BY Jim Harding
Anyone who tries to write on a regular basis will face “writer’s block”, a label for a whole array of challenges. If I have too much on my plate I lose the mental space I require to write. There has to be an open-mindedness which nurtures curiosity. Uncensored thoughts need to rise and freely flow. But this is only the bare beginning. You have to make the time and have the energy to craft your writing into a coherent whole.
Being too busy or too stressed will close off this space and energy. And if you don’t do anything about this, and stubbornly persist, your writer’s block will just solidify. Writers have unique ways to cope with this. When I have a dry steam bath (sauna) and the blood naturally flows from my head to cool my extremities, the worries or conflicts that underlie my blocks can rise to consciousness. At present they mostly come from local government. This helps. But I prefer to temporarily shut down my writing rather than torment myself with self-imposed deadlines. I didn’t always have this option, when I had job-related deadlines.
This is only scratching the surface. Narrowing down thoughts to get the focus required for coherence and communication is never easy. Each time you “begin again”. An empty space forms and you have to intuit whether you will enter and stay there until you can complete the piece. If things work, this process becomes self-fulfilling and satisfying. But there are lots of false starts and journal notes that go nowhere.
The hyper-information flow in our increasingly electronically-connected world is a double-edged sword. Yes, events and issues are always being aired from many sources. However, this barrage can easily overload us; it can engender passivity rather than creativity. I don’t engage in Facebook or social media because the endless flow of micro-information would fragment my attention. It is one thing to interact with what comes your way; it’s another thing to frame thoughts into something that will stand on its own.
A non-writer may be better able to “go with the flow”. A writer has to step out of the onslaught of stimulus; in that sense it is a contemplative practice. And of course you must have safe places where you can write; any form of creativity requires this. But there’s always the risk that in the quest to connect with the unknown reader, the writer can become more separated from their known relationships.
Then there’s the risk of distraction. And yet you can’t completely block yourself from this, for sometimes “distraction” may be the best thing. Something deeply personal may come up that you need to pursue. Sometimes you just need to rest your mind from the issues you are pursuing; to “refuel”. Right now there’s a convergence of sports events that have my attention, from tennis, to basketball to the FIFA women’s soccer.
And this is the season when I get my feet back on the land, with trail clearing, gardening and maintenance work in our coulee. And it is often from this more physically-challenging activity that insights arise that inform future writing.
There seems to be a seasonal pattern to my writing. As the days get longer and I am drawn out to the singing birds and greening land, my mental activity shifts from a more interior to a more exterior space. Sometimes there’s no desire to write and this isn’t about writers block. The clarity of lived reality just sinks in. This restorative process may be the well-spring of creativity itself.
Then there’s the challenge that everything can be related. Good fiction recombines experiences, thoughts and events into compelling stories and characters.More analytical-journalistic writing can create unique connections as part of a critical reframing of an issue.
As you narrow down and focus you have to dig deeper to find the new connections that can create a better public understanding of an issue. It is always an adventure. The right and left brain, the spacious and analytical, imagination and crafting, are always in a dance.
I don’t want to oversimplify this; it doesn’t just happen. And yet it remains mostly a mystery. The range of issues that spark one’s interest can undermine one’s ability to focus, and yet being open to the big picture helps find a more enlightening focus. This is where discipline and commitment to one’s craft make the difference; you must start the writing process to be able to judge if it will go anywhere. It’s like warming up before a sports’ event. There are some advantages if you are a multi-disciplinary thinker, but you still have to commit to inquire and explore. So there are some psychological incentives to narrow and specialize. I often remind myself of the major themes that I intend to pursue.
If you persist you will discover deeper connections across “issues” that often get framed superficially in the “news”. Yet you have to be realistic about how much you can articulate this broader understanding and stay within the limits of your column. You don’t want to lose or frustrate the reader along the way.
WRITING A SERIES
Sometimes I try a Series of articles to get to these deeper truths. With a federal election looming I started a Series on “Wedge Politics”. But I was only able to complete 5 of the 10 pieces I mapped out. I started to think the reader might be getting tired of hearing about how Harper uses these manipulative tactics. Meanwhile other vital things were happening, which weren’t getting my attention. Should I tackle the dangers of pesticide use in Saskatchewan? Or Regina’s deepening water crisis? Or the Truth and Reconciliation report? Or write about the World Uranium Symposium that I attended in Quebec City? In the crunch I usually write about something that otherwise wouldn’t get public attention.
Then our grandson was born and we both travelled to B.C. to meet the delightful wee fellow. His name is Finley. I stopped the Series on wedge politics cold turkey. I still think it’s important enough for the future of our country, and for our new grandson, to pick this up again. However, getting little feedback, my motivation started to wane. In this sense there’s always a relationship between a writer and either a real or imagined reader-audience.
This leads to the immobilizing question: “why bother? Or “who cares anyway?” This is a tough hurdle and if you can’t master it, writer’s block can become a permanent condition. I’ve been doing this R-Town column and my blog “Seeking Sustainability” (crowsnestecology.wordpress.com) for over five years. This is my 248th article; that’s nearly 300,000 words. Sometimes there’s an hour of research behind one short paragraph. Sometimes it is “one word at a time”. While I get some valued feedback on some articles, for the most part I am sending this out into an unknown vacuum.
My orientation and training predispose me to provide a fairly comprehensive treatment of any topic. I have standards of rigor as well as relevance. I realize that this will likely exclude some readers, who may prefer something requiring a shorter attention span. Then I ask: if the length and depth deters too many readers, does my effort matter? You can see where this goes!
That is why it’s often said that, in a fundamental-motivational sense, you have to write for yourself. You have to meet the standards that you have acquired. You have to put a draft piece down and walk away from it, through several versions, before you get to this place. You have to be prepared to recycle a lot of paper. This piece went through five drafts.
I am committed to seeking a larger truth about issues. I wish to open the door and invite others to enter and look around. I want to encourage people to embrace more learning and to surpass clichés and fixed opinion. I remain hopeful that others will become engaged with vital questions of ecology and justice, of equality and sustainability.
I am also highly aware of the temptation to disengage from the plethora of issues confronting us in our communities and country and most vitally, as a species. There is a fine balance to find and I am continually on a learning curve. As I learn more about my limits I become more respectful of the limits of others.
There are always constraints. As I age I become more sensitive about my own vulnerabilities: if I “lose myself” writing at the computer for too long, my eyes get strained, neck injuries flare up and my ankles can even start to swell. There are no more all-nighters to finish a chapter for a book. Typically the reader has little idea of the physical endurance required to sustain writing. Writer beware; writer prepare!
Hopefully the actual published piece will inspire some readers. Hopefully this will stimulate curiosity to learn more which may even contribute to positive action. It’s a big leap of faith, but one that I must take to carry on.
Have a good summer.