Writers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown*
On frustration and creative clenching. Also, butts.
Hey before we begin: I’m so excited to announce the launch of Writing Co-Lab, an experimental writing school run by a cooperative of teaching writers. My first online class for them starts on January 26th. It’s called Writing for Women on the Verge (do you see my theme?), and it’s a 6-week, hour-long, generative lunchtime-ish course designed to wedge some encouragement, inspiration, and creativity into your busy life. Since this is still brand-new, this class is priced at a low Guinea Pig Special rate. Read more about it here.
I want to talk about frustration. I mean, I don’t, I don’t even want to look at it, I don’t even want to admit it exists. Feh frustration, a curse upon you! But I do think we ought to. It’s that time of year when we’re supposed to be all fresh and forward-thinking and resolutiony, and when weirdly, I find that I’m the same person I was a week ago. And the person I am is a bit creatively frustrated.
What! Am I supposed to admit that? ME, Ms. “Let me tell y’all how to get unstuck”? Weird, right? And honestly “a bit frustrated” is actually the understatement of the century, but I’m trying to keep it light here. I’m fine everything is fine!
Here’s my thing: I have this beautiful, brilliant novel all nicely outlined on a giant sheet of butcher paper up on my wall. The characters, the plot, the themes. It’s perfect. And it remains un-imperfect, you see, because I haven’t written a single word of it yet.
I keep coming up with excuses as to why I haven’t actually started writing. The biggest and most obvious one is that I have another novel, Monster, about to go out on submission. It’s hard to start something new before you’ve closed the loop of another big project. For one thing, I keep popping back into Monster mode for last-minute edits I’m sure will make the whole thing sing. (Hold space in your thoughts for my agent.) And for another thing, even though this will be my 5th novel, the course of publication never did run smooth, as Shakespeare probably meant to say. I’ve had the good luck to work with some great editors and publishers, but I’ve never had one of those writing careers where you can just relax about the next book’s publication; in some ways it feels like I’m starting from scratch each time. This book is a departure for me, and as a mid-career (?) midlist author (?), I’m forever braced for an onslaught of rejection.
That bracing is part of the writing life, but it requires a certain spiritual clenching. And creating requires exactly the opposite. Creating requires a wild openness.
This is going to sound weird but stay with me: This whole process reminds me a bit of giving birth. When I was pregnant with my first child, I read a whole lot of hippie-dippie books by Ina May Gaskin, a midwife who writes about natural (i.e. unmedicated) childbirth. Among other things, she writes about what she calls — ok don’t giggle, though I always do — “sphincter law.” The basic idea is that the sphincter muscles of the vagina (hee) and anus (tee hee) don’t respond well to being yelled at or bullied. They open when a woman feels comfortable and positive, when she maybe even is enjoying herself. I mean, duh. So anyway, Gaskin writes about how important it is to experience childbirth, when and if possible, with a sense of joy rather than fear, and to put oneself in a situation that will allow for this. If a woman feels threatened, everything is going to close up. This is not intentional or conscious. But it’s real.
Whew! We got through the sphincter part. Point is, I think the same thing is true creatively. We can’t open up and birth a book or story or poem if we’re clenched up in a defensive crouch, threatened by all the scary things, by our fear of:
- an inner critic
- an outer critic
- the icky bits that are going to come out along with the beautiful bits (back to the giving birth metaphor, probably)
The list goes on and on.
It is amazing to me — hurts me in the solar plexus, actually — how many people I talk to who say some iteration of: Once I was creative; once I tried to write; but I had a bad disappointment, and it felled me. Maybe it’s a book you toiled over but couldn’t finish. Maybe it’s a book you toiled over, finished, but couldn’t get an agent for. Maybe it’s a book you toiled over, finished, got an agent for, but then couldn’t sell. Maybe it’s a book you toiled over, finished, got an agent for, published, but then the reviews and sales were dismal and it immediately seemed to sink into the quicksand of forgotten books.
Those are all hard creative wounds to heal from. Of course you’ll need some time clenched up in a defensive crouch. Of course your creative sphincters are sealed shut.
The task, for those of us who want to keep writing, is to process the frustration. Remember all the times you’ve moved past frustration before. Remember all the disappointments you’ve experienced. You’re still here, aren’t you? You got through it, somehow. Maybe with a little more scar tissue than before, but that’s life.
I think it might help to do like Ina May Gaskin would suggest: Take some deep breaths. Visualize something pleasant and peaceful. Hug a pregnant cow in a field (optional). Find a space — whether that’s a physical or mental space — away from the things that trigger your fear, your drawing shut. Access some awe: connect with nature; go see some art; have sex maybe I don’t know… the point is: find some beauty. Find a way to be open.
Personally, I’m going to try to forget that Monster, the old baby, is out traipsing around, and make space for the new baby, that perfect shining capsule of novelistic potential, to be born.
Exercise: What would ten-years-ago-you be so happy to know about present-day you?
Do you have a writing project that needs unsticking? Let’s talk.
This essay was originally published in my monthly Substack newsletter. Subscribe here — it’s free!