Collage by K. Ibura featuring porcelain art by Sandra Byers
Last month, I wrote about a panel on vulnerability and how the conversation made me reflect on the power of community as a healing force. There’s another valuable bit of information I got from the panel. In discussing how people behave when vulnerable and why we shy away from the sensation of vulnerability, I found a new word for that squirmy sensation that happens at the start of many, many writing sessions.
I find it unfailingly fascinating that even extremely seasoned writers can have a moment of panic when coming to the page. I’ve called it many things: procrastination, fear, self-doubt, irrationality, but now I have a new term: vulnerability.
Coming to the page (or the canvas or the stage or the instrument or any other artmaking medium) is a moment of great vulnerability. I don’t exactly know why such huge wells of vulnerability is tapped at the beginning of a creative session, but I do know that how a writer manages that vulnerability has everything to do with how successful she is at producing work.
Just think what it would be like if you froze up every time you were about to walk through the door. (Well, it’s very much like this for people who suffer with anxiety issues.) The thought process goes something like this:
- What if I don’t really know how to walk?
- What if I start walking but I forget how to walk?
- What if I forget where I am walking to?
- What if I walk really badly?
- What if I stumble and fall?
- What if I walk myself into a corner?
- What if I walk myself into a wall and hurt myself?
- What if me walking is the most boring thing ever?
- What if I’m just not that exciting a walker?
And so on.
Panic does not need to be based in reality to be powerful. There are parts of us that are hardwired to keep us safe—and for most of us, walking out onto a ledge (even when that ledge is a plot that you don’t know the next stages of) is considered far too dangerous for your body to allow you to follow through with. So it throws up obstacles.
A Journey Through My Writing Obstacles
The sleep obstacle is the earliest writing obstacle I remember. I succeeded in neutralizing it about five or six years ago. For many years, without fail, every time I started to write, after a few paragraphs, I got really, really sleepy. For a while, I let this sleepiness thwart me. I actually believed I was sleepy, so I’d give in and take a nap and decide I’d write another time. Of course, the writing never got done. After a few years of this, I got wise to my body and I said—you go ahead and make me sleepy, I’m just going to write through it. And that’s exactly what I did. When I dozed off, I let myself sleep for a little while, then I gently woke myself up and started again. I did this as many times as I needed to in order to get a good writing session in. I did this for a year or two before my body realized sleep wasn’t going to deter me and that symptom went away.
The next obstacle was disinterest. After years of being flooded with ideas and inspiration, I suddenly couldn’t find an idea I was interested enough in to stick with all the way through the arc of a story. I just didn’t care about any of my ideas enough to see them through. I love puzzles and I’d had success in pushing my creativity through limitations in the past, so I started picking out six random words to be the seed of my stories. Confronted with these six completely unconnected words, my mind would go into overdrive to build some plot that could weave these words together. The novelty of the challenge distracted me from my disinterest and guided me to storylines that I found interesting enough to hold my attention.
Throughout all my years, I had the perfection monster—which had never stopped me in my foundational years of writing, but after I developed a voice and identity as a writer, perfectionism became my next vulnerability obstacle. I lost all ability to accept the misshapen beginnings of storytelling. As I started to write, I would literally be cringing because I hated what I was putting on the page. In this phase, the only way I could move through a draft was by reminding myself over and over, paragraph by paragraph, that a rough draft is called rough for a reason. I’m a strong believer in messy drafts and copious edits, yet I had to convince myself that getting the story on the page—no matter how lumpy and ill-formed—was the most important goal of the moment. The more horrible the rough draft seemed, the more drafts I saw looming up in my future. The only way through this stage of vulnerability was to dig deep into the present moment and tell myself the polishing stage is later—be in the now and get these words on the page.
Now that I’ve gotten through all those phases, my new reaction to the vulnerability of writing is sheer panic and childlike breakdowns. Unlike the decades when I first started writing, we now have cell phones—which means I do not have to spiral into despair alone. I spend the first hour of my writing sessions texting my friends and moaning. Oh no, it’s time to write again. Oh no, I’m tired. Oh no, I can’t focus. Oh no, I’ve been procrastinating for hours. I call in witnesses to walk with me and acknowledge the momentous undertaking of shifting my emotions and moving through my deep desire to turn away. Then, and only then, when my difficulties have been seen (and I am sufficiently ashamed of how long it’s taking me to start writing), am I able to get down to business and continue the work of storytelling.
Calling those first messy moments of a writing session vulnerability helps me have more compassion for myself. There are so many potential pitfalls in the process of writing, so feeling vulnerable when undertaking the task just makes sense. We like to focus on the word discipline, like it’s all about effort—but the true discipline is being steadfast in facing your emotions, being willing and able to accept any curveball your vulnerability throws at you and staying the course. There is no guarantee of how long it will take to write a project, there is no guarantee that the course you have set to plot your story is the right one, there is no guarantee that the characters you have developed will be the ones to see the story through—in short, there are no guarantees. Your body and your brain know this—and they wish fervently to keep you away from devoting yourself to such a daunting mission. Understanding the resistance as a manifestation of vulnerability makes it a tiny bit more manageable, makes it a hair more likely that you will not drown under the weight of your woes, that you will resist your deep desire to flee and instead embrace vulnerability. Acknowledge the terror, then put your hands on the keyboard, tighten your grip upon the pen, and begin.
Be well. Be love[d].