So, we have our aspirations and our passions, we’ve got our special physical place to write in. But what gets in the way before you even get to your desk? This is the tough part, which I’ve experienced and go on experiencing and it goes by a few different names: the war of art, writing anxiety, but resistance sums it up best.
Before I discovered what this feeling is all about, I already had a little of it over beginning to start a new drawing or painting – a kind of performance anxiety – a blank sheet or canvas, waiting for the first tentative marks. Suddenly, I’d think, oh, I’ll vacuum first, I’ll tidy the kitchen, I’ll check emails, oh, and I have that friend to phone – and its always a friend who analyses a lot like I do, so it’s a long conversation…
This reticence to begin the work does have a degree of merit in clearing your mind of clutter before you flex your creative muscles, but it’s also insidious resistance where a kind of battle begins within the self. And this resistance can get worse. Maybe someone phones you and invites you out for a coffee? To leave the premises with your creating space left behind when you were planning to use it is a more dramatic resistance – it’s running away.
When I read The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, which was recommended to me by a writing tutor, all became clear. It’s an insightful book, which explains what resistance is all about and how to press on through it. In turn, I recommended it to an artist friend and she too felt hugely relieved that we artists of any kind get this same phenomenon, this conflict within us. We love our creative life, we love doing the work, but we resist for a variety of reasons. Why?
Are we afraid of our own potential?
Are we afraid of not living up to our potential?
Are we afraid of what we may release? If we know in ourselves it is good work, and want to share it with the world, will the world care? Will someone want to buy our painting (of limited time investment) or read our book (a huge time investment)? If the work turns out to be poor by our own evaluation, will it taint us with personal disappointment, self doubt? The more creative energy and time you spend on your ‘opus’ the more you have to lose.
Are we afraid of losing the passion with the creative struggle? Because struggle it certainly is.
When I first started writing, a new vocation was born in me with an intensity about it far greater than when I paint. When I paint, I relax, when I write I feel more charged, more challenged, like I’m entering a black hole in a small craft, where anything may come at me, where anything is possible, and I’ve got to navigate my way through with deft moves, both calculated and intuitively spontaneous. And once you’re in there, its hard to get out…ideas keep coming long after you’ve left the desk, you have to catch them, jot them down, like bits of stardust that have come out of the black hole with you. So the very prospect of the intensity of this is both exciting, yet scary. No wonder resistance keeps cropping up.
These are conflicting and paradoxical states within us. And in that vein, if we do give in to resistance, even saying a very logical no to the work, then what happens?
When you let the creative muscles lie limp, a creeping crawling tension build up – from not creating. I know this from myself and from speaking to other artists/writers. So there is something within us that we have to get out, to express, and for myself, if I even only manage to read through the previous day’s writing and continue with one paragraph that I’m happy with, then that tension drops away. I never used to realise what was going on with all this drive countered by resistance, but found myself wanting to understand it from a psychological point of view. So I armed myself for battle with another excellent read, Fearless Creating by psychotherapist and creativity coach, Eric Maisel, who explains how writers and artists are busy creating meaning for themselves and for their life through their work, where the drive comes from, and why we must keep on doing the work.
So now I understand what’s going on, I can handle it better and don’t berate myself too much. I use as much acceptance as I can muster that this is the artist’s lot, but that we get our very meaning from our work, and to keep the soul happy you have to keep doing it.
Left brain, Right brain
Okay, so you’ve got to work, your mind is in the right place for now, you have your coffee by your side, and the cat has slinked in and is curling up on your notes. What gets in the way now, apart from the cat?
Left brain intrusion. You’ve probably engaged your right brain by now, where your main creating comes from – the fun of writing, the sheer pleasure, the spontaneity and the ideas and expression and passion. Great, you’re in the fictive dream, the trance of writing. But what can so easily happen is the left brain inner critic tapping on your shoulder, or whispering in your ear. Sitting there with its legs crossed, humming and harring, frowning and tutting, evaluating your moves. It’s the editor, the follower of all the crafting rules and conventions you’ve ever read, the assessor of your work, of what you’ve just typed, asking questions and saying things like:
Can you say that?
Shouldn’t you look up those notes on writing dialogue?
You’d better check up on that.
Remember, you’re not supposed to write chapters over 5,000 words
You’re not coming up with any good descriptions or metaphors
Call yourself a writer!
Who do you think you are, anyway?
Do you really think anyone will want to read this?
So the left brain can get downright nasty…and the right brain defensive, by saying countering things like:
You’re supposed to write freely in the early stages
If I check on that now, I’ll interrupt the flow
My chapters are as long as they need to be
I will come up with some good descriptions if you leave me alone
I’m an okay writer and I want to do this
Yes, someone will want to read it, if I believe this is worth writing about, which I do.
Oh, clear off, and leave me alone! (intonation – a desperate wail!)
So this battle between left and right sides of the brain is something you have to learn to deal with. The right brain comes up with the goods, the left brain evaluates, but in its defence and when used the best way, it can make your work better and more polished, when you decide it’s time for a little evaluation. I’ve discovered that you have to welcome both, that they need each other. Where would the inner critic be, with nothing created to critique? They need to work together in sequence, where you control which part of the brain you’re calling on. It does take a lot of practice, but as always with writing related matters, the more you write, the better it gets.
As a result of my reading, my own struggles and understanding, I have a much greater respect for what it means to be an artist than I did in the past, and that Steven Pressfield’s got it right in his book’s parting message when he says to artists battling with resistance ‘Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.’ That’s a lovely mantra to bear in mind when you sit down in your writer’s space.