Creative Hypochondria – the blank wall that is writer’s block


Anyone who really knows me is likely to confirm that I am a bit of a hypochondriac, a personality trait I am aware grinds irritatingly on most of them, eyes rolling wearily skyward each time they hear my self-pitying tales of woeful sickness. But it turns out that this trait is not confined to the physical, or even the health-related aspects of my body. It also extends to the creative; that deep little cubby in my mind, dark and cosy, filled with cases of tattered old books and tin cups brimming with red wine. I like it there. So why am I finding it quite a difficult place to be at the moment? My attempts to write resulting in unpublishably bad two-paragraph drafts and my current cosy place being nose-deep in a cringeworthy pot-boiler of a book. The obvious irony here is that I actually am, at this point, writing; hence, you are reading. So, ‘creative hypochondriac’, I hear you snigger, your implication of writers block appears unfounded. But is this, ie. writing about not being able to write (is that a paradox?), what I want to be writing about? This being general musing opinion thingys and the necessary distinction being part of the problem.

As an aspiring writer you inevitably have the pressure of indulging in constant comparison with both your role models and peers. I try hard not to do it, we all have different styles, yada yada, but you do suffer that problem of labelling. Those beautiful societally ingrained cuboids of concept, we must of course all fit in a box; opinion writer, reviewer, critic, novelist, journalist. The modern age tolerates not the jack-of-all-trades. Take our education system. Good at everything but excel at nothing? Sorry love, back down the job centre for you. Brilliantly ruthless investment banker but lacking in every other aspect of personality? Jackpot. You my friend, can rule them all. So here I am, wondering where I fit, if anywhere? I like writing about all different things but keep coming up against the same questioning brick wall – what is your niche? Assessing the (admittedly far-advanced) competition doesn’t help. Admiringly gobbling up columns by Rosamund Urwin or Grace Dent feels much like a personal dressing down, each cleverly crafted witty sentence and sharp one liner being delivered to me via mental monologue, in that masochistically patronising voice of the M&S advert woman and her invisible cruel smirk; ‘I know you want this, but you just can’t have it, you poor deluded thing’ (oh, and there’s the self-pity).

Back Camera

Sitting down to write a non-descript column at this point is a challenge. To try to come up with something worth writing, that’s worth people reading, in a style worth sharing, is a seemingly mountainous task. Easier to read a book, eh. So what’s the answer? How do I discover my ‘niche’ and do I have to? The stubborn part of my psyche stamps it’s foot with a resounding No. And to continue doing what I’m doing (a marketing manager writing an ‘art’ blog), I suppose it’s right, that’s up to me. But to try to take this forward and move it on, to shift it gently or otherwise in a more purposeful direction, I admit I may have to surrender. I might have to assess and analyse and streamline and use all those other horrible soulless business words on myself towards an end point. A point where I can take my wine soaked, candlelit, creative mind-cubby and place it gingerly in a carefully labelled box, like a weird conceptual parallel of Deal or No Deal with my career as the prize and hopefully without the appearance of Noel Edwards. But truthfully, even before I begin this process I know in my gut the end result; sorry Mr Banker, No Deal.

  1. It’s the same deal for an artist. Try creating anything and you are bound to wonder if you are any good at it!
    P.S. Maybe if you pointed your arrow skyward instead of sideways, your spirit will soar?

    • Hi Kay, Perfect advice and I will definitely try!! I have the same problem with my artwork too and like I said to Nick, think I need to undertake some exercises in being more intuitive, more instinctive and less inhibited by experience and knowledge. It’s one of the things I have always loved about Outsider Art, and certainly envied in a way. Their ability to just do it. Without wondering if it’s ‘good enough’ or whether people will like it or whether it’s original enough and could you see it hanging on a gallery wall one day and if not is it worth making etc. etc. Within a split second I’ve thought all of these things and it’s so detrimental to creativity! How do I switch that off? I rarely do pieces of work just for me. They’re always either commissions, or for my blog, or pieces as presents. I somehow feel that if I don’t get them approved by someone other than me, then they’re not success. Am I delving into deeper personality issues here or is this the same for everyone else!? 😉 Thanks

      • I think the problem, if it is indeed a problem, with you and I is that our egos are not big enough. I think it takes a super big ego to think your art is so extra special that people will like it. I just try to do my art and not worry what anyone thinks of it and of course, I keep working at it, practicing, practicing, practicing.

      • Hey! “You and me” not “you and I”…. typoooooooo!!!

  2. njbdartford said:

    Any response runs the risk, big time, of sounding patronising. “Hey, no, you’re doing the right thing… stick with it!” or “Why don’t you try this, or that?”.

    I suppose the antidote to that is for me to say that I’m replying from a point of recognition. Not exactly the same things – but enough of a pattern to say, “Yes – I know” plus “I’m trying this at the moment”. Also important for it to be the ‘real’ me that’s saying it, and not the me that I want anyone who reads it to think I am.

