Dissolving the Block by Michael Channing

Dissolving the Block

by Michael Channing

We all face it. That inability to move forward with the work. We call it a block, but that’s not what it really is. It’s fear. The fear of not being good enough. The fear you have nothing to say. The fear you’ll never write better than you already have. The fear you’ll never write anything again. Here’s a secret, and though I know to the bottom of my soul that it’s the honest-to-everything truth, I still have to convince myself of it each and every time I sit down to write: There Is Nothing To Be Afraid Of.

Fear #1: You Aren’t Good Enough

When I was a teen, I tried to write like my heroes. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison. My Holy Trinity. That pantheon has since grown to include Joe R. Lansdale, Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, Philip José Farmer, Kurt Vonnegut, Alan Moore. But I digress. I used curse words like Stephen King, tried to do that foreshadowing trick he leans on a little too often (i.e. That was the last time I saw him alive.) I stacked on the descriptions like Bradbury, grafted sentences together into riotous vines that strangled the clarity of my stories. I burned through my thesaurus looking for big, obscure words the way I imagined Ellison did, flung hot and fiery prose at the page in order to appear angry. But every attempt failed. I could not write like my heroes. I thought that meant I was a failure. But the reason was simple: I wan't them. I didn’t grow up with their backgrounds. I didn’t live during their time in history. I had my own ears, my own skin, my own mind, tuned into the same world but picking up different signals. I was me, and it wasn’t till I accepted that, that I began to write like myself and to write better.

When you compare yourself to other writers, you do yourself a disservice. Stephen King can’t write like Harlan Ellison, who couldn’t write like Ray Bradbury, who couldn’t write like Joe R. Lansdale, who can’t write like you.

Fear #2: You Have Nothing to Say

You’re not even gonna pick up the notebook or sit down at the keys today. What would be the point? You got nothing to say. The well is empty. The tank is dry. Staring at all that empty space and writing down all that nothing is just gonna hurt, so why do it? You’ve had days like that haven’t you? I know I have. Hell, I’ve had weeks like that. You figure you’ll just let the inspiration build till you finally have something worth writing down. But trust me, that time ain’t gonna come.

Former United States Poet Laureate William Stafford was one of the most prolific poets in the modern age. He published over 3,000 poems and wrote an astonishing 22,000 in total. He did that by writing every single day. And he started at age 46. The way he describes it, he never knew what he wanted to say until he said it. A whim came into his head, and he followed. A word, a line, a stanza, one by one till the page held a poem. Whatever his muse wanted to share, he trusted it completely. So part one of the solution is just to show up. Stephen King echoes the sentiment. Show up everyday at the same time till it becomes a habit. Keep the habit till you can’t possibly not write. But, you may say, those guys are special. They got the best muses. And therein lies the second half of dissolving the block. It’s a simple, five-word sentence of utter perfection, directly from Joe R. Lansdale. You are your own muse.

A lot of writing happens below the surface. Before you ever put ink to page, your brain is gathering material. Your heart breaks, and that pain goes into storage. Your kid gives you a hug and says “I love you,” that rapture goes into storage. When you sit down to write, your subconscious will rummage through all of its treasures. Like William Stafford said, it will offer a path, a thread, a stream. Take it. Follow where it goes. Trust yourself. You are your own muse.

Fear #3: Your Best Work Is Behind You

Isaac Asimov wrote “Nightfall” in 1941. It’s his most well-known and highest-regarded short story. Some say it’s his best. He was 21 years old, which meant he never wrote anything better in the 50 following years. Now any of us would be happy to reach that high a pinnacle, but could you bear the judgement for all those years each time you bled out a new story only to have the entire world say, “Nah, I like the old stuff better”?

I’m not going to reach Asimov’s level anytime soon. Even his shaggy dog stories put my work to shame. But each time I start a new project, be it a story or a poem, I think, The last one was the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m not gonna be able to top it. Then despair takes over, and I crumple to the couch and play Nintendo and eat three bowls of cereal.

But let’s apply some logic. That greatest thing I wrote? When I finally got it started, I was comparing it to the previous greatest thing I ever wrote. And that one was written in the shadow of the greatest thing that came before it. This is all relative, mind you. I’m not penning a succession of Hamlets here, but each piece built upon the triumphs of the past. The more I wrote, the better I got. That’s just science. But for some reason I never expect better of myself.

I think back and cringe at all the crappy stories and songs I wrote when I was in high school, all the magnum opuses that pumped up my pride and self worth. Those things might be embarrassing now, but they were the best I could do at the time. They're child’s play compared to what I manage now, because I was a child back then. Every completed piece is a stepping stone to higher ground. It’s always upward.

So why do I keep forgetting that? Probably because no matter how much better you become, writing is still hard. Every uphill struggle is followed by a steeper incline. It may be ever upward, but it’s always a hike. I guess if it ever gets easy that means I’ve stopped growing.

Fear #4: You’ll Never Write Again

Some days I sit down to do the work, take a look at what I produced the day before, and realize it’s all rubbish. So I clamp down on that Backspace button in shame. What the hell was I thinking? I’m getting older and going nowhere. I wrote a paltry three paragraphs yesterday, and it wasn’t worth saving. What am I? I sure as hell ain’t a writer.

I’ve had this thought many times. I’ve contemplated quitting. But eventually an idea pulls me in and forces me to write it down. It sticks to the page. A little polish, a little realigning, but it stays right there proud and tight. I’m a writer, always was, always will be. Just one in constant contention with himself. I welcome the struggle, the fear that never fades, the worry that never ends. It’s something to battle and beat every time. A purpose to keep going. A victory to claim.

There is no block. It’s only fear. A natural fear we all feel when standing next to something immense. The literary mountain before you isn’t meant to taunt you. It’s a stairway. The universe needs writers. If you work to the best of your ability, it will let you.

That Thing I Do

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

April 5, 2019