Why do I write?
Recently I asked myself that question. Not because I’m uncertain about my quest to become a published author—I want it, I want it bad—but because I’ve had a terrible bout of writer’s block that has been driving me nuts. Every time I sit down at the computer to write, a voice in the back of my head yells, “D-O-P! D-O-P! It’s all dead-on-page!”
Replotting and outlining scenes in ever more excruciating detail hasn’t helped, neither has working on different scenes, regimented scheduling, taking time off, meditating, writing longhand, giving myself daily word count goals, speed writing or daydreaming my story while listening to music. It’s not that I don’t know what I want to happen in the scene, it’s that the words won’t flow.
Then a friend recommended Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance by Rosanne Bane. The book makes a point of how the limbic system of our brains—that part that processes emotions—steps in, temporarily wresting the driver’s wheel of our consciousness from the frontal cortex all the time. Though our conscious selves don’t realize there’s been a mental hijacking, we feel the effects—the aversion, the reluctance, the futility and the sudden, overwhelming compulsion to defrost the freezer. Those are the emotional handles the more primitive side of our consciousness uses to herd us all. Often, it is a fear response.
Since the first step in solving a problem is identifying it, I started asking myself what am I truly afraid of on a deep, emotional level, other than spiders. Success? Failure? Humiliating myself by sending out something that isn’t nearly as good as I think it is? (I call that my reality-talent-show phobia.) I have all those fears—okay, not the first one but definitely the other two—but that still didn’t feel like the complete issue.
Then I had a long talk with a writer friend of mine who was foolish enough to carpool with me on a three-and-a-half-hour trip. She had been the one to recommend Bane’s book in the first place and kindly played amateur psychoanalyst on the long drive. After a couple of hours of back and forth, she made a shrewd observation. Every time I become confident in my abilities in a given area, I switch to something different—even to the extreme of changing professions. I’ve been a lab tech, a Naval Officer, a Reactor Dynamics instructor, a Veterinarian, an Artist and more.
When I’m learning something new, I’m totally committed, whether it’s studying differential equations or plot structure. I will work my tail off for years, fully immersed, but when I finally feel comfortable with what I’m doing—once the challenge fades—my passion dries up. Proving to myself that I can do something is my real emotional reward, my emotional cheese, and as soon as I have that, the passionate part of me goes AWOL.
But I need that passion to write! The part of my mind that loves lists and facts and planning—the disciplined side that tackles problems by breaking them down into step-by-step procedures and thinks it’s in charge writes D-O-P prose. There is plot—my cerebral cortex is great at plot—but no flow or magic.
Those things come from the other side of my mind—whether I call that my creative side, my limbic system or my muse. It’s the part of me that slides into characters’ skins, sees through their eyes and breathes their air. It’s the part that can bring words to life. It’s also the side that felt writing a few good scenes was enough and toddled off to a hammock by the pool, leaving my cerebral cortex to flail on alone. My muse is like a mouse that won’t the run the maze because she’s already gotten the cheese.
My cortex isn’t giving in, though. I want to write good books—plural. Which means retraining myself on how to respond when my limbic system tries to shift me in the wrong direction. But how can I do that?
First, I’m going to follow the advice in Around the Writer’s Block step-by-step: saying “not now” to my limbic system when it tells me folding the laundry is suddenly urgent, eliminate distractions, give myself credit for effort instead of production, and schedule short writing intervals with small, achievable goals.
Second, since my limbic system’s cheese is a new challenge, I’m going to try to shift the challenge from writing well, to finishing the next chapter, and then the next, and then the ms itself. I’m going to visualize the published book in my hand, feel the weight of it and see the cover. I will entice my muse with a little cheese at the end of every writing session in the form of a new puzzle game.
And I will write on, no matter how the saboteur in the back of my brain attacks. Every time it bellows D-O-P, I will recognize it for the blatant manipulation tactic it is and keep going. It’s the only way I will ever get what I want.