writing brains in the giant marathon of culture and creativity.  It’s become a little like a mental aerobics session that makes me a little less anxious about my other work, sharpens my skills and increases my endurance for the long haul.

Some people run with the pack. Some people break away. Some people never finish, but even making it half way was more than they were doing when they weren’t trying. Everyone is in this with their different challenges and their different gifts.

I now think of blogging as that part of my brain that longs to just put it out there without all the slow rituals and negotiations of the market economy. That part of my brain that needs to be free.

Five years ago, I was a professional journalist who could never have imagined giving a good part of my writing away for free.  Now I can’t imagine there ever being a time when I won’t give at least some of it away. And when I’m not doing that, I think from now on I will always feel a little blocked.

 




 

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maybe go back to my 75 things to blog about post and pick a topic to clear the cobwebs?
Thanks for reading, Brian. I'll check it out. But my problem as a writer has never been not enough ideas. I have too many ideas and its always a huge struggle to wrestle them down. Or if I blog about them all then that's all I'll ever be doing. It's definitely a discipline, and I'm really looking forward to where that discipline is going to lead me.
There is something so energizing about pushing the "publish" button and knowing you have just given away a piece of yourself. I get paid to write grants but, if I could, I would spend more of my days writing blog posts. For me, it is mediation, therapy, community, validation - all without the worry of whether they will send me a check in return.
It is energizing. At some point I may blog about publication high, and there is a legitimate disorder called "graphomania" which describes people who publish too much. But there's certainly a steady serenity that develops when you're writing is being regularly read. And that's something that hasn't been available to the general population until recently. So, ultimately, I think the blogosphere is a good thing.
Only you, Juliet, could turn "blogger's block" into an intellectual feast. I agree. Each of us should give away part of ourselves freely. Not just writers. Doctors, lawyers, accountants -- everyone. Giving benefits the giver as much as the receiver. "Cultural energy" is necessary and must be sustained. Thanks for this excellent -- and important -- post.
Steve, I need to work on my headlines. That, believe it or not, is the hardest thing for me, trying to decide between transparency and cleverness. It's an art.

Eric, of course I'm poking a bit of fun at JCO. I admire her work, though she is a candidate for the graphomaniac's hall of fame. The world is her blogosphere, and I don't know how she keeps pumping out the relentless emotional darkness. But I think you agree that over the years something about her writing makes the heart glaze over. I'm still glad she's in my bookcase though.
Great post, I´ve copied-pasted it on my Word to have it at hand and read it again many times, thanks!
"without a rigorous writing practice you’re “doomed to remain an amateur: an invidividual for whom enthusiasm is ninety-nine per cent of the creative effort.”" Ok then, that´s me, a happy doomed enthusiastic amateur, I like this definition, LOL!
Marcela
I'll second Steve's comment that your post is an "intellectual feast." There's a lot to said for "just writing for the fun of writing." Dismiss the pressure and let it flow.
Sometimes you just gotta force it out. It can make for economizing as you are not into it and you do not have to sip from a fire hose of the mind, as it were. (my last one was like that. Not really in a funny mood, but found the incident funny. Quick and to the point, but I had to FORCE myself to sit down and get at it.)
Great essay, Juliet.

I read somewhere that writer's block is really not having enough information, which I think kind of fits if you're having blogging block. I've used this idea more than once to help me past a block. If I can't write, then I'll do a fact finding mission for whatever I'm writing about. Sometimes I'm looking into a specific topic and sometimes it's as mundane as figuring out what kind of furniture a character has in their living room.

I do believe you have to practice at writing everyday, just as musicians practice at writing, or an athlete practices. When I was an undergraduate, I had a classmate who said he practiced 4 hours every day and I just rolled my eyes (I wasn't alone). When I became a graduate student, I was taking 4 writing classes and I found my self writing 4 hours a day (not out of practice, just to keep up). What ended up happening is I became addicted to writing 4 hours a day - much like you become addicted to exercising. And I got tremendously better. I wasn't writing specifically creatively, I was also writing essays, reviews, critiquing works, etc. I'd say about 2 hours was strictly creative. What I found was the critical thinking I did in the other areas helped me to craft my creative works better. Blogging does that for me now that I'm no longer in an academic environment.

I always tell my writing friends that they should take a screen or play writing class. It will teach you structure better than any other genre out there and it's more focused on craft than inspiration from muses. Hmm, now that's given me an idea about a blog!
Well, you sure snapped out of it with a bang. Deadlines have kept me from getting the feared blockages -- newspapers, magazines, movies. You get fired if you can't produce. Kind of sunk into my brain at some point.

