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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

the (un)inhibited writer

I've sat here for some minutes now, trying to think of how to launch this post. Usually some idea comes to me quickly, and I start wandering into my topic, discovering it as I go. Today nothing has really recommended itself to me.

Technically this is writer's block. I can say that this block is due to the cause to which I would generally attribute writer's block--I'm not writing about the right thing. In this case, it means that I'm constrained in my blog from talking about many things--things that I feel are too private or personal to publish, or things that will reveal too much about my work in progress, spoiling the eventual result. Writer's block, in short, is striving to write about one thing when you really want to write about something else.

As a result, writer's block happens to writers on paid assignments, or in the midst of large projects to which they've committed themselves and don't want to abandon. Writer's block, as the name implies, is inhibition. What inhibits us?

I sense that these inhibitions are of two broad kinds: inhibitions due to knowledge and inhibitions due to emotions. The knowledge inhibitions come from not knowing what we're talking about. This type of block is cured by research, as Robert McKee suggests in his book Story.

Emotional inhibitions I think can be of several kinds. One kind is performance anxiety: that what one will write will be no good; fear of failure. Another kind is exposure, which is perhaps the same as other kinds of inhibition: fear of drawing unwanted attention to ourselves, or fear of provoking unpleasant reactions from people. Why won't I go skinny-dipping with the group? Afraid of what people will think about my naked body. Why not ask that woman out for a date? Afraid of rejection.

Good writing takes off its clothes and asks people for a date. At bottom it seems that inhibition is an attitude toward risk. The inhibited person--the blocked person--does not have enough confidence in the possibility of the reward that lies on the far side of a risk. "Safety first" is the motto, and it may well be one that was learned early and hard. It is therefore difficult to give up.

I remember reading a book on investing called The Zurich Axioms. In it the author, Max Gunther, makes the point that life is inseparable from risk. The caterpillar, in order to munch on the life-giving leaf, must crawl out the branch and risk being eaten by a bird. It can hide in safety for awhile, but eventually hunger will drive it out into the zone of risk, to live or die.

There's no guarantee. A risk can work out badly--maybe very badly. The caterpillar gets eaten. Or I think of sensational local news stories, such as a teenage boy who recently was killed when he crashed his motorcycle late at night on the Barnet Highway, no doubt traveling at high speed. He took a risk for the thrill of it, and snuffed out his young life.

The death of the victims heightens the thrill of the survivors: their deaths are the measure of the survivors' achievement, and provide its emotional voltage.

Speech is not often used to communicate people's true, deepest thoughts and feelings. Such communication is too risky for most of us, and we avoid it. In that sense we're all inhibited--we all have "writer's block". The writer who manages to turn into the skid, and actually, truthfully express what he or she is thinking or feeling, is showing us all the way to be genuine, courageous, and how to make a bid for the true prizes of life--the green leaves out on those sunstruck branches.

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