How To Write Egoless Prose, At Least For a Little While


The moment you sit down to write, two forces bear down on you. The first is an absolute conviction in the importance of your work, the shivery sense that you have been called to the language in some spiritual capacity, that you (and you alone) have stories the world must hear, that these stories are ready to spill out of you with the hot urgency of scripture and that when they do you will be recognized as a rare talent, a writer of the first order and eventually—why fight it?—the Messiah.

You are not the Messiah.

But this mindset is generative in nature. It tends to produce a lot of work, even if this same work later makes you cringe.

The second force is the creeping suspicion that any sustained effort to write is doomed, that you will never transcribe the story so perfectly arranged in your mind, will never convey the insight and depth of emotion sloshing around in there, and that the best result you can hope for is that your mother will drive to your apartment with a Crock-Pot full of soup and ask why you’re depressed.

Bad news: you will never rid yourselves of these opposing forces.

Good news: your job is not to make them go away, but to mitigate, and tolerate, the fluctuation between them.

It’s important to consider precisely how these decisions were imperfect, without succumbing to the opera of self-doubt.

It will help to take a step back from the keyboard and consider the essential nature of the activity. What is writing, if you boil away all the romance? Writing is decision-making. Nothing more and nothing less. What word? Where to place the comma? How to shape the paragraph? Which characters to undress and in what manner? It’s relentless.

If you refuse to pass judgment on these decisions, if you walk around thinking you’re the Messiah, you’ll wind up settling for inferior decisions, by which I mean imprecise, contrived, solipsistic ones. If, on the other hand, you condemn your decisions, you’ll lose the improvisatory momentum upon which all narrative construction depends.

The only surefire solution is to develop the capacity to access your decisions without second-guessing your talent. I believe the most effective way to expand this capacity is to appraise the work of other writers, whose decisions you can see more clearly than your own. The goal is to attain that elusive state in which your decision-making becomes intuitive rather than labored.

This sounds lovely. But often in the midst of a writing project, in the midst of the life surrounding that writing project, the second force takes over, and we are overrun with feelings of dread, helplessness, and self-loathing. The technical term is Writer’s Block.

Amid the skittish egos of the literary world, Writer’s Block has assumed a status akin to the Black Plague, an affliction that forces us into quarantine. We just sort of melt from view for a while, off-loading the worst of ourselves onto paid help and loyal beloveds.

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I want to dispel some of the myths about Writer’s Block, and undo the mysteries that surround the condition. What’s happening when we feel blocked? What can we do to find our way back to the keyboard? Can we accept Writer’s Block as a potential ally to our creativity?

The first thing that needs to be said is that writers get blocked almost constantly. During the composition of this very paragraph, I stopped typing thirty-seven times (I counted), stumped as to what I wanted to say next, and how. I got up and made a snack. I went outside to chase away the woodchuck living beneath our storage shed. I came back inside and turned off the app that turns off my internet and spent a solid half hour researching how to poison a woodchuck.

I considered what would happen if I poisoned the woodchuck—or worse yet, the baby woodchuck—and my wife found out. I made a bunch of linguistic tweaks, most of which I unmade, before erasing the whole paragraph and starting over. At every phase of this extremely shitty and inefficient process, I was suffering a block, a moment in which doubt and indecision overtook my faith. I am still eyeing this paragraph suspiciously.

So let’s please stop treating Writer’s Block as a binary: either we’re flowing or we’re blocked. It’s more precise to say that Writer’s Block is the extreme end of a spectrum, where the inhibitive impulses that almost always accompany our decisions become debilitating. We feel a futility so potent that we stop making decisions altogether.

Crazily enough, Writer’s Block is sometimes a symptom of progress. I have a lot of students who travel the same arc I did in grad school. They put in long hours critiquing the work of their comrades. This sharpens their critical faculty. When they return to their own prose, they are suddenly confronted by flaws that had been invisible. It’s brutal.

But what’s really happening? They’re holding themselves to a higher standard, taking their task more seriously. It can feel like being cast out of Eden. The writer has to leave the paradise of innocence (making decisions free of judgment) and face the true nature of her work, the psychological and emotional challenges of literary art. Welcome to the big show.

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I’ve been stalled creatively so many times over the years that it can be hard for me to distinguish between periods of genuine Writer’s Block and eras in which I’ve managed to avoid deep creative work by focusing on other pursuits, such as making money or promoting a book or poisoning baby woodchucks. But I certainly remember the worst of my blocks.

