Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist – Part 3: Talent and Practice

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“Writing is really just a matter of writing a lot, writing consistently and having faith that you’ll continue to get better and better. Sometimes, people think that if they don’t display great talent and have some success right away, they won’t succeed. But writing is about struggling through and learning and finding out what it is about writing itself that you really love.”

— Laura Kasischke

0. PREVIOUSLY

Rapidly recapping essay #2 with David Kleinsteuber:

Stephen King tells you to imagine there is a muse in your basement. A grumpy, cigar-smoking muse with little wings, who only on choice occasions, when it pleases him, doles out that good inspiration-stuff. How do you depend on someone (or something) that seems so inherently fickle in nature—yet on whom you are at the same time so necessarily dependent? How do you relate to him, treat him?

In the second outing of Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist, Casper Rudolph talks about inspiration: what it is, where to find it if you feel you cannot find any, and how to relate to it in a way that will actually get you writing.

Also pertinent: can you live without caffeine?

1. ELITE

Truth be told, the notion of talent has always seemed rather elusive to me. I never really asked myself the question of whether or not I am talented. However, I’ve had numerous people come up to me—after having read my work or having heard me play the guitar—to tell me I’m talented and should keep at it. Of course it’s very sweet of them to say, but as much as I appreciate the compliment, it honestly just has me wondering to what extent talent factors into my ability to make art. Or, perhaps more importantly, to what extent is it even relevant to think about talent at all?

For the longest time people have been discussing talent. Attempts have been made at figuring out if it’s genetically determined, or if it all boils down to working your ass off. The author Malcolm Gladwell has even suggested this 10,000 hour rule, which essentially means that you have to put 10,000 hours into whatever it is you do in order to become an expert at it. In any case, from what I’ve seen and read it doesn’t seem like people engaged in this discussion will come to an agreement any time soon. So, rather than taking a stance in this myself, I figured I’d just acknowledge the discussion and then simply skip past it. While this may seem arrogant or ignorant to some, I’ll just say this much: talent in this context, as I understand it, is being discussed in relation to achieving an elite level in whatever it is you do. Think of winning gold at the Olympics; immersing yourself in quantum physics; or perhaps writing a novel equaling War and Peace[1].

To make this idea of an elite level more explicit, in my opinion it denotes a hierarchy in quality of, in this case, writing. The problem that lies at the core of the term hierarchy, however, is that opinions on how this hierarchy is structured vary greatly from person to person. Therefore it is never clear who gets to decide what an elite level really means, or what is required to reach it. In my opinion, regardless of the various ideas that people have, a sense of hierarchy potentially puts pressure on the aspiring artist, which can result in a blockage of self-expression. To me it seems rather counterproductive to attempt to frame self-expression in a hierarchy—within the context of art and the aspiring artist, of course—because the aspiring artist may end up feeling pressured to live up to someone else, or to achieve great feats like someone else. To me it seems more valuable to not be so strict or harsh on an aspiring artist, but just let them play and express their truths (assuming they aren’t causing harm to others). In other words: it is okay to simply practice art for fun.

I’ll give a personal example: every Friday evening I return to the dojo to practice in the ways of

nunchaku-do[2]. I train with national champions, with European champions, with world champions. However, personally I am not interested in living up to their achievements and also earning gold medals, because the very reason I show up to the training sessions is because I simply enjoy them: it’s a good workout. For me, that is enough.

And so all of this leads me to another question:

Do you need to achieve an elite level in writing, or do you just want to write?

If you feel like you need to achieve an elite level in writing, then the follow-up question is as short as it is obvious:

Why?

2. DISCLAIMER

Before we take the plunge, I want to clarify that I’d initially intended to write two separate installments: one on talent and one on identity. However, after some reconsideration, I decided that the two are intertwined and therefore need to be addressed in the same essay. For starters, we’ll get into some philosophical topics such as energy and identity, because in order to make more sense out of the practical stuff we have to get the philosophical theory out of the way first.

