Saturday, March 19, 2011

Writer's Block and the Artistic Nightmare of Having Nothing to Say

Poster with Marcello Mastroianni of Fellini's movie "8 1/2" on writer's block
There is a wonderful dream sequence in Fellini's 8 1/2 in which the inspiration-troubled director Guido has to face a multitude of questions and comments by obnoxious journalists hungry for news and information about his latest, abandoned film project. Guido cannot take the pressure anymore and seeks refuge under the table. There is a close-up of a mad woman with a diabolical laugh who shouts in English the sarcastic words that are deeply piercing to any self-respecting artist in the world: “He has nothing to say.”

First off, writer's block is a serious condition. It is the mental equivalent of having a leg cramp. Sometimes worse, it is a broken leg. The same way, your employer cannot expect you to go to work in such a condition, you won't be able to get writing done when afflicted with this serious ailment. It basically feels like you are drowning in a wide open ocean and find nothing, no floating wood, not even a straw to hold onto. It is every writer's nightmare, and each of us will have it as regularly as the seasonal flu.

But there is a deeper problem, and this may secretly nag in the entrails of any artist with serious literary or artistic aims and ambitions. It may pop up at unexpected times: Am I original? Or, to put in a more direct and harsher way: Am I relevant?

They say that everything has already been said. Nothing can be truly original anymore. Ideas have been out there since Plato and have found expression; you may think you have come up with it, but guess what, somebody has already beaten you to it. This may also explain the feeling of paranoia in some writers who guard and shield their work as if it were a religious relic. Ideas can be truly valuable and may be stolen the same way a thief robs you of money.

It is also why many writers may fear the Internet for those reasons. The Internet is growing at the speed of light. There are literally millions upon millions of blogs and articles swarming through cyberspace. Whatever I may blog about has been done a million of times before, and it is all accessible at a simple click of the mouse. It is equally exhilarating and frightening.

The Internet is also where thieves and hackers roam. They prey upon what you do, steal your ideas, sometimes even your identity. They present your ideas as their own. They maybe even sell it and make a profit, while you are struggling on a day-to-day basis as a starving writer. All this is not fair, not only because they are using someone else's work, but because they have not experienced the labor and pain associated with creation, the sleepless days and nights and the deeply disturbing impotent feeling of writer's block.

Apart from all those concerns and ideas and the competition writers experience with one another, we give ourselves an occasional hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we have what it takes. Blogs are truly artistic and non-commercial in the sense that you are your own boss, that you do not have to follow an editor's or publisher's guidelines, but at the same time, you become fully responsible for your material. It also brings with it anguish and feelings of insecurity. Is it good enough? And will people actually read my blog? What do you think?

Personally, I find it very difficult to know which of my articles will “succeed.” By success, I mean popularity. There have been so many “surprises” that it becomes confusing at times. Sometimes I think I have written a pretty decent article, only to find out that it has only one or two views per month. Others that have barely made the “cut” get a rush of visitors. It is often hard to be objective and accurately judge how good or relevant your own personal piece of work is and what impact it may have.

Perhaps it comes down to the following two viewpoints. One, write what you are truly passionate about, something that resonates within you, that you find deep and meaningful and want to share with others. Two, you will have to deal with the fact that, like Sartre claims, you are the object reflected in other people's eyes. That's what being a social animal entails. People will raise you to the heavens or rip you apart, or even raise you to heavens to rip you apart. They will make you believe you are a true artist or will let you know in unequivocal words or shrill diabolical laughter underlining their superiority and control over you: “He has nothing to say.”


John Myste said...

I think I may have the cure to writer's block. Don't write as often. I never have a dearth of things to say. I have lists of things I have not explored and wish to. More prolific writer's probably do not have this problem. 90% of my writing is inspired by something someone else writes, and gets posted as a comment on their site. This consumes time I often intended to use paring down my list.

As for the popularity of an article, my own 7 article personal experience has been this: The popularity seems to be proportional to two things: 1. How controversial is the piece. 2. How easily digestible is the piece.

I do not write for others. I write for myself and sometimes share it with others. With this in mind, I will write something that may appear meaningless and I will also writes something that is very hard to digest, and I do not worry about it. However, I often write something that is then so meaningless, or so difficult to digest, that I refuse to publish it.

One more surprise I have found is what will annoy people. I have said (sometimes secret jest), things that I assume will inspire the wrath of many, and it no one says a word. Other times, I say things I think will be taken lightly, and everyone is annoyed. I don’t mind annoying people at all, but I would like to have control of the beast. It would seem the choice is not mine.

Arashmania said...

It is true, John, controversy does rouse the spirits. The problem with "not writing as often" is that one may become complacent.

Now there is nothing wrong with it except that one would simply produce less, and a lot of excellent ideas will never be born and released into (cyber)space. And that would be a shame, especially when it comes to talented writers (a self-congratulatory high five from me to you).