Back in 2003, for instance, I fell into a sustained depression. As is often the case, the trigger was a major creative disappointment. Two years earlier, I’d published my first book, a collection of short stories. I naturally expected this triumph would banish all the doubt I had ever felt, vanquish my rivals, and compel old girlfriends to drunk-dial me in the middle of the night. People would probably also throw money at me as I walked down the sidewalk. Instead, the book sold a few hundred copies and my agent told me to write a novel.

I wrote every day, convinced the book would be a smashing success. My fingers were typing. My characters were gallivanting. From the outside, it looked like I was working. Hell, I was working. After two years, I had 850 pages, which I sent off to my agent. Several months passed. There is no need to catalogue the multitude of panicky, passive-aggressive emails I composed during this span, though for poetic effect, I would estimate the count at 850 million.

Then came a brief conversation. Less than a minute. My agent had read what she could of the manuscript and felt it would be better for us to part ways. She was right, of course, which didn’t stop me from loathing her.

Soon enough, the hatred burned off and I fell right through the floor. There was no point in writing. About the only thing that got me out of bed during those months was the desire for chocolate. Back then, I was eating in such volume, and on such a meager budget, that I took to buying direct from the Haviland Chocolate factory, just a short drive from my apartment in Somerville.

There was a little shop on the first floor that sold seconds, meaning chocolates that were, like me, defective in some way. Often the defect was an excess of chocolate coating, or the accidental bonding of two pieces into one. I could purchase a two-pound box of mint patties for three dollars and a bulging bag of conjoined Clark bars for a buck fifty.

I spent a lot of time in that shop, inhaling chocolate fumes and pondering the miracle of industrial candy production. At a certain point, rent became a pressing concern. A solution soon presented itself. As an apostate journalist, I pitched the local alt weekly a story about Haviland Chocolate.The moment I set foot in the factory, my sadness dissolved. The elevators smelled like Halloween. Massive copper cauldrons of caramel bubbled. Conveyer belts carried marshmallow bunnies through curtains of shimmering chocolate. I had found a world that awakened my attention and curiosity, that brought me alive again.

I decided I would write a book about candy. I didn’t write a book proposal, I just started flying all over the country and bullshitting my way into the little factories where they made weird regional candy bars like the Idaho Spud and the Twin Bing.

When the book was done, I sent it out to a bunch of agents, all of whom agreed it would never sell. It was too strange. One said he didn’t know where it would be shelved in Borders, which is a lot funnier now than it was at the time. The book was genuinely odd: part ode to candy, part angsty confession, part travelogue.

I stuffed the draft in a drawer. I dug it out again only because my writer friends kept asking to read it. Their enthusiasm gave me confidence to send it out to a few editors, one of whom bit. But even after Candyfreak was published, I regarded it as a lark. I had failed at the novel and settled for pop-culture journalism.

I now view the situation more generously: I wrote my way out of a sustained block. This block, in fact, had helped me cast off a certain writerly vanity that was holding me back. Rather than asking, What sort of book should I be writing? I was able to ask a much more useful question: What sort of book do I want to write?

A simpler way of putting it would be this: I lowered the bar.

When people ask me how to deal with Writer’s Block, that’s my essential advice: lower the bar. Blocks result from putting too much pressure on ourselves. Set aside (for now anyway) the big project intended to validate your ego. Focus on what will get you to the keyboard, what feels attainable. Write for twenty minutes. Or ten.

And make sure you have friends around, for support and for the reality check.

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What I’m suggesting here isn’t a regimen of bonbon consumption and self-adulation, but something more like a temporary reprieve from the hardship of judgment. Because judgment leads to insecurity. And all bad decisions at the keyboard arise from insecurity, from little moments of doubt in which our attention shifts from the drama of the story in question to the yammering of ego need.

As this happens, we stop asking the questions that drive our stories forward: Who am I writing about? What do they desire? What endangers them? Can they be saved? We start asking smaller, self-involved questions. Will this metaphor impress the reader? Am I smart enough to pull this off? Funny enough? Deep enough?

We start to perform rather than engage in storytelling. We leap into scene without context. We overwrite. We orchestrate coincidences and calamities to goose the action.

When my students talk about these decisions in workshop, they use language that betrays their insecurity. They talk about how readers will get bored if they reveal too much too soon, as if plot elements should be scattered about like breadcrumbs, to lure the wayward along. They fear readers will deem them histrionic if they dramatize moments of conflict. Or dull if they don’t prettify the language. These decisions, which are intended to entice and placate the reader, have the opposite effect. The reader winds up confused and thwarted. The writer, encountering this, winds up feeling, well, blocked.

It’s a negative feedback loop.