R. Great piece. Great comeback
I'm impressed that you manage to use writing books constructively, as inspiration. Me, I have a bad habit of turning to them as an excuse for not writing. I tell myself, "I'm reading about writing. It will make me a better writer. It's an investment". When in reality, it's mostly just more time spent Not Writing,much like Mucking About on Facebook or Staring Out of the Window.
Very interesting, Juliet. But I do not consider blogging giving away my writing. I consider it *stimulating* my writing. I can always adapt the posts later for "pay," but I find such incredible reward meanwhile from the comments.
And when I'm blocked I just freewrite something which often flows better than things I "work" on.
I loved this post. If the only insight in it was about JCO, "Otherwise everything you write starts to take on a kind of relentless overintensity that becomes its own rigidity," it would be worth the price of admission.

Juliet, that's the most profound and succinct critique I've read of JCO and articulates exactly why I stopped reading her many years ago.

Thanks for expressing what I had no words for.

And isn't that the best kind of unblocking???????
Excellent post and very topical for me. I have some of the same books you do, and will look up the others. As for the rest, I will comment further when my brain doesn't resemble a chewed-up wad of cotton batten.
Yeah, you sure seem blocked to me. ;-)

Great post. Thanks.
I am glad you're back in full, fine form, Juliet. This is a wonderful essay, and you've given me a lot to think about.

I also want to give a nod to the wonderful comment by Steve Blevins, who is so right about the power of giving of oneself freely. This, too, is the power of Open Salon.
Well...like you I have not been posting...although I do not consider it any kind of block. I just have decided "fuck it!"

BUT...the new season of DWTS has come on, and the pickin's is horseshit!

Really need a review from you...although the prize two have already been eliminated. Wow...these two had less dance talent to offer than would a telephone pole or fireplug.

C'mon. Do a review. I'll contribute.
Welcome back. I've also been away for the past two months, mainly because I do not share your affinity for giving my writing away. Yes, I know free is the wave of the future. And I've read the book by Wired's Chris Anderson. But Samuel Johnson's immortal words ring more true to me than all the panegyrics to free: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Mark Bowden of The Atlantic wrote a great piece about how two amateur bloggers broke the Sotomayor "wise latina woman" and "make policy" stories that dominated the headlines over the summer. The news media acted as though these stories fell from the heavens like manna and didn't even credit the men for their original reporting.

Think of all the thousands of hours of TV and radio fodder these comments wrought and all the millions in advertising dollars they thereby generated. Yet the amateur reporters who broke the story received nothing but a mention in the Atlantic 4 months later!

Same thing with our own Jodi Kasten. Her posts like "Equal Rights for Men" & "Don't 'Make me Stop this Blog" offer original takes on controversial issues and have generated hundreds of thousands of hits. She should be writing for the back page of Newsweek, not EatJax.com.

It pains me that these individuals have few choices but to give away their hard work and receive no recompense in return but an ego boost.

That said, I do miss that "steady serenity" that comes with having an audience for my writing. Feel free to call me a hypocrite when I give in to the urge and begin blogging again. :)

p.s. Thanks to Norwonk for the Johnson quote and here's a link to the Bowden article:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200910/media
I've always given away a lot of my writing for free. Maybe it's because I'm a technical writer, and when I'm not doing work-related writing, I just blather on about whatever's on my mind. (I don't appear to have enough stick-to-itiveness to write a novel, t'would appear.)

I would never call myself an artist, though. How artistic is it to either a) write about Republican hypocrisy/Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse"/my chronic neck pain/my endless commute to work, or b) pen such page-turning tomes as "Layer 2 Features and Multicast"? Not exactly timeless material.
First of all, I fought my way through the Gift and you've done a brilliant job of summarizing. as for writers' block and bloggers' block, yes there is a difference. If writing requires focus and discipline, blogging requires (or allows) you to experience a bit of the market pressure (will they like it? will they read it?) with, hopefully, the support of a friendly community.
Thanks so much, everyone for your great comments. I only have time to address some of them, but I really appreciate everyone who took to time to say something.

Lea, I think you're absolutely right that comments are in many ways the reward for blogging, and probably more meaningful and sustaining in many ways than money.

Marcelle, I'm totally delighted that you've bookmarked me. To inspire other people to write is the best feeling.

Sao Kay, one of my first commentors, and still one of favourites. Hope you find the time to blog soon. I miss your voice.