3. ENERGY

In the first essay I explained that writing, at the age of 12, was very much like a game to me. A toy to play with. I did not come to the computer to tell a high quality story or push boundaries or even to learn. I simply did so because the energy was there and it had to be expressed. And it still rings true. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, these are truths I harbor in my heart that I need to express one way or another. Frankly, it’s not even like I have a choice in the matter. I must do this, through art especially, as there is nothing else for me to do. I have an inherent need to express myself, which governs my thoughts, my actions, my mood, my entire being.

Now, you might wonder, where does this energy come from? Is there anything you can do to receive it? I suppose, if I put it like this, it sounds similar to inspiration, on which I wrote in the previous essay. However, seeing as both are entirely different things, a distinction between inspiration and energy needs to be made. In order to make this distinction I am redefining the words for my own communicative purposes. By no means do I intend to say that this is what the words always mean or should mean; I’m merely establishing a context in which I decide to use these words in the following ways:

Inspiration comes from something perceived (an artwork; nature; science; a person; a situation; anything from our sensory world, even emotions[3]). It then triggers thoughts, or at its most basic level gives us an idea to work with. From there it’s your choice to use it or to let it go and forget about it.

Energy, however, is undeniable. We are not in control of it and at the same time it’s always with us. It’s what drives physical movement (walking, talking, typing with your fingers, etc); and it’s beyond cognitive structures (belief systems, opinions, notions of identity, etc). It’s what allows for the possibility to perceive at all. In that sense, energy comes before inspiration. Furthermore, on a basic biological level, there are all these tiny electrical sparks going from the brain to various body parts: that’s energy. But it’s also vibrations, frequencies, temperature, to just name a few. In fact, we are energy. Everything[4] is energy.

Now, when I say that, for me, the energy to write is there, then that means that it’s indeed beyond my thoughts and ideas because it is an inherent part of who I am and I don’t actually control it: I just have it. I don’t sit around thinking, “So I want to be a writer, but what do I do to become one?” and then act on the wish to be a writer. This is natural energy that needs to be expressed somehow, and, in my case, it takes the form of writing and music. Of course I enjoy it, but that’s not why I do it. As I said, I do it because I must.

***

Before writing this essay, I had a conversation with Martin W. Ball[5]. The dialogue started when I asked him about talent as well as to what extent my identification as a writer is egoic. He explained that the term ego implies identity, while a writer could just be someone who writes. Martin went on to explain that there are people who want to be writers but just aren’t very talented at it. In this case such people attempt to make a wish based on desire come true, and, by extension, identify with that wish. This, without judgment, is egoic. Then he confirmed my ideas regarding energy, which I just explained above. He says that for some people their energy is naturally communicative and that it needs to be expressed in some way or another. These people can’t help themselves and, Martin says, that’s when some might say that they are “naturally talented.”

What this boils down to, in my opinion, is that there are two types of writers. Egoic writers and energetic writers. An egoic writer needs some incentive to start working, whereas an energetic writer has an inherent drive to do it. Moreover, egoic writers potentially run the risk of wanting to impress other people, or compare themselves to other artists that they admire. The egoic writer needs to be mindful of these two things for the following reasons:

  1. If an egoic writer succeeds at impressing others, this can then lead them to identify with the successful outcome; i.e. the success becomes a part of their identity. Once they find themselves unable to achieve the success again, they could potentially experience this as a blockage as this might lead them to doubt themselves and their ability. They might become hesitant to continue writing out of fear they’ll fail again.
  2. There’s nothing wrong with comparing yourself to an artist you admire in order to learn. However, identifying with the wish to write like someone else, and possibly to achieve the same type of success, can also lead to a blockage simply because it is impossible to write like someone else. Everyone has a different style and voice. This is developed, along with one’s personality, over the course of one’s life—therefore unique. If you try to be someone else, you will fail. You might become hesitant to continue writing because you’re afraid your writing isn’t as good as someone else’s. Having said that, at the same time it holds true that if you try to be someone else, this can lead to the realization that it is impossible to be anybody but yourself. In other words: the process of trying to be someone else can help you to figure out who you are, finding your own voice, because you can learn from mimicking the actions of others. You just have to be extremely mindful, once again, that you don’t identify with wanting to be someone else, but that you are strictly taking this approach to learn a new perspective and broaden your horizon as a creator.

