the art of getting creatively unstuck (+ why you sometimes have to kill off your inner nice girl)
“When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” — Adrienne Rich
Sometimes you have to surrender.
We all get stuck from time to time. If we could just lighten up a little, and stop speaking so harshly to ourselves, we might realize there’s no shame in it. Getting stuck – hitting an impasse – is part of the process of growth. It’s like some cosmic entity knocking on your skull and saying, Hey, you. The usual stuff isn’t working anymore. Time to try something new.
An act of surrender is an act of letting go. It’s an admission that the old model
(the one we’ve been clinging to so stubbornly, since some ancient part of our brain is always figuring Hey, if nothing’s killed us yet, then it ain’t broke so why fix it)
is no longer working.
In my case, it was my original outline for my novel-in-progress THE DECADENTS. Somewhere in my reading I’d gotten this idea that to have a needed breakthrough, I had to just give up. So I said to myself, as an experiment: “I quit.”
And in the next few days, something interesting happened. Instead of chasing the same ideas down the wellworn mental grooves, my mind started surfacing a new vision for the novel. Since I had surrendered/quit/given up/thrown my hands in the air in utter despair, I was no longer controlled by the usual ways of thinking about the story and its characters. This liberated all of the things that the old model, the outline, had been suppressing. Now they were free to float up to me at odd moments – while I was driving down Wilshire, or swearing at the overly complicated espresso machine, or explaining to my small male child that no, he can’t play Minecraft until his eyeballs fall out.
I started to get interested in the novel again.
We’re afraid to let go of what’s familiar; we’re afraid of being left with nothing. We forget that the act of letting go is a creation of space for something better.
In order to get some fresh eyes – and some outsider thinking – on my novel, I signed up for a session with Martha Alderson, a.k.a. ‘The Plot Whisperer’.
This proved helpful for several reasons. As I talked through my story, I realized I wasn’t as lost as I thought. Martha helped me clarify some key scenes that brought the story into focus. Just as importantly, she helped me see what I’d been resisting: the identity and nature of my novel’s antagonist. Once I recognized that, it was like the novel itself rose up to meet me. It had been there all along.
This wasn’t my only point of resistance. I got into trouble before, when I tried to make my character Gabe the protagonist. For some reason that I still don’t fully understand, I hadn’t wanted to admit that the protagonist is actually the younger woman that Gabe gets obsessed with: the gorgeous troubled dancer, Cat. It’s not that I don’t like Cat. I think she’s highly intelligent, spirited, and awesome. But it’s as if the novel needs to bend one way, and I keep bruising and exhausting myself trying to push it in the other, less-threatening direction.
The question is why.
Alan Watts, in The 90-Day Novel, writes:
…the desire to write is the desire to evolve, to resolve something we seek to understand.
We create our own model of reality – the outlines for our lives, if you will – and our brain chooses to notice whatever supports that reality. It ignores and suppresses everything else. When we get stuck – when that model doesn’t work anymore – we’re forced to let it go, break it apart, allowing new information to finally reach us, and change us.
It could be that, when we write something that challenges us, we’re seeking what lives beyond the edges of our personal reality-model; we’re fighting to punch holes in that model until new, much-needed knowledge can get in. These are the scenes that we shy away from: the points of resistance, the problem areas, the reasons we procrastinate. We need to write them but don’t want to write them. We put them off.
The mind is a sneaky thing. We can talk about how we should write towards the fear, how we should, as Pema Chodron puts it, “lean into the sharp points”: that’s where the juice is, the truth is, the growth for our characters and our readers and ourselves. Instead of flinching away, we should flinch forward. But the mind has a lot of defense mechanisms, including the ability to distort, minimize, and deny, deny, deny. Sometimes those points of resistance aren’t sharp and scary – like a neon sign yelling Over here! Write your way here here here! – but more like dimly lit corners that your mind instinctively swerves around, or even winks out of existence.
I emailed a writer friend:
Curious if you have experienced points of resistance in your own writing…those blind spots you might be, at best, vaguely aware of but keep yourself enough in denial that you don’t have to look on them direct, much less work + write your way through them…
….I feel I’m at my best when I write from a deeply womanly (tho muscular) viewpoint, but it’s that very ‘womaninity’ as a friend calls it that I seem to unconsciously pull away from.
I feel similarly about masculinity. To write about it honestly would scare a lot of people off. Ditto femininity. Reading Canadian novels, you’d think that all women do here is stare po-faced out of windows at flowers they know the names and scents of…I find that writing about men, warts and all, from nobility and strength to puerility and priapics, can be tough. To write sex–and sexuality–is tough without sounding merely pornographic. But even if you do it well, it’s the one thing in your book that reviewers and lots of readers will focus on. You’ll be called frank or racy or daring. Too much of sex and sexuality happens offstage in fiction. I would like to see you and other women writers really write from the totality of their beings, top to bottom, sex to spirit, shit to shinola.
I’d like to see all of us do that.
