Recently I’ve been feeling discomfort — a combination of pre-publishing jitters and critical voices that have wormed their way into my head and affected my work. Every time I start something new I hear some voice explaining, in the most condescending, superior tones, why I’m wrong, why what I think is good literature is in fact crappy literature. I keep writing negative reviews for work I haven’t even started yet. I hate the idea of writer’s block, but I suppose there’s no other name for it.
This is not a good state for a writer. It’s also not an unusual state. Others have been here before me.
What to do?
Well, I’m lucky. I’m in touch with a few writers I admire who are kind enough to share their advice and I’ve had some excellent chats over the past few days. I wanted to poll how they coped, or don’t. What triggers them, what restores them. I’ve drawn some conclusions.
1) No Googling one’s self. None. Not at all.
2) No reading reviews. If there’s a really good one, have someone tell you about it. Otherwise, silence. I shall start that now. This includes print reviews and Amazon and Goodreads and so forth. Just no point. Bad reviews are toxic and corrosive. Mavis Gallant once told me all bad reviews “must be burned.”
3) For bad reviews you’ve already read — forgive, and quickly, for the sake not only of our soul, but also for your creativity. There are all sorts of stories of writers who, years (sometimes decades) after they’ve received a horrible review can quote it, line by line. They still lug around a sack of resentment and fury. They speak of literary enemies. I can’t live like that. I can’t write like that.
4) No book groups. No reading groups. Why? You’d think sitting around chatting about books would be a wonderful thing for a writer, wouldn’t you? Well, even the most well-meaning groups tend to discuss books analytically, from a place of ideas, of thought, all from the head. Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Robert Olen Butler reminded me that this is not the place in which a work of art can truly be experienced, and certainly not the place from which a writer can create a work of art. Others may make meaning from the chaos of existence through abstraction, ideas and analytical thought, but not so for the writer. A novel or short story, for a writer, must be experienced through the senses. Butler says, “The artist is comfortable only with going back to the way in which the chaos is first encountered –that is, moment to moment through the senses.” He calls it the Thrum. A soul-deep aesthetic experience. If a writer spends too much time sitting around analyzing or listening to the arguments of ideas it will probably affect the writing in a negative way. It may not be true for all, but it has been for me. Butler says, “Your ambition as an artist is to give voice to the deep, inchoate vision of the world that resides dynamically in your unconscious… that’s the only ambition worth anything to you as an artist.”
5) All the above are a variation on this theme: Protect the temenos, the sacred space of writing. My home, my library, that place where I create, must be protected. Nothing should be allowed in except that which nurtures the work I do. In an era of social media infiltration, one must be so careful. The windows, I think, should be thrown open onto the life of the world beyond one’s desk, to the wild wood and the deep night and the scent of heather on the moors, the spirits and the people passing by, so full of stories, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can come in tracking mud and noise and discontent.
So, I re-dedicate my temenos, patch the cracks in the ramparts, re-fill the moat, pack up anything that doesn’t belong to me and send it back to its rightful owners, pull up the drawbridge, and even as I write these words, I catch a glimpse of it — the whirlwind on the tree-tops, tripping across the tall grass… story this way comes.