The Angst of the Artist

Lincoln ParkIt really only happens when we’re not working–because we’re stuck or self-doubting or, well, just not working. I am one hell of a crotchety old woman when I’m not writing. And lately that’s been true for a few more days than I’d like.

During novel revisions last night, I finally went back to a revised scene that I still wasn’t satisfied with. A daughter comes home to visit her parents after marrying their community’s prophet. She has decided it was a mistake, and she wants validation from her mother–as well as someone to join her escape from Zion. But the daughter’s disclosure terrifies her mother more than anything.

I had only made it through ten more pages of revisions in a week, and I was stuck. It was because I had breezed through that scene. I had been lazy about the changes that needed to happen in the dialogue. I hadn’t even taken the time to identify what they were really talking about–the subtext.

And then I fixed myself a cup of decaf last night and dove in. Magic happened. I had only felt like I didn’t know what to do. When the truth is I had been unwilling to do it. Once I pulled up the scene on my word processor and told myself I was going to sit there until I got it done, it only took an hour and a half. And I nailed it.

It’s another story, of course, if an artist struggles with mental illness or other neurological differences. The possible reasons both for angst and for not working during certain periods are a whole lot more diverse and complex.

But if you’re the owner of a pretty neurotypical brain and have never wrestled with chronic mental illness, well, chances are that block is not a block. Not really. As soon as you sit down and fully commit to doing something on your project, you’ll be off and running. It doesn’t matter if that something is formatting your manuscript, shooting photos on a stroll through your neighborhood, or brainstorming a mind map. Whatever you don’t have a mental block about.

Because the more I work with students and the more often I push through my own resistance, the more convinced I become that there is no such thing as a creative block. There are just mental blocks. The usual lineup of But I can’t. I don’t know how. I’m not smart enough. It won’t be any good.

So focused on the ego–the “I.” I mean, what are we–five? It’s nuts. Of course we can’t be creative and take risks in that mental state. The problem is that artist angst has been romanticized, which in some way legitimizes it. Programmers don’t get to have the same degree of angst and resistance about a code they have misgivings about. They still have to do the work.

So do the work already.

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