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So how do we disrupt the loop?

Previously, I recommended lowering expectations and shifting to a less fraught project. But I know from personal experience that it’s possible to confront Writer’s Block more directly.

The first step is to take a deep breath and recognize that the manuscript’s flaws are not an indictment of your talent or your right to tell the story. They are merely a set of imperfect decisions you made at a particular moment.

It’s important to consider precisely how these decisions were imperfect, without succumbing to the opera of self-doubt. You have to be able to study your decisions with detachment, to figure out why you made them in the first place.

If you’re anything like me (bad news: you are), you wanted your writing to address certain primal yearnings. Namely, to be seen, heard, acknowledged, understood, admired, and—hell, let’s just get to the basement of this thing—loved. And you know what? You deserve all of that. Try to resist the urge to pathologize these needs or to cast them as weakness. They’re an essential part of your engine to create.

It’s only when these yearnings overpower your creative intentions that they undermine your work. Rather than becoming immersed in the world of the characters and their struggles, the reader continually encounters the writer, who stands in the way of the story, frantically mugging, hoping you will admire his fine manners of thought and feeling.

Your sentences start to betray the doubt you feel about yourself instead of exploring the bewilderments that haunt your characters: how to survive the sorrows of childhood, say, why we choose the wrong lovers. These are the mysteries your readers are struggling to understand. They are turning to you not for answers but solace, the promise that they are not alone in these struggles. If you can dial your ego down, an entire imaginative space opens up, into which the muse can willingly enter.

I’m just tired of defining myself by what I can’t do, by some ancient and frankly vain notion of what I’m meant to achieve.

What happens in moments of peak creativity should be considered a dividend of sublimation. It’s not that we make our feelings go away; we’re able to transmit them to our characters. We summon the courage to lay them bare and the grace to grant them a forgiveness we rarely attain ourselves.

When my writing is going well, I fall into a flow state marked by intense focus, imaginative rigor, freedom of association, and psychic momentum. Simply put: the story becomes more interesting to me then how well I’m telling it. The ego drama of Am I Good Enough gives way to the larger and more generous drama of whether the heroine will find love, or ruin, and will come to know the truth of herself in the process.

Egoless prose.

That’s the term a colleague used recently. She was describing the rapture induced when she sensed that 100 percent of the writer’s skill and attention was devoted to her characters.

But you can be sure the author in question suffered through periods of Writer’s Block along the way. She may be suffering through a block right now, as you read this. This should not be taken as bad news. It just means that all creative states are temporary. Just because you’re blocked today doesn’t mean you’ll be blocked tomorrow.

Faith is the capacity to hold on to hope amid despair.

*

One more story from the vault. This one takes place just a few years ago. I’m three-quarters of the way through a novel that feels like the best thing I’ve written in years. I’ve sent the first hundred pages off to the editor I trust most in the world, and he’s just returned with good news and bad news. He thinks it stands a chance. But it needs major revisions.

Ever since I received his note, I’ve been waking at 4 a.m., churning with dread. My wife lies next to me, drowsily assessing the situation. She knows what happens next, that I’ll tromp downstairs to my office and stare at the screen for hours, that the hole I’m digging for myself will get deeper. There’s not a lot she can say. She’s a writer, too. I snap at my kids. My therapist recommends an antidepressant. What if I’m not cut out to write a novel, he asks. Would that be so terrible?

Back in my basement, amid the candy wrappers and woodchuck poison, I rewrite the opening of the book. Four times. I’m making decisions, but I don’t believe in them. This goes on for months. Then I do something totally out of character: I surrender to the possibility my asshole therapist is right—that I’ll never write a novel.

No trumpets blare. I’m just tired of defining myself by what I can’t do, by some ancient and frankly vain notion of what I’m meant to achieve.

Within a few weeks, I start poking at a story about a young girl growing up in the California of my youth. She’s smart and brave and desperate with yearnings that lure her into danger. Pretty soon the police are involved, then the FBI. It’s not a novel yet, just a story that keeps expanding. Every day, I arrive at the keyboard and my heroine is still there, taking risks, pushing her luck. I’m so in love with her, so worried about her. For the first time in years, I’m writing egoless prose.

I know the block will be back, if it ever even left. There’s nothing shameful in any of this. We all go through it. We’re all afraid we will never be worthy of love. The fear takes us under for a while. It feels like drowning. But we’re not drowning. We get to breathe.

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Truth is the Arrow FC accepted

From Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow: A DIY Manual for the Construction of Stories by Steve Almond. Copyright © 2024. Available from Zando.

Steve Almond



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