Around the same time, I had a sunlit Malibu brunch with my writing coach Rachel who mentioned that I have yet to truly write the dark sexuality in my novel: “You know that at some point you have to do it.”
Yes, I replied, I have to go there, which is the term we use for that deep dive into the raw and vulnerable places inside us. I have to kill off the nice girl in me who doesn’t want to be impolite, who doesn’t want her characters to suffer, who doesn’t want to enter the psyche of a sociopath or examine his legacy of continuing damage. This is hardly a memoir, but any real art-making has to draw from the multiple levels of your creative intelligence, your personality and your past: the totality of your being.
The shadow as well as the light.
I’m fascinated with the Jungian concept of the Shadow: those elements of ourselves that we learned young to perceive as absolutely unacceptable. So we split them off and send them away, out past the edges of the model we learn to form our personality around. As artists, though, we need to call them back. Just as a so-called strength can be flipped into a weakness, a so-called weakness can be flipped into a strength. We don’t do ourselves or the world any favors by shutting down these parts of ourselves or sending them into exile.
To learn more about my own shadow, I’m becoming more aware of what I project onto others. If we are what we are attracted to (the qualities in others that lie latent in ourselves) – then we are also what we are repelled by (the qualities in others that we don’t want to admit as qualities in ourselves).
Every now and then when I’m with a group of people I run into a particular kind of woman – it’s always a woman – who gets on my nerves. She is strong-willed and charismatic and dominates the conversation; she doesn’t just command attention, she expects it, she feels entitled to it, she was born to be the star of the show; as my boyfriend puts it, she is an “alpha female”. In one case, I was getting tired of watching people in some way or another pay homage to her.
Finally another woman in my group – a psychologist – pointed out the similarities between my “rival” and myself, including the fact that we were both tall and blonde, and mentioned that the rival was having similar issues with me.
The kneejerk assumption would be that we were in competition with each other (aren’t women, in this culture, always supposed to be fighting and competing?) but hearing her criticize me for the very same traits I was criticizing in her gave me pause. I do not see myself that way. And I realized that my rival didn’t see herself that way either. As a woman – as a nice girl – you’re supposed to be selfless and low-key and gentle and self-effacing. You’re not supposed to compete for attention (especially with men) , and if by some freak chance you do get it you’re supposed to give it away to someone more deserving (usually male). We weren’t competing so much as mirroring each other in ways that didn’t please either of us.
When I could look on her more clearly, I saw the insecurity and vulnerability in her. They had always been there, evident to others. My brain had chosen not to see them because they didn’t fit the way I wanted to perceive her. Thinking harshly about her had been a way of thinking harshly about myself. But what if I extended an olive branch? What if I practiced a spirit of loving-kindness toward her/myself, a spirit of generosity and acceptance?
What if I leaned into the sharp points and stepped into those dimly-lit corners?
What would happen?
If we could be gentle with ourselves.
If we could simply accept whatever comes up in our lives — and our work — as neither good nor bad, but awakened forms of energy with important things to teach us. If we could recognize that being ‘stuck’ is the latest opportunity to expand our vision of ourselves, to change the old model so that it can let in all kinds of light.
If we could look on the fullness of our lives with a spirit of loving-kindness, so that nothing is condemned, split off or banished.
Pema Chodron writes:
We’re trying to learn not to split ourselves between our “good side” and our “bad side”, between our “pure side” and our “impure side”. The elemental struggle is with our feeling of being wrong, with our guilt and shame at what we are. That’s what we have to befriend. The point is that we can dissolve the sense of dualism between us and them, between this and that, between here and there, by moving toward what we find difficult and wish to push away.
She talks about the charnal grounds in Tibet. Charnal grounds are graveyards, sort of. Because the ground was too frozen for burial, people would chop up the dead bodies and leave them out on the grounds for the vultures to eat.
I’m sure the charnel grounds didn’t smell very good and were alarming to see. There were eyeballs and hair and bones and other body parts all over the place….[That image] is grounded in some honesty about how the human realm functions. It smells, it bleeds, it is full of unpredictability, but at the same time, it is self-radiant wisdom, good food, that which nourishes us, that which is beneficial and pure. …
…This charnel ground called life is the manifestation of wisdom.
Getting unstuck involves a shift in understanding – and, since we are what we think, a shift in ourselves. We absorb new information and we incorporate it into our model, our outline, our paradigm. We bring something out of the darkness. It has gifts to give.
To stop resisting – to surrender – is to let ourselves relax.
We lighten up.
And when we are no longer running away from the charnel grounds, we can move closer and see them for what they are: neither good nor bad, not shameful, just there. The sharp points lose their power.
So I want to relax my way into the rest of my novel, knowing that there are parts coming up that are difficult and dark, that no ‘nice girl’ should write.
And also knowing that those places of resistance form my ragged edge: where I’m forced to grow in my understanding of myself by reaching for parts of my identity that have been waiting all this time. Those parts might not seem, on the surface, to be very nice, but they provide strength and nourishment and the ability to tell a greater truth. And when one person tells her truth, it gives others permission to do the same.
I’d like to see all of us do that.