I have a friend with a book idea he’s been noodling on for the last few years. It’s a memoir of sorts, focused on his journey from being raised in the church in the way many people are – with a sense of belonging without a whole lot of intentionality – and how he came to be a non-believer. Though he’s done lots of research about various religions and ideas around non-belief, though he’s shifted from referring to himself as atheist to agnostic, though this book has seemed to poke at him unrelentingly for at least the last three years, he’s barely put a word onto paper, this man who is sometimes a voracious and prolific writer.
What holds him back?
The reprisal he imagines from his friends and neighbors. His gremlin voices have gotten so loud on this one that he imagines people he’s lived among for decades tromping to his house with pockets full of rocks intent on stoning him or, at least, his home. Truly. And, no, I’m not sure he’s noticed how delightfully biblical his form of imagined punishment is.
We often call the inability to put words down “writer’s block” as though there is some physical barrier between us and our writing apparatus of choice. And yet, ask a writer who feels blocked to write a letter or grocery list or a journal entry about just how terrible it feels to be blocked and their words will again flow.
So what is this confounding mystery that stops so many writers (and creatives of all sorts – we don’t talk about painter’s block or architect’s block or clothing designer’s block and yet I’d imagine they, too, feel stymied from time to time) from doing their chosen work?
My friend’s fear has taken a specific shape and form and though he and I can laugh about its chosen shape, fear can be as sticky as tar and as corrosive as Coca-Cola. He simply can’t shake that image of his enraged neighbors.
Happily, he doesn’t have to. What he has to do – simple and terribly difficult as it is – is to just write. Anything. Everything. Writing through the fear. Writing reams of junk, if that’s what it takes. Writing and shredding as he goes, if that allows him to get the words down. Writing about the fear, if that helps him see it for the two-dimensional creation of his gremlin voices that it is.
We often imagine that we have to change our beliefs in order to change our behavior – that, in this instance, he would have to release his fear of stoning to get the words flowing. But the flowing words, no matter what they are, can loosen the grip of the fear because fear has nowhere to go when we stomp our foot like a toddler and staunchly hold our ground, when we show it that it’s not the boss of us. Truly, belief and behavior live together in a feedback loop:
Author Herman Wouk, in a 1966 interview, attributed to William Faulkner the quote, “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”
When I sit down to write, I can feel the excitement of my gremlin voices. I can feel them warming up like the cast of an opera singing their scales and stretching their limbs just before the opening curtain. And I say to them, “I may have to delete every word I’m about to put down but you can’t keep me from writing them in the first place.” And then I just write, reminding myself throughout the paragraphs that the magic happens in the editing but first, I must have something to edit.
Your fear is understandable and real. Each time we express our creativity, we expose another little bit of ourselves, we make ourselves vulnerable. There is part of us wants to protect that exposed, vulnerable part of ourselves the way we instinctively work to protect children from the more sinister parts of existence. And yet, children will not thrive in a pretend world, no matter how idyllic. And you will not make the impact you could make in this fleeting and miraculous lifetime without making yourself vulnerable.
So, take a deep breath. Notice the fear and then create anyway. That, my friends, is the very stuff of courage: Feeling the fear and doing the thing anyway. It’s a good thing your guts are packed with more courage than you could ever need.
A big ole burst of love to everyone at this year’s Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, especially Liz Long and Dan Smith for all of your work in organizing this community of creatives, and to everyone who attended my session, especially those courageous folks who shared their writing and ideas and even the ones who teased me – you are a hilarious and talented bunch and I was honored to get to share that time with you.