Carolyn, you have a point. I've spent probably too much time on the activities of writing and not the goals, if that makes any sense. I've got to give JCO a bit of credit for forcing you to decide what you want to be.

Rebecca, glad you liked the JCO quip. I enjoyed writing it.

Emma, you get yourself unblocked soon! You're too good a writer to stay in a rut.

Frank. Sorry, but our network had to choose between whether to run SYTYCD Canada or U.S. I don't have cable, so I'm not watching the U.S. one. We just eliminated one our best dancer too. Something bad is in the air. Maybe we should go back to having it in the summer when people have more time to vote.

Travis, thanks for the link to the article. I read it with interest, although I don't think the fact that these guys weren't paid was really Bowden's point. They weren't journalists in the true sense of the word. They were political activists. The problem was that people who were getting paid weren't doing the work to merit their fat network paychecks. That's a whole other issue. Hope you find the time to stick around.

Nikki, I think you're right. Writing does and probably should demand more focus. Though I think blogging is what you want to make it. For long posters, such as myself, it probably takes as much focus as writing I would be doing for anywhere else. But I think it's important to do just conversational blogging as well. And that's not always market stuff. That's just idea stuff.
This is a great post. This is certainly a tremendous part of why I write:

"Just hooking my writing brain up with other writing brains in the giant marathon of culture and creativity."
As a first time reader of your posts, I enjoyed this one so much that I went back to read some of your earlier offerings. As one who's always enjoyed the creative arts of life, but never participated in, I sense your passion and enjoyment for self-expression. I hope getting this out there will help remove your block and continue to do more in the future.
Great essay. I find what you describe to be mainly an issue for professional writers. I make a living as a visual artist; writing, for me, is just an outlet for creativity in another format. Pulling together an essay can be very intense, as I love words and want to create a certain atmosphere with them. But I don't feel at all defined by the idea of being a 'writer' and what that means on a professional level. I do it just for my own pleasure, and to entertain. If I'm not in the mood, I don't do it.
You need to travel with some Blogamucil. It will get you going before you know it! But then again, so will Freaky. Great post!
Juliet, I realize the point Bowden was making with his article. I just used it as a source to make a different point altogether. Anyways, it pisses me off to see bloggers--and yes even political activists with whom I disagree like the guy at Verum Serum--get so little credit.

Here is an even better example from three years ago:

"Yesterday, March 22nd, ESPN Radio hack, uh, host, Colin Cowherd, did one of our most popular bits on the air verbatim, the M Zone Wonderlic Test, without giving the M Zone any credit whatsoever. To set the stage, Cowherd was talking about Vince Young's Wonderlic score and said maybe he had been too hard on Vince. He said he got a copy of the Wonderlic test off the Internet and asked his listeners to call in to see if they could answer some of the questions."

It would have taken a few seconds for Cowherd to give a shoutout to the M-Zone blog yet like so many he has this attitude that everything on the Internet just arrives here as if by magic, like a child who never stops to wonder who fixes his meals and launders his clothes.

I will admit compensation for bloggers is a thorny issue. When one of us goes on strike, there are literally millions more willing to blog for free. It comes down to the whole "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" argument.

It's depressing but that's life.

Here is a link to the Cowherd story:

http://michiganzone.blogspot.com/2006/03/espns-colin-cowherd-borrows-m-zone.html
I hope this won't be taken as a personal affront, but I find writer's block is too often a result of lack of research. Personally, I'm never at a loss for words or subject matter, but I am frequently at a loss for time to pull together all the strings leading from the subject that originally piqued my interest.
Great blog. I too write, but have a terrible time with fiction. I am intimidated by many of the same authors you are (gads, Joyce Carol Oates) but the blog is forgiving. People read it or they don't - however there is the satisfaction of at least writing.
Welcome to the front page. You are in good company? I hate to pick out names. The comments here are thought stimulation. Tom Cordle had a nod-up and nod-down, affirmative.

Monsieur. Always, thoroughly researches each new post.
This is a great thoughtful post. Your mind at rest? I babble.
Monsieur. Juliet Waters no chase her wine with water, yes?

