Writer’s block is simply a failure of ego
The literal details of writing involve one’s own physiology and metabolism. You begin from a standing start and have to accelerate yourself to the point of cerebration where the words are coming – well, and in order. All writing is generated by a certain minimum of ego: You must assume a position of authority in saying that the way I’m writing it is the only way it happened.
Writer’s block, for example, is simply a failure of ego. Like a prizefighter, you’ve got to train, to organize your body and your mind to be able to produce. This takes a minimum of ego. A fighter has to feel that he has the right to do physical damage to another man. When you think about it, a writer has to be ready to take chances with his readers’ lives. If you’re trying for something at all interesting or difficult then you cannot predict what the results of your work will be.
by Norman Mailer (January 31, 1923 – November 10, 2007)
from The Metaphysics of Norman Mailer
The Toledo Blade, Feb 28, 1971
Section G. Page 5
as found on Google News Archive Search
image – kevindooley
I failed. I failed and failed until I let go. I did not give up. I will not give up.
This time, letting go meant writing something else.
You see, because I own a stack of what-happened-on-this-day books, I know that May 4th is the anniversary of when Norman Mailer’s first novel was published. The Naked and The Dead was (still is?) a big deal. It was a masterpiece, written from Mailer’s own WWII experience, one of those books that defines the common experience of a generation, directly or by association. I was not and am not in the mood to write about sweaty men at war… well, wait — maybe the book is more current than I first thought – different war, same war, Nazi fascism then, Taliban fascism now. It makes my heart hurt, but that’s not the keystone of my resistance.
Today, right now, I really don’t want to write about a hard-drinking (though brilliant) bastard who was not known for his kindness to women. Elizabeth Taylor’s eight husbands I can accept with a romanticist’s shrug, and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s tumult with nine I can overlook as exuberance. Norman Mailer’s six marriages, not so much – he stabbed one of his wives, putting her in the hospital. I prefer to be in the right sort of mood before I take on a Mailer. When I am, I see his charm; he could go all out for what he believes, and he could write – he don’t get two Pulitzer Prizes for nothing.
Do you see what I’m doing? I made a judgment. I refused to listen to the author’s work, because, regardless of how good he is, my ego is a block, squarely between what you read today and the piece I wanted to write.
If I was writing this for a job, I’d be in trouble. As it is, I’m the boss here, writing for myself. My blog. My rules.
My rule is that when I assign myself to write, I’ll stick with it until I have something. I don’t have to stay where I started, but I do have to write.
Waiting to “follow my bliss” is a mistake. I already know this is where I want to be. There is no “waiting.” Life happens anyway. I have to be ready. If I am howling at myself about not wanting to write about Mailer, I am not ready.
If I keep writing I might be ready: “like a prizefighter, you’ve got to train, to organize your body and your mind to be able to produce.” I understand training like a distance runner, but Mailer repulses me when he goes on to say, “A fighter has to feel that he has the right to do physical damage to another man.”
I don’t want to go there.
Discipline can push aside resistance, make an outline, fill in the blanks, polish. Is that enough?
Writing Eye to Eye
I believe the best writing comes from accepting resistance, then using whatever powers that resistance to gain an empathetic understanding. My visceral reaction to Mailer’s violent, macho subject matter could help me get inside what makes him great. My gut and the meaning in his gut-on-paper could set each other off – like couple of tuning forks vibrating to the same tone. To even understand what that could mean, my ego’s protective buffer has to go. From my safe place, I think I’d need to be pretty damn secure to keep the focus on Mailer’s art and honor my gut at the same time.
This is where a lot of us creative types get giddy, and not in a good way. Two fingers of whiskey soften the resistance barrier… and blur any insight. Being hopped up on coffee might help – brazen and restless is one way to break a shell, but it’s not so good for settling down to work. Sleep deprivation can crack a noodle – pointless unless you’re awake enough to make ideas into words and paragraphs. All of that is beside the point. Once I have lift off, crutches and fears and a need for security do not apply – they obey the law of gravity, and I do not. I’m like Wiley coyote running off the edge of a cliff and finding himself in flight – as long as I don’t look down, I am airborne. I choose to put all my focus on accelerating myself to the point of “cerebration,” and by then I will have other things to think about.
For me, there are three moments of truth. The first is when I look the subject matter right in the eye and begin. The second is choosing not to look down – choosing not to give doubt a crippling weight. The the third is daring to rewrite — to edit, one must cut cleanly and have both feet on the ground. I haven’t pulled that off with full scale Normal Mailer, but, hey, there’s always another day. Check me out for Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead anniversary post in 2011.