Liars Club

Blocking the Angst

by Merry Jones on June 30, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Life

So the question of the day is in two parts: “Have you ever had writer’s block?  How do you break through it?”

If writer’s block means being frozen, blank, nonverbal and unable to write, then no.   I’ve been fortunate enough not to have had that.

However, I have had something similar and equally terrifying.  I’ll call it writer’s angst, or the sense that my work is not worth doing, that it won’t reach readers.  That instead of writing, I might as well sit in a room and talk to myself.

I have had this angst, in fact, forever.  It’s a constant companion, like a chattering monkey sitting on my shoulder, yammering, “You can’t do this.  You suck.  You have no decent ideas.  No one will want to read what you write.  This piece doesn’t work.  Can’t you write anything but crap?  Eeee Eeee Eeee Eee. (Which is monkey-talk for insulting expletives.)”  Etcetera.

And that’s on a good day.

For a long time, I didn’t admit I had this condition, except, finally, to my husband, who told me just to persevere and sit down and write.  So, I did.

But even after publishing a dozen or so books, I still endure the angst.  Whenever I complete a manuscript, I begin worrying about producing another.  And this self-doubt continues despite increasing age and “maturity,” despite experience and accomplishments, even despite praise from reviewers and readers.  No amount of praise or “success” can shake it (though it would be nice to amass both, just to try.)

In fact, I have come to realize that nothing external can obliterate this angst because it emanates from within.  It is the product of the harshest, most unforgiving critic of all: myself.  And, well, my monkey.

My cousin Nancy, an artist, advised, “It doesn’t matter that everything you write is good or that it gets published; it matters that you keep writing.  Writing is what you do.  It’s who you are.  You have no choice about that.  You are a writer; you write.”

It sounded simple enough.  I often think about her advice as I panic.  And, when I wallow in self-doubt, I sometimes repeat the syllogism:  I am a writer.  A writer writes.  Therefore, I write.

But I am not convinced.

Because, for me, writing as a process, as a “thing to do” isn’t what matters.  What matters is the quality of the piece being produced.  And, obviously, as I writhe in the throes of writer’s angst, I understand that nothing I produce will ever be high quality enough to measure up to my own standards.

That said, I have managed to continue writing, even as the monkey chatters, for decades.  Some practices that have helped me in angst-filled hours and that might help other angsters are:

1:  Lists.  I make lots of them.  Lists of what I know about—Like sculling.  Or raising kids.  Lists of things I’d like to know more about—Like the ancient Incas.  Or poisons.  Lists of things about which I know nothing would like to.  Like holes in the time/space continuum.  Then I select one of those items and go closer, doing initial research and making more lists of interesting details about it.

2: Examining the Ordinary.  I take everyday situations and twist them.  A woman walks into a salon and…A boy gets on a bus and…A dentist looks into a patient’s mouth and…

3:  Eavesdropping.  In restaurants, gyms, the supermarket, shops.  Wherever.  And I take notes, putting the dialog in a context.  Letting it develop and the characters emerge.

4:  Emotions.  I pick one and create a situation that might have caused it, along with the person who’s feeling it.  Listening to music sometimes helps.

5: Reading.  When I’m between projects, I go through lots of genre books, hearing the voices and plots of other writers, one after another.  Looking for inspiration.

6.  No matter what else, I sit at the computer daily, even if I’m not writing—even if I’m only playing Spider Solitaire (ala Marie Lamba)–to occupy my writing space and keep the brain-fingers connection working.

7.  I accept encouragement.  In my mind, I hear my husband tell me, “Just do it.”  And my third grade teacher say, “The best way to start is to start.”  And Cousin Nancy say, “You’re a writer.  You write.”

8. And finally, I surrender. I give up on all the above.  I let time pass.  I give into the perpetual presence of my angst and listen to the monkey.  I accept that, in fact, I suck.  That I will never write another word worth reading.  That my ideas and work aren’t worth the computer bytes that store them.  I clean the house.  I walk the dog.  I row my shell.  I talk on the phone, mow the lawn, cook, mope, get my hair cut.  I do everything but write for a few days or even weeks, until gradually, the pressure and the words and the energy build up inside me and I can’t hold them in any more.

And then, even as the monkey screeches obscenities in my ear, I begin.

Merry Jones is the author of the Zoe Hayes mystery series, including THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, and THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS.  She has also written humor books, including I LOVE HIM, BUT… and IF SHE WEREN’T MY BEST FRIEND, I’D KILL HER; non-fiction, including BIRTHMOTHERS; and numerous articles for magazines, including GLAMOUR.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob Walford July 1, 2010 at 10:47 am

Great article, Merry! I laughed along AND sympathized with everything you wrote. I have had that critical voice in my head for as long as I can remember, and it constantly bothers me how many books/stories/whatever I could have written over the years if I hadn’t listened to it. But I guess the only thing we can really do it is learn from that, and just keep writing. And writing. And writing…

Anyway, thanks for posting that!

DMS July 1, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Great article! This really helps a lot!

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