How to Overcome Major Obstacles as a Writer
Author: Joe Hall
What sort of obstacles do you find most writers run into early in their careers?
For me what wasn’t an obstacle was producing writing—poems, short stories, awful screen plays. But like a lot of early career writers, I had an unrealistic view of my own work, when it was done, and who might want it. I sent bad drafty fragmented poems to The New Yorker and lyric stuff to Diagram. My decision making was directed by a self-defeating contrarian impulse and ignorance of the market. It is possible that I was afraid if a single poem was published I was then and forever the kind of writer that wrote poems like that, something less than Moses taking down the Ten Commandments.
Here is the obstacle: every young writer, at the moment they decide to make a career out of writing, is necessarily, even for just a second, a completely unreasonable egomaniac. This leads them into having most if not everything they write rejected at first. That’s ok. It takes rejection to redefine success in more achievable and sane ways. It only breaks my heart when a good writer lets rejection shut them down.
What was one of the toughest times in your writing life? How did you handle it?
I’ve just been through it in trying to finish an MS for Black Ocean. It was drafted in 2008-2009 and three years of revision followed. There’s good stuff there but 2009 and 2010 were hard years: break ups, move after move, bad jobs, a trailer park. My attention was dented. When I found myself living for several months with the thermostat set at 45 degrees cooking beans in a jacket and knit hat, I had to learn to shelve the poems and to trust that I would be able to enter them later, when things were better. On the other hand, I still made sure I was writing, working on something each day during that time, and when my head was finally above water, and I had time, I worked like a demon, trashing one whole other MS to finish this one. Throughout this, I had to tell myself that being a failure at some things (making money, career decisions), didn’t make me a failure as a writer. I got through it.
What’s writers block like for you? How did you overcome it?
I don’t get writer’s block so much as the part of me which performs quality control checks out. If I say, “I’m going to write a poem today,” that happens. If I want to write well, I try to write as free from distractions as possible. This lately means the earliest, quietest parts of the morning or afternoons where I’ve done something difficult that day and am clarified through exhaustion.
I like, also, to think of Dillard’s corny and great story about the physicist who when the an idea strikes him, shaves, showers, and puts on a suit before writing the idea down. I like to think I’ve performed some kind of ablution before I do my best work. That my brain is wearing a nice robe and smells like jasmine.
Revision is where I hit total “blocks.” I reread the poem into nonsense and convince myself that changing a line break will fix everything. I waste time fussing when maybe the most important thing I need to do is to step back and say “What am I or am I not trying tosay here?” When I get back to the big picture, I realize there are entire stanzas that need to be trashed, reworked, or added.
Some people see struggle or difficulty as an essential part of the life of an artist. Do you think that’s true? Do you see any correlation between struggle and the drive to create?
There is that Blake poem “Infant Sorrow”/John Vanderslice song “Fiend in a Cloud”:
Struggling in my father’s hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands;
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast
From the get go struggle is the substance of life and art is there to reconcile us to those struggles. Or at least that’s one way to look at it. When I was in diapers my family lived in the shell of a house. Everyone slept in sleeping bags so the housing inspector wouldn’t find out. My parents built the house around us. It was hard on everyone. So yeah, how can I not think struggle is an essential part of art? But the struggle of a writer must, to me, synthesize the personal, political, and an approach to the limits of one’s own capacity to understand and communicate understanding. It must be situated on that axis. What I mean is, don’t go making problems for yourself. Your life can be art, but not the sappy, self-pitying kind or the kind where one plans out struggles and receives an advance for engaging with these struggles. This might sound strange coming from somebody who uses the word “weeping” probably way too much, but it is true. How do we parse our personal struggles in the language of a larger public crisis? Engagement with that question is, I think, critical. It also seems so utterly important for an artist to struggle with their own fluency, their familiar and pretty good gestures and tools.
What advice could you give someone who is struggling to survive as a writer?
You’re not alone. I’ve always written best when I’ve had some obstacle, something that leaves me dumbstruck—love, iniquity, the tour of human misery and stiff upper-lipped grind-it-outness that was working at a shipping plant, printing press, plant nursery, saw mill, medical filing room, etc. Your struggle is your own greatest resource and your bridge to others.
Beyond that, I really think about half of you must also serve something which you perceive as good which is not writing. One heart will pump into the other. What I won’t say is find more to time to write or ‘sacrifice’; instead, if you’re doing something outside of yourself once a day, you’ll wake up before dawn writing or the devil will wake you up in the middle of the night and make you write in a way which returns you to and reconstitutes yourself.
On the other hand, you better believe that being a full time Joyce Carol Oates writa-tron—writing, running, pumping grad students for stories—is being on the wrong side of things. Oates is a vampire. Look at her Wikipedia page. It has an entry for “Productivity.” You can’t turn writing into a factory job, you just can’t. So be thankful that you don’t have all the time in the world. And yeah yeah, sometimes you got to engineer some sort of extended time to work things out, but I’m talking about the day to day majority here. There’s got to be some service to something far outside of yourself there. Writing in and of itself is not a virtue.