Now, it may seem like the energetic writer has an advantage over the egoic writer. However, the energetic writer also has to remain vigilant. The moment the energetic writer identifies with the idea that they need their writing-energy to get to work, they turn into an egoic writer. Once the energy isn’t perceived for a while (and bear in mind that if something isn’t perceived, it doesn’t automatically mean it isn’t there), they might begin to experience this as a blockage because they’ve become dependent on the idea that they need a special kind of energy. They may fool themselves into thinking that if the energy isn’t there, they can’t write—even though the energy is very much still a part of them.

To avoid such problems, we have to stop bullshitting ourselves, sit down, and start typing. Even when the energy doesn’t seem to be there. Even when the writing doesn’t seem as good as someone else’s. Even when we’re unsuccessful[6], or failing to impress someone. Just write, and keep writing, no matter what. Ideally, it’s a balance of both energy and identity (ego). In this process raw energy comes through you and identity (ego) is used as a tool to give the artwork your unique voice and personality, shaping it into a product that could only be created by you. As Neil Gaiman once wisely said (and I paraphrase): “Write your story because you’re the only one who can tell it.”

Lastly, during my conversation with Martin I realized something about myself as a writer. Since I do this because there’s nothing else for me to do, I ended up falling in love with it. That, in turn, made me want to continue doing it, and finally I constructed an identity around it. In other terms: in this great cosmic show it’s not so much that I play the character of Mr. Writer; I just play Casper. And what Casper does is create art through writing and music. This means that “being a writer” doesn’t always relate to one’s identity, but could be an action instead, like a verb. Don’t let the word “being” fool you, because writer isn’t something I can be—it’s only something I can do. Casper is what I can be.

Look at it like this: some people would classify “writer” as a noun and “writing” as a verb. Since language is arbitrary we can easily decide that “writer” (like “writing”) is something we perform, and not so much are. For example, I am Casper, and what Casper does is perform as a writer. Precisely because energy is required to perform, it becomes clear to me that writer isn’t a part of my ego. Instead it is part of the energy that’s beyond ego/identity. The ego just picks up on it and starts working with it, because we require the ego to get anything done at all. Without the ego, we’d just be sitting on our asses, staring into nothing. Now, as if this isn’t mind-boggling enough, Martin then said to me that the real question is: “Who is Casper?”

Yeah. I know. Let’s just take a break, shall we?

4. PRACTICE

I could swear I once heard Stephen King say that, in order to become a good writer, you’d need to get 3000 words a day. However, in On Writing he actually says, “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span” (154). While 2000 is still a lot, I did stick to 3000 words per day for a few years[7]. I often exceeded it by writing in between 5000 to 10,000 words, depending on how much energy had to be unleashed. As a result I wrote four novels, and more than thirty short stories. Mind you, I’m not saying this to impress, because from my perspective this didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem like a lot. For me it was simply my “normal”; merely a part of the process. In fact, the main reason I was doing this was because it was effortless. Straight-up fun. And it still is.

Not once has writing seemed like a chore to me (except when I had to write papers for school). I used to write into the night, and once I got up, I’d return to the computer to continue. I also partook in a Star Wars role-playing game on a forum, for which I easily wrote more than 1000 words a day.

You see, the moment you stop thinking about this thing called “talent”, or this stupidly arbitrary 10,000 hour rule, or becoming a so-called expert, or about energy, or ego, or success, or failure, or any outcome for that matter, the possibility arises for you to just relax into enjoyment. And that’s not something you can actively pursue—this automatically occurs once you genuinely start having fun.

