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.