I’ve Forgotten How to Write

I’ve been blocked for a while on the novel I’m writing. Ask me any time in the past six or seven years if writer’s block is a real thing, I would say, “Nope.” I acknowledge that there’s a balance between inspiration, imagination, dedication and application. “Filling up the creative well” is what some people call it. I always liked the lyricism of the “my cup runneth over” line when I was a kid, and I always pictured it like love. When you give love away, you don’t feel empty. You feel filled up. The way I feel when I give my time to the suicide crisis lines, or when I hold off on getting up because my cat is in my lap and comfortable, or when I tell my husband to go to sleep even though we’re in the middle of a conversation, because he’s tired and having trouble staying awake.

Except, I can’t figure out quite how writing fits into that. It isn’t just that you can write and write and write and keep being filled up. NaNoWriMo kind of supposes that, but then most writers end up burning out when they have to write that much more than they normally would. And some people theorize that artists need time away from “creating” in order to fill up those creative wells. Like when you’re mulling over a problem, and you take a shower or do the dishes and stop thinking about it, and then the solution comes to you. Or when you sleep on something, and your subconscious works out the kinks and you wake up knowing what to do.

I did a Google search for “I’ve forgotten how to write.” A curious number of hits were actually referencing the physical process involving pen and paper, which I’m sure someone who wants to vilify technology could turn into a big deal. Something about how we can type on keyboards but the fine motor skills of manipulating pens are degrading, and the art of handwriting is going to be lost. Whatever. I was able to find some other posts from people who share my misery. People who are probably just as paralyzed by perfectionistic goals as I am. The most common advice tends to be, write anyway. As long as you’re writing something, no matter how awful it is, you’re still writing. And it will come back to you.

I open up Scrivener to my novel-in-progress, though, and I’m faced with my caps-lock silent screams of frustration marring my usual writing field: “UGH STILL WRITING IN PRESENT TENSE” and “HOW DO YOU WRITE IN PAST TENSE?”

I’m overthinking it. The whole process. My brain gets stuck on there being some magical code. I’m all trained up to be able to analyze a story, an arc, a sentence. If I can point at a piece of writing and say “that’s good,” doesn’t it mean that those sentences, that arc, that story, contains something that is objectively good? If I can say that tense shifts in the middle of a paragraph are “bad” writing, that means there’s clearly identifiable “good” writing. And that means that I should be able to learn it, probably by studying other good writing.

The problem with this is probably pretty clear to a bunch of other people. And my logic brain can point to it exactly: art and the pleasure we take from it is subjective. ALWAYS. His Dark Materials rocked my world and continues to do so any time I read or listen to it. I come across an article by Philip Pullman and I can’t stop sighing over the beautiful cadence of his writing, like a lovesick teenager. So if his writing is so damn good, how is it that a friend of mine quit reading The Golden Compass, because he just wasn’t that interested? That shouldn’t be allowed. It shouldn’t exist, in this universe in my head where Philip Pullman is objectively the best author ever. BUT THERE IS NO OBJECTIVITY WHEN IT COMES TO ART.

And my brain has trouble accepting that.

I’ve written the beginning of this novel more times than I can count. The names of the protagonists, as well as the scenario for the apocalypse, haven’t changed. Everything else is unrecognizable. I’ve tried past tense with a limited third person POV. I’ve tried snarky third person narrator. I’ve tried first person, present tense, I’ve even delved so embarassingly deep into free indirect discourse that I might as well call it stream of consciousness. I read Hunger Games and think that must be the secret. First person, present tense, emotionally scarred protagonist just concerned with survival and protecting her loved ones. I read The Name of the Wind and I think first person is still the trick, but with an older, wiser narrator, slightly nostalgic and sometimes contrite. I read The Magicians and think that third person is classic, it’s Harry Potter, it’s Lord of the Rings, it’s tried and true and why would I ever consider abandoning it.

There’s no mysticism in the process for me anymore. There’s no moment when my characters speak to me, and the purpose of the story stands out, and one tense and POV shackle themselves to the core of this creation so that I can’t imagine it being expressed in any other way. The magic leaves, when you’re trying so hard to figure out where it resides and how to capture it for yourself. I should have learned something from Kvothe and how he learns the name of something.

Even now, my brain is saying “Okay, so the trick is to let yourself go more often, let the subconscious work it out.” I’m still trying to think it through. Trying to rationalize something that can’t be rationalized at this stage. First drafts are the CREATIVE part of the process. Editing is all well and good. I know how to edit. I know how to tweak and twist and somehow create better writing than what was originally there. But to get to that stage, I have to actually create the first draft. And I’m so paralyzed with fear about how awful it will be that I make excuses and over-analyze and get stuck in my head. It’s the only time I could wish I hadn’t got that MFA that makes me so “qualified” to judge relative quality. If I didn’t know whether writing was good or bad, I wouldn’t have to worry about which category my own fell into.

The internet, lovely thing that it is, assures me that I’m not alone. Other writers face this same problem. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block. I don’t believe that writers can only create when their muse is in the house, so to speak. But I would call it standing in my own way. Self-sabotage on a grand yet intricate scale. And I don’t know how to shut it off. I don’t know how to reclaim the mysticism and the magic. I don’t know how to step out of my own damn way and let the creativity out. I don’t know how to stop being so damn scared, all the time. Scared of success.

Gods, maybe I need to go back to therapy. *Sigh*

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