From that point onward you may find that the learning process also becomes automatic. As long as you have faith in yourself and in your writing (which can be maintained by the egoic writer by focusing on enjoyment of the process, and by the energetic writer by trusting that the energy is inside them and there’s no need to wait on an external incentive), and as long as you start seeing how you’re improving, then that means that you are learning. When you realize you are learning, you can start paying attention to what exactly you have learned, and start actively applying this to your next work. By this point the drive to write already exists at an energetic level. Therefore you can utilize the ego as a tool (without strictly identifying with it). In practice, that means thinking about how and when to apply show-and-tell, or how to make your descriptive passages more visual, or how to maintain character development over the course of a story—to just name a few things. Once you got that going, you may not be able to stop anymore. Typically blocky questions—am I a real writer?; am I talented enough?; will people like my stuff?—simply become irrelevant as you’ll have surpassed any of these. I mean, you’re writing and you’re enjoying it! What more could you possibly want?

***

While some of the aforementioned things occur automatically, there are ways of facilitating progress. After all, not everyone is the same, and therefore not everyone’s process will be the same. Just bear in mind that these are suggestions, not rules.

First, decide on a word count you’d like to reach (not have to reach). This can be any amount of words, it doesn’t have to be 3000 if that doesn’t work for you. It can also be 100, for instance. Whatever amount you feel comfortable with. Moreover, it can be useful to not set yourself the goal of reaching a maximum word count, but instead go for a minimum word count. Especially if the word count is low, it will be an easy goal to reach, and if you’re really feeling it you can always exceed the minimum. For instance, if you set a minimum of 100 words and discover that you reached a whopping 700 at the end of your session, this can be a very rewarding and motivating experience. Additionally, you can always up your minimum word count if you feel the time is right.

Second, decide if this word count is a daily goal, a weekly goal, or whatever works for you. Figuring out the time of writing is important. Some people write better in the morning, some write better in the afternoon, some at night, and some can write any time they like.

Third, decide where you’d like to write. At home? At the library? Once you’ve decided on these three things you can then start to regulate the process, which helps turning it into a habit. Once you get into the habit, there’s nothing that can keep you from it, except yourself.

Fourth, decide per session if you’re going to be free-writing free-writing[8] or working on something specific. Free-writing can be good to get a story started, or, if that’s your style, to churn out a story from start to finish. But when you set the intention to do something specific, this can provide some helpful focus. Keep in mind that the style of writing may depend on the project you are currently working on, as well as your current mood and environment.

Fifth, stay inspired by reading a lot. Try to read through the eyes of a writer, so you’ll pick up on techniques and styles. Then try out those techniques and styles for yourself. Not to mimic another writer, but just to learn how said techniques work. This can help your own writing in the long run.

Last, finish the entire thing before you even think of editing. Never get stuck over-thinking what you just wrote, but keep going. While writing your first draft, go for the plot, get to know the characters, and never look back until you reach an endpoint[9]. After all, if you keep editing during writing-time, you will never finish. This can subconsciously give you the idea that you’re doing something wrong or lead you to never be satisfied with your work. That’s precisely how you develop an unnecessary blockage, and it takes away all the fun.

5. CONCLUSION

There’s no need to even consider talent. If writing is something you want to do, then do it. Forget about being the best there is. You can’t beat every single writer alive and every one that’s ever lived. This is a game, not a contest. Take writing seriously, but not too seriously. Practice regularly, get into a habit, don’t be pretentious and don’t tell yourself that you need to live up to a standard that someone else has set for you. It doesn’t matter what others think. Your life doesn’t depend on this. Just be you.

And finally, ask yourself:

What makes writing fun for you?

6. NEXT

In the next essay we will take what I said here a step further. I know it’s going to be challenging, but for those struggling with it, there’s no way out but to face your struggles. The next one’s about making your writing personal, being fearless in your endeavors, the importance of self-expression and self-worth. For now, the main lesson is to try and seek joy in your work. As the wise Sadhguru says: “Don’t work hard, work joyfully.” If you can do this, everything else will be okay.

