“Frozen” is the 2013 Disney blockbuster about the deadly power of ice. When Princess Elsa lost control of ice, it endangered her kingdom. But Disney is not the only group that worries about the big freeze. To be frozen is a common term used by athletes who “freeze” on the blocks in sprints or in swim meets or worse yet who “freeze up” mentally when they are competing in wrestling. When you freeze up while trying to execute any task requiring finesse, you will become slow and ineffectual.
This column is not about princesses or athletes with anxiety. This is about writers who suffer an abomination referred to as “writer’s block.” If I were to suddenly contract this dreaded writing disease, it would mark the end of my writing career. I experienced writer’s block once in my career, but we’ll get to that later.
My favorite quote about writer’s block was said by the great American writer Ernest Hemingway when he was asked how he wrote a novel. He quipped, “Well, the first thing I do when I’m about to start a new novel is to defrost the refrigerator.” This is humor at its best and refers to procrastination and also that there is a block of ice that must be melted before creativity can flow.
There are many failures in graduate school not because of course work but due to students’ failure to write their dissertations. These poor souls are forever stuck in the limbo called A.B.D. (All But Dissertation.) It took me a full 13 drafts to get my dissertation accepted. Such were the joys of grad school.
There are numerous reasons for writer’s block. It might be a fear of judgment or a fear of failure. Perhaps one dreads making a mistake or is terrified of being laughed at or the thought of being called dull witted or worse, boring. Perhaps you are decidedly grandiose and thus expect that you ought to be writing a masterpiece each time you sit down at the desk.
A plunge into temporary grandiosity happened to me a few years ago at an Easter party thrown by a friend of mine. A stranger came up to me at the party and with an exited voice and big smile asked, “Aren’t you Dr. Ferraro, the man that writes the ‘Our Town’ column in the newspaper?” I admitted to this fact and she went on to say: “Oh, I love those columns of yours. I look forward to reading them each week. Thank you so much for being who you are.”
These comments of gratitude seemed to penetrate into the deepest parts of my mind, and I said to myself “Yes, indeed, I suspected it all along. I really am a great writer! Mother was right!”
So far this seems like a benign, charming and pleasant enough little story about a casual chat at a party, but the next morning seemed to tell a different tale. You see, I am busy during the week seeing patients, so my writing is reserved for Saturdays and Sundays in order to meet deadlines for the following week. The process of writing a weekly column entails following a hunch about a topic of interest, doing considerable research on it and then writing the first draft. All this takes some time and effort, but since I’ve been doing it for years, the process is now relatively straightforward and efficient.
But not that Saturday morning. I sat down at my desk and began to think about the next brilliant piece I might write and for the life of me nothing was coming to mind. I seemed to be drawing blanks. Nothing seemed good enough or clever enough or smart enough to grab my attention. The minutes passed, the clock kept on ticking and nothing came up. I got some more coffee, had another donut, paced about. Nothing.
This went on for a time and as I daydreamed about the week gone by, I thought back about the party of the night before and the compliment given to me by that stranger. And then it dawned on me. I actually took her words seriously. Way too seriously, in fact, and I was now busily attempting to write yet another indispensable, awe-inspiring, vital, witty , meaningful, even sublime piece of journalism to live up to those sweet comments that woman spoke to me.
Her compliment plugged right into my current grandiosity and inflated it to the point where now I had to produce a masterpiece or nothing at all. And when that happens, you get what is called writer’s block. When I realized this, I was able to come back to my senses, sit down and write something with ease and with flow. Granted it was not a masterpiece, but it was good enough.
I learned that one ought to have a very tight rein on great expectations. Whether you are working on love, building a cabinet, playing a round of golf, writing a letter or trying to cook a good meal, it’s best to keep one’s great expectations in check. Grandiosity has a chilling effect on one’s mind and one’s body and if it gets out of hand, you will freeze and lock up.
Great expectations are the primary contributor of mankind’s greatest psychological problem, procrastination. So if you find yourself endlessly procrastinating, it may be that your expectations have become too grand. Take it down a notch and see what happens. You may discover that the refrigerator is finally thawed out and you can finally find some flow.