    I think that writing from wherever you are right now – is exactly the right thing to do – even if it feels like a paradox. It might be a song, or it might just be you singing ‘la la la la la la la’ to warm up your voice again. I see a lot of bloggers, for example, writing at intervals about not writing.

    It also fits with an example I really like in Robert Pirsig’s, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. The central character is teaching creative writing. One member of the class is totally stuck. He suggests that they think of a building in the town that they like and to write about this. Still nothing. OK – just the physical facade of the building. Still nothing. Choose a brick, one brick, describe it… result, deluge of words, ideas, aspects…

    So to find yourself sometimes back at the ‘brick’ of writing about not writing, is probably going to go with the territory.

    I really identify with what you say about fitting into cuboids – and about the apparent ‘sub optimal’ nature of having lots of partial ‘ologies’. The ‘About Me’ in my own blog is, in essence, a study in reflecting on ‘all trades-ness’. For what it’s worth, I think that the internet is [still only just] starting to usher in a new set of rules. The effect of hyperlinks [to go back to the old language of when this was first mooted] is to create horizontal and networked connections between both ‘stuff’ and people. This is in contrast to where only hierarchical organisations, with serious resources, used to be able to hunt down that material, draw it up into the apex or the pyramid, process it with ‘specialists’ and then wield it to their advantage – albeit in deadpan language. That paradigm still prevails for now, and even seems to think it can appropriate the new networks. [In The Cluetrain Manifesto back in 1999, David Weinberger wrote – “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”]

    I think that what’s just starting to happen is the emergence, on top of networked stuff and people, of networked agreeing and networked doing… which will need less and less infrastructure devoted to control. So it will need to classify people less – or just get to do so less often..

    In practice, whilst we will always need experts to progress and deepen specific domains of knowledge and practice, these new networks are going to be desperate for people who can synthesise, contextualise and create(-ise?) by being able to navigate and curate across an ‘all-trades’ world. That includes being able to write about the connections and collisions, in ways that create multiple ways of seeing. No amount of stylistic grace, alone, is going to compare to the ability to ride the web this way. [I wonder if we’ve forgotten why it was called ‘surfing’].

    In the face of so much – online and offline – that will offer to sweep us away as writers, we are going to need something to hang onto. I think ‘Authenticity’, having a ‘me’ that you know and believe in, will be vital. That’s why it’s far more important to write as you, than it is to measure up against some judges’ handbook. Authenticity isn’t easy. it’s probably a life’s work to know yourself – let alone transpose that into written output. But it’s as worthwhile a work as I can imagine. Again I think it helps to start from where you are right now. Maybe one brick for you to look at is ‘Purpose’. What is your writing *for*? It’s not impossible that you would know straight way – but I’d be surprised. it’s probably something to dwell on, leave running at the back of your mind, until the answer hits you when you’re not looking. Once you’ve got that, and can tap into it, everything else will follow. Even now, you actually radiate certainty about wanting to write. If you remember *why* – then the how, and the whether, will evaporate. [It’s probably the Authenticity – the openness and frankness – in your post that made me bother to respond for example.]

    The new rules are coming. It’s not my phrase – it comes from a blog post I read by someone who felt that they had never really been able to function well under the ‘old rules’. They felt there was something more natural to them about this, difficult to pin down, decentralisation… along with a re-admission of the aesthetic and emotional to leaven all the rationality and systems we have been subject to for several generations. If that sounds a bit utopian, the other thing that struck her, and now strikes me, is that there seem to be a lot of people thinking similar things. So she felt less like a minority, and maybe even like someone who had just been a bit ahead of her time.

    Is this really happening? My, all purpose, motto comes into play here – another trait of the networked jack of all trades – is that rather than say ‘do this’ or ‘follow me’ I’d say “Let’s find out together”.

    [Footnote: You said ‘no deal’ to the banker. But you’d be surprised just how many bankers there are heading back in the other direction – looking for a more 3-dimensional way to see and work… and be.]

    My comments, when someone makes me really think, are always too long for comments. If you don’t mind the ‘exposure’ I will write it up as a blog post – “in reply to” – and link it to you here?

    • Hi Nick, thanks for the brilliant reply! I’ve heard that suggestion before, about paring your writing back and trying to start with the basics. It’s a skill in itself really, and one which I find particularly hard; I struggle to write about simple things, or write simple notes even, as they just don’t seem ‘good enough’. I rewrite sentences over and over again and blogs take me hours! I sometimes try to just sit down and write a stream of consciousness but it makes me feel negative about my writing and so I’m never having a proper outpouring of ideas. I’m always over-thinking it and wondering if it’s good enough for everyone else. I think it possibly requires a creative writing course and a few exercises in trying to explore my imagination without the constraints of expectation (not an easy task!). I tried not to read this (my) reply over and over and as such it probably reads badly, but small steps…

      Definitely do post your comment as a blog, it’s a very helpful, informative and enjoyable read.

      See you on Tuesday?


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