 

Endnotes

[1] The only reason War and Peace is mentioned is because it’s widely considered as the best novel ever written. Do I personally agree? Well, besides never having read it, I don’t see how I could possibly agree with such a sweeping statement. I mean, “best novel ever written?” I’m sure it’s good, but did people compare it to every single novel that has ever existed throughout all of history?

[2] The nunchaku (or “nunchucks”) is made famous by the great Bruce Lee as it was his signature weapon.

[3] While emotions are “within” us, they can still be perceived like anything else in the world. The moment you become aware of love or anger or joy or sadness, then you perceive that emotion within yourself. Therefore I’d say that emotions are still part of the world we inhabit.

[4] I realize full well that the term “everything” is inherently problematic, because what does “everything” entail? The Universe? Collective Consciousness? Oversoul? God? The truth is that not a single word can explain “everything,” wherefore it’s impossible to define it at all. Not even the word itself is an adequate description because all it does is provide us with some vague concept that we can never fully comprehend. “Everything” is beyond thought, and therefore beyond language. Still I’m using the term, because what else am I going to say (it’s not like I even fully understand)? Oh, the limitations of language…so goddamn arbitrary.

[5] Martin is a leading expert on entheogenic research, has a Ph.D in religious studies, and is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, as well as a musician. His website can be visited here.

[6] What does “successful” or “unsuccessful” mean anyway?

[7] These days I don’t write every day. When I do I either attempt to finish the first draft of an entire short story, or reach 1000 to 3000 words if I’m working on a novel(la). I’m fine with not reaching such a goal, though. I’m happy to be writing at all.

[8] Free-writing is writing whatever comes to mind, sometimes without putting down your pen. There are plenty of free-writing exercises online.

[9] There are some exceptions here, of course. For instance, I’m working on an epic fantasy novel that has three acts. Once I reach the end of an act, I like to go back to the beginning to refresh my memory and do some rough editing. Rough editing isn’t the same as real editing, though. And the only reason I’m really doing this is because an act is already the length of a novel, so it just helps my process. This may (and probably will) be different for you.

Acknowledgment

A special thanks to Martin W. Ball, Ph.D.

Works cited

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2010. Print.

 

casper website

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2 responses to “Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist – Part 3: Talent and Practice

  1. “Talent” is a far more useful concept in more concrete activities, like weight-lifting, in which certain easily identifiable genetic factors determine most potential. Talent can be identified in writers, but where it takes them is usually different. For instance, William Hazlitt’s early letters already demonstrate great linguistic ability, a natural sense of prose rhythm and ease of quotation. Many other major writers betray an early incompetence in writing, a surprising awkwardness and turgidness — I am thinking, for instance, of H.L. Mencken and Faulkner. Yet Mencken, for instance, would through laborious effort evolve a famously thunderous prose style, with the hard labor evident in his many revisions. Undoubtedly Hazlitt was more talented a writer, and wrote far better lyrical passages than Mencken, but both writers are remembered as great prose stylists in the essay form — each in massively different ways.

    Other examples of writers who “willed” themselves to write are Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. It is no surprise both became very popular writers: in years of studying the craft of other writers, they delineated what made their works resonate with the public for years. I don’t think any man, in temperament and in natural talent and ability, was less likely to become a major writer than London, yet he succeeded gloriously. As with, for instance, dancing, where others natural talent can initially seem daunting, it is invariably possible to reach a similar level through commitment.

    One other way to go about writing: Richard Wilbur would force himself to sit at his desk and at least THINK of poetry, yet he sometimes would not write a single line over a session of easily 3 hours. The natural play of the imagination, though, was its own work, and through providing himself with these moments of “work” he had a steady output of high quality poems.

  2. Pingback: Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist – Part 2: Inspired by Spirit | Writer's Block·

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