Kung Fu Take-down: What Iran can teach us about writers block
A multi-talented young musician friend was struggling to get funding for a film project. He’d been moaning about it to everyone in general and no one in particular until, one day, he got slapped with some uncomfortable information: Filmmakers (and anyone else) speaking out against systemic violence and oppression in Iran are going through literal hell. The latest round of popular uprising and subsequent Governmental Boot was sparked by the death-in-police-custody of Mahsa Amini, arrested for wearing her hajib incorrectly.
Yes, it’s madness, but this is the world we live in. Anyway, it got me thinking about writer’s block.
Now, if you google top obstacles to writing, you probably won’t find ‘repressive government’. Most of us aren’t being persecuted for reflecting everyday life in our art. What you will find is a bunch of stuff I’ve consolidated into a fancy three