I do not mind controversy from time to time but I think you are more fearless in pushing buttons, e.g. your most recent, humorously offensive take on Genesis.

What is surprising though that sometimes what I would consider completely inoffensive becomes a hotly debated issue.

Don't get me wrong though, I do write for myself. If I were after popularity, I would purposely choose popular subjects and articles and avoid blogging about death or the lack of free will.

Notwithstanding, I do believe in the necessity of the author-reader relationship and feel that the more people read my writing, the more I am reaching out with my ideas. My writing becomes both alive and relevant through the act of reading.

I would, however, not want to be popular at the expense of personal integrity nor by means of hypocrisy, two no-no's in Arash's World and the reason why politics is not for me.

John Myste said...

I know this is not the true topic, but I want to touch on something to which you alluded.

My "Let There Be Light" post was intended as satirical method of sharing discovery. It would seem that it was taken as an assault on the innocent. My intentions were noble and was directed only at the flawed text and the assumption that it is literal, and even then, only with humor, as I believe some of what I criticized was a literary device used in ancient Hebrew, a fact that I did not mention, partially because I am not sure, but mostly because the article would have not amused me as much if I had. Even then, it was not a true assault, but a method of sharing what I learned, or rather, what I crystallized in my mind.

I have written lots of articles like that one before I had a blog. I did not write them as a means of attack, as I never intended for them to be read. An unread written attack is no attack at all. I just wrote them because it is what I do. If I do not post the articles, it is a victimless crime. If I share my discovery, there will always be someone who may be offended because they disagree. I cannot allow that to stop me. If I do that, the blog becomes a feckless waste of electronic paper.

The article itself did point out some odd and obvious things that literalists seem to ignore. I am not attacking the literalists, but pointing them out, which I think is not only not wrong, but is the right thing to do.

1. There are two authors involved in the first two chapters of Genesis, not one, and each has his story.

2. The authors of Genesis were not mono-theistic. The religion became monotheistic to the degree that it is, at a later date.

3. The things said to have been created were declared good; however, God is said to have ultimately intentionally changed or destroyed them because they were imperfect in design. At the time the text was written, the notion that the Gods were perfect had not yet evolved.

4. The imperfect Gods were not considered immutable when the text was written. God made several attempts to find a help mate for Adam and he also decided that he had to create a race instead of a single man after the fact. Humanity was not an original design, but a work in progress. This answers the original thesis: why did God check to see if the light he ordered into existence was good?

5. The story of the flood and creation was not a new story. It was two old stories, retold two different ways by these two different authors.

6. Creationists do have an argument to refute the argument of modern scientists, even though they do not use it. It does not support creation, but does refute the arrogance of know-it-all scientist who denounces the creationist for his faith while his theory also relies on faith. This did not fit into the article, but was inspired by it, so I included it there.

I don’t know if you read the whole article. I seriously think I am the only one that did. Some of the readers read a third of it or something and a few others skimmed it. I made most of the points satirically and only hinted at them. I made the six points above. I did not explicitly state most of these things in the article. In some cases the statement was so subtle that it was entirely missed. However, notice that the non satirical “real article” I had in mind would have been highly offensive if I had written it. I thought I would lighten things up. I think my mistake was in thinking that lightening the mood with ridicule of the text would be taken in jest. Live and learn, right?

Arashmania said...

Well, first off, the link:

Second, I should have put offensive in quotation marks, so there you go: humorously "offensive" take on Genesis. I do not find it personally offensive, but personally funny, check. Hope punctuation clarifies this point.

Third, I must admit that at the time I wrote my comment I had not yet finished reading your article, but I had told myself once I finish reading it, I will post a comment.

Fourth, I have finished reading your post and think it excellent and insightful as usual. However, some of the points you mention here are too subtle and indeed escaped me. Thank you for the additional clarifications here.

Fifth, I am more than glad that you did not follow the explanation, remark, advice, threat of "shut up" and went forth with your "wordy" project.

Sixth, never trust technology or light bulbs for that matter. Or maybe it was a sign from the heavens above?

John Myste said...

Two more light bulbs, in a different part of the house, burned out today.

I speak of God's light in jest, so He decides to take all my light away.

He is always getting even!

John Myste said...

Doubting Tomas,

It is true that God's Holy Book does state that there is nothing new under the sun, and it is a quite wise thought, something we come back to often. They say the head of the copyright office in America resigned 100 years ago stating there was really nothing left to invent.

Here is the problem that both the Bible and the copyright guy made:

The whole notion is based on a false premise. Not everything is under the sun, and all that other stuff may be new.

Arashmania said...

Thank you very much for your comment, Tomas! I had not thought about the quote, but it does fit perfectly in this context since there is "nothing new under the sun." We are basically recycling ideas, or giving them a new twist. In other words, we have to work harder to create relevant works of art.

And, John, the light thing may be a curse or a blessing. I see it as both. I do believe in signs and this may be one of them. So for the sake of light-bulbs, you should rethink and restructure your belief system!