“Not all art has to be useful to an audience. A part of it should be out of love of the art form.”
Writers Block (Themselves)
I get so many emails from people who want to be writers. We tell ourselves so many reasons that we can’t write. We make writing sound like a privileged position: “If your voice needs to be heard and you can change the world in a positive way, your responsibility is to sit down and write!” So we invest in the story of writer’s block and telling ourselves that we can’t write without certain conditions. The thing that takes away from our work becomes our work. It makes me cranky.
We deflect ourselves from writing. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. They get under the sink, clear things out and get the work done. We’ve exalted writing to a place that takes it out of the daily practice. It’s like yoga or meditation. You either practice it or you don’t.
Sure, plumbers aren’t necessarily self-identifying with their work, and worrying about being original enough. But most of the time, we’re not even trying to write. We’re talking about why we’re not writing. I think the way to beat a block is to write through it, not talk about it endlessly and try and solve it.
There are three ways we keep ourselves from doing the work we’re here to do. One is our false comparisons to other people. You know, “Oh, my writing isn’t as sexy or clear or compelling or heartfelt as whoever else’s. I’m not a real writer like Richard Powers or Herman Melville.” It’s painful and paralyzing to submit to the voice that makes those comparisons. You can’t create unless you give them up.
The second obstacle is a false expectation of yourself. That’s the writer who says, “I work full-time, I have three kids, and I’m going to write three hours a day.” Or the one who says, “This is my first book, and it better get on the New York Times’s bestseller list!” You set yourself up for disappointment that way.
The third block is investment in a false narrative. If you believe fully in writer’s block, your work becomes about beating writing. Or you believe “writers are poor” and feel artistically vacuous if you start to make money, or you believe that creativity is for the few, not for everyone, and not for you.
You have to examine and deny these blocks to lead yourself through them. You can’t strictly solve them. Even if you haven’t written a bestseller and aren’t Herman Melville, it’s always possible to choose opportunity over drama.
Whether it’s writer’s block, missed flights or Hurricane Katrina, we tend to deal with frustrating drama on two levels. First we blame, as if that gets us anywhere. Then we fix. “To fix” is a meaningless verb that doesn’t address the complexity of a situation. Most things that deal with human beings are not simple problems to be fixed or solved by a strategic plan or an Excel spreadsheet. They’re complexities, and complexities demand specific actions. I facilitated a nine-week dialogue in Asheville, NC concerning black-white racism. By the second week, these small groups of people we’d brought together were having some fantastic conversations on racism, but then inevitably a white guy would get up with a flip chart and a marker and “fix” everything with his solutions. The black people would then respond “ What are you fixing? You don’t understand the complexity of the situation.” So we have to reign in this very American model of simplistic fixing and move on to choice and opportunity. Choice is the third level of the dramatic response. You can choose to be in a place that doesn’t say “you have to do this” or “you can’t have that” by putting you in a position of victimhood.
We do a six-month telecoaching class for folks on creativity, and the first four weeks are about awareness. We ask people to pay attention to when they say “I have to” or “I can’t”, and have them change it to “I choose to” or “I choose not to” because ultimately, even though you believe things are happening to you, you’re really making choices within your circumstances. If you adopt the language of choice in every moment, it opens up an amazing power and freedom for you.
You Can’t Split Intentions
I’m exhausted by all the striving I see online. I don’t know where the line is drawn between striving to passionately say what you need to tell the world and striving to be cool or trend on Twitter. My business partner, David, is a theater director and one of the first things he teaches young actors is that you can’t play two intentions on stage at once. You either step into your character’s role and warn Hamlet, or try and get the audience to love you. You can’t perform both of those honestly. I see this in corporations, too. I’ve done a lot of diversity work and HR representatives will inevitably say they want to “create a level playing field for all our employees” when I can tell their secondary or maybe primary intention is to get on Fortune’s Best Businesses to Work At list.
I’ve disappointed thousands of people who wrote to me asking how to write a successful blog or book and responding “First you need to answer the question, ‘What is it that you long to say?’” You have to decide the single intention you want to achieve and shore up that thin line between ambition and aspiration.
When Life Is a Verb came out, I was just as worried that it would be successful as I was that it wouldn’t be. Being aware of an audience puts focus on them, not your artistic intention. You drive yourself crazy making measurements. You tally up your followers and memorize your Amazon reviews.
Not all art has to be useful to an audience. A part of it should be out of love of the art form, of wanting to express a feeling regardless of the external outcome. If I’m writing to be “useful”, that’s different from writing to explore my feelings and experiences. So again I have to dedicate myself to one intention or the other.
On 37 Days and Grief
My stepfather died 37 days after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. I was so shocked by that bloody short timeframe. I thought to myself, what would I be doing today if I only had 37 days to life? And I immediately decided that one, I wanted to be a person who had already started living the life she wanted before the bad news, and two, to leave a piece of myself behind for my two girls so they could know me as more than their mom or a glowing obituary.
So I started the 37 Days blog to explore how I could do this. I received a Facebook note from an irritated woman who was incredulous that anyone could really live like they had 37 days left. She said, “Look, my laundry still needs to be done. Taxes still need to be paid. I can’t make a masterpiece out of my life because I’m busy doing everyday things and the fact is, I’ll probably live longer than 37 days.” It was a long, long note.
I wrote her back and said “What if you consider everyday life the masterpiece?” That’s the story I wanted to create. I don’t want to do drudgery during the day and then make art if I have 10 minutes left. School lunches can be an art form if I make them so. It sounds really Pollyanna, but I really believe that.
37 Days also got me thinking about grief. I think we do ourselves a disservice by either imposing our belief on how people should act after loss or adopting the sense that there are right or wrong ways to grieve. Grief isn’t an Olympic event with a gold and silver medal. I have friends who have lost pets in the last year who are so overwhelmed by well-intended comments that basically dismiss the idea that an animal could be loved that much.
Grief is grief. There’s no prescription for it – you have to feel it in your own way. Map it out in an external atlas of experience.
I had a friend of mine die of Lou Gehrig’s disease in July . She chose me to take care of her in the last year of her life. She gradually lost the ability to walk, move, eat, swallow, talk, until we were swapping legal pads messily back and forth. It was fantastically human. Her last weekend, it was clear something was happening so I spent the weekend with her, and the night before she died she tried to tell me something and it was impossibly difficult but beautiful. I’ve been trying to make geographic sense of my journey through that whole process.
I got a lot of wonderful support from people on Facebook, some of whom I’ll never meet. And they didn’t want me to be sad, so after a couple days or weeks they said so. I appreciated that, but I felt okay with being sad. What had happened was worth sadness. It had compelled me to grieve. We often want things for people that we need ourselves, and we want them to move away from things that makes us uncomfortable. We have good intentions, but to truly be with someone in grief is a very difficult thing.
What I take from death, along with how much I miss having the people in my life, is a sense of urgency. What do I do if this is the last year of my life? So my grief gives me a gift, it gives urgency to being really alive in the time that I have.
Patti Digh is the author of Life Is a Verb, Creative Is a Verb, Four-Word Self-Help and What I Wish For You: Simple Wisdom for a Happy Life. She speaks to audiences about leadership, diversity, and living with intention. She blogs at 37 Days.
Reading Patti’s writing and pondering her gentle carpe diem philosophies is like enjoying a couple of fresh pieces of toast with some smooth avocado slices on a not-too-hot summer day. Four-Word Self Help may be the prettiest book I’ve ever seen.