Monsieur was shoplifting all the garlic flavored breadsticks at Potenza?
Tom Cordle bought all commenters a great Pizza ai Fruitti di Mare?
Wonderful!
It had on it:`shrimp, calamari, roasted garlic, spicy tomato sauce, and mussels.
Juliet Waters was the one who popped a cork from a wine bottle? Pinot Noir, Jermann, 'Red Angel' Venezia-Guilia. Wow. Per glass?
only $15.00.
To Park in DC curb meters cost $.25 for just - 7 and 1/2 minutes. You better ride a donkey.
Feed the beast cheap hay.
`
apologies. You can delete.
Amy doc MD always deletes.
I really did meet the White House Doc.
He listened to me calmly speak ref Doc.
Dan G, a former USDA guy, banters Doc.
I teased the USDA and ask if he can read?
A White House Physician listened to goof!
Those folks at the "big-clout" tables are kind?
Ya get to realize there are real honorable`Kin.
The "high & lowly" can mingle and be servants.
They can politic to get roads closed and blocked.
Roadblocks? Writers block? Is when a Mind rest?
I personally think, in my case, the Mind wants rest.
Mind must relax. I rest it seriously - in Nova Scotia,
Canada.
Well. I'll ramble on and on about Kathy Ozer,from the National Family Farm Coalition and poke a bater at H - Street dress code.
Ihope I never need a hanf tailored shirt made from 500 fabrics.
A homeless GI wino may write on:`How to repair a spider web.
Farmers breaks down and buys three pais of custom pants too.
Pants fit at $499, I hope so! I bet those pants itch like burdock.
I hope this post is deleted? Maybe delete for ogling nice women?

Maybe in my case, it would be a good idea to take a Writers Course!
Why Ya need to cease and desist banter and write elsewhere. okay.
I realized I never, no, got a cent for a written mumbo jumbo jabber.
I am gonna be sat down and paid some 'dough' ($)! I blabber Freely!

I was only gonna mention I met Natalie Godberg at a Thich Nhat Hanh writers workshop. She was enjoyable to meet. Iread one of her books.
apologies.
Next the cat will meow about needless paperwork, WHY DELETE? (not Juliet, but you are free to if you choose, thank you very much too ? ) Maybe I'll poke-tease at politics? VA benefits, requisite referrals, pleasant badgers, Willow Trees, children colorful illustrations, lame bureaucratic Red Tag, Red Blood Shed in God dang war oil-fields, creeps who ensnare, libel, and assassinate the reputation and character of other humans. I personally have serious grievances with Nasty Creeps. Ya can petition them in Hades, but WHY enter the dark abyss? hey do jumping-jacks and pay bribes to hop like a bunny through hoops (Fire!) at the 3- ring circus and zoo.
The Nasty creeps will make wardens when they croak? I nickname some people that I never met:`Scrofulous. I best enter Silence before I create more and more unnecessary wild Predicaments.

Thank you, Juliet Waters.
No mean harm is intended.
I can't imagine getting paid.
I'll become more repugnant.
You can can-can dance polka.
Maybe I'm aiming to irritate?
I banter if I'm still alive to vent.
Salon can give certified goof pin.
I'll stick the bureaucratic cranks.
This is positive expression, huh.
Please skip what Ya want to, too
It seems all the most successful writers chain themselves to a schedule as if it were a job. They are disciplined to produce every day, junk or not. I am trying to get into that, but then there's that pile of laundry, the doctor's appointment, a friend to meet for lunch... but when I'm writing, I'm so, so happy!
Excellent. I am a professional writer, and I think it is essential to add to the mix of ideas without always expecting to be paid. If what I write is interesting, then some people who read it will also buy the work that I offer for sale.

Cheers!
Only you could make a post about writer's block inspiring, Juliet. The advice you mention in The Gift actually comforts me. I do live by the premise that we must give back in other areas of life, so why would writing be any different? In all things, we get what we give. Fortunately, we have a wonderful format to gift some writing here on Open Salon (and we get to hang out with thousands of like-minded individuals in the process.) Thanks for giving us this great essay.
Hey Juliet,

So glad to see you back here. I am about to re-surface from my own writing "hiatus" and this post has convinced me that I need to keep contributing to my blog as well as putting my book together. I'm starting to realize how important "community" is when engaging in such a uniquely solitary pursuit. The fact that you have backed it up with research and intellectual rigor makes it understandable for a brain like mine. I greatly appreciate it.
May I recommend Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott? You might already know much of what she says about writing (sounds like you've been doing this for a while) but she may reinspire you and will certainly encourage you to cut yourself some slack. Everyone goes through flat patches of one kind or another. We're human, not robots. Good luck with it all.
I love this piece, Juliet -- Found it again (saved on Delicious) just today. Seems it hit the spot....again.

BR