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Monday, November 26, 2007


The enemy within

Everyone has one. Most books call it the Editor, though editors generally want to nurture books, or the Critic. But those terms don't convey the true virulence of it.

It's a pathogen. It's a shapeshifter. Every day, sometimes every hour or minute, it takes on a different form. Beat it back in the form of a critical schoolteacher, and it comes in the guise of a wheedling friend; beat back the wheedling friend and it comes in the guise of a hard-headed professional. It lies to you, whispers in your ear. It sneers, cajoles, panics, hectors, and tells you it's only doing this for your own good. Its resources are endless, and its capacity for disguise profound.

You can only tell it by its fruit: when you listen to it, you don't write.

I call it the block demon. My boyfriend calls it the shitweasel. It assumes different personalities, putting on whatever mask will most undermine its victim. These are the things it says.

It says: You're not safe.

It says: This isn't the right time to start working, let's just do this one other thing first.

It says: There's plenty of time before you start.

It says: You've only got a bit of time left. Why bother? You'll never manage to settle down properly before you have to stop.

It says: Just because you wrote yesterday doesn't mean you can write today.

It says: If you had a bad day yesterday, that proves you're no good.

It says: If you had a good day yesterday, today you won't be able to measure up.

It says: If you don't have any good ideas now, that's because you don't have any talent.

It says: If you've got lots of good ideas, that means you can't commit to any of them.

It says: You'll never make it to the end of this story.

It says: Now you've finished, you'll never write anything else.

It says: Times will never improve. This is as good as you'll ever get.

It says: Sure, times are good now, but this can't last.

It says: The good times will never come back. That was your chance, and you blew it.

It says: Now you've lost momentum, it'll take more energy than you have to get it back.

It says: Your life is boring, and you've got no experiences to draw on.

It says: You've got no right to write about people who've suffered more than you.

It says: You shouldn't be drawing on your own life; that's private, and what would your friends and family think?

It says: Other people's opinions matter about your work far more than yours.

It says: Other people don't know anything, you and I really know how bad your writing is, don't we?

It says: If you don't find that sentence/structure/whatever difficult, it must be because it's inane rubbish any idiot could write.

It says: You should write more like [whatever writer you admire]. They're successful; your way will fail.

It says: Nobody good writes the way you do.

It says: Your work is derivative and everybody can see that.

It says: You'll never sell your work.

It says: You'll never sell your work again.

It says: Your work would sell more if it was better.

It says: Your work only sells because it's hack work. You'll never write anything really good.

It says: You'll die in poverty and people will despise you for fantasising that you might be an artist.

It says: The reading public only likes your book because they're a bunch of plebeian idiots.

It says: The reading public aren't buying your book in big enough numbers, what does that tell you? Those millions of peole can't all be wrong.

It says: The negative reviews are the ones to listen to.

It says: You'll have to live off other people because you can't support yourself.

It says: You've got financial responsibilities, put that pen down and stop dreaming.

It says: Don't get smug because you've written something good. You'll never write anything that good again.

It says: Think how disappointed all the people who believe in you will be when they realise how untalented you really are.

It says: You took help or inspiration from someone? That just proves you can't write anything by yourself.

It says: You only want to be an artist to compensate for all your inadequacies.

It says: If you get scared listening to me and freeze up, that's because you're lazy and weak. You can't handle this life.

It says: I'm only telling you this so you don't get your hopes up.

It says: I'm only telling you this because it's true.

It says: I don't really exist, and the minute you stop personifying me, you'll lose the ability to write. And you're too sensible to think I'm real, aren't you?

The more you listen for its voice, the more you can recognise it. Different demons are defeated by different methods, and sometimes many methods. For instance - I realised something the other day: because it's a voice in my head, it's mine. I can do anything I want to it. Whatever it tries to do to me, I can do worse things to the demon. So I gave it form in my imagination, dropped it in a vat of jelly, poured custard in its ears, stuffed its mouth with marshmallows and stuck a glace cherry up its bum. Then I pointed and laughed, and wrote all day.

Stuck in the jelly barrel, the following day it whispered in my ear, ghostly suggestions that it couldn't be beaten forever, that yesterday was a good day and today I couldn't measure up. So I sprayed the ghosts with anti-ghost spray, shoved them back into the barrel, conjured up a minature brass band with a mallard duck conducting them, and set them to marching round and round the barrel to annoy the demon further. And I went back to writing.

I can hardly wait to see what it'll try next. Already it's whispering in my ear that one day I'll be stuck again, and when I read over this post, I'll feel so inferior and nostalgic for the time I was delusional enough to think I could write without getting stuck. But I've got a whole pot of glace cherries here, and because it's only limited by my imagination, the pot is solid gold, magically self-filling and of infinite depth, and has the words Kit Will Always Win encrusted in rubies around the rim. The only thing to do is tell the demon that the more crap comes out of its mouth, the more food goes up its backside. As long as I can keep laughing about it, I'm just ahead of the game.

Frankly, it's an arms race. But if you see it that way, you can cultivate a kind of relish for the battle. The thing to remember is this: whatever voice you hear in your ear telling you you can't write today - that's the demon. It sounds big, but that's just because you're looking at it from the wrong angle.

What does your demon say? And do you have ways of fighting it? I'd love to hear from other people. And, just a word - if your demon says 'Ah, but when I say it to you, it's true', or 'Ah, but other people's methods can't possibly help you', then have a cherry on me. Have a handful; I've got more.

I think I love you.

I've been grappling with this little demon for a long, long time and I'm always looking for new battle strategies for dealing with it.

One strategy I've been using lately (while I've been bashing out my NaNoWriMo effort) is Just Ten Words. Just sit down and write ten more words on it and chances are, those ten words will touch off another thought and you have to at least finish that thought and then the next thing you know, you've got a paragraph out. And then you just say, okay, just ten more words, then. And so on.

It probably helps that the spirit of NaNoWriMo is such that many of the demon's worst weapons are blunted. When it whispers how terribly you're writing you can yell back "Who cares! It's wordcount! I'll fix it in December! Shaddap!"

It's quite satisfying.
I loved this post big and much.

When I compare demons with my writer friends, we find that all of our demons say different things. One person's neurosis is not a big deal to another. Just goes to show you how imaginary the whole thing is.

My demon looks and talks like Miss Grundy the teacher from the old Archie comics. I'm not afraid of her.

Except when I am.
....and maybe you need to send your demon off to do the hokey pokey?
Great post! My new magic weapon is "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield. He totally unmasks the demon of resistance and gives me hope. Whenever the little bugger starts whispering in my ear, I wave my book at it and get back to writing.

Another trick I have is to use the Jerry Seinfeld method for writing - get a calendar and cross off every day you write. The idea is to have visual representation that you're writing and to keep the chain of XXXs going. I started August 1st and so far, no breaks in the chain. Take that, resistance demon!
I LOVE The War of Art. I constantly turn to that when I need a good pep talk. I recommend it to anyone who is grappling with artistic blocks--or just wants to read a good book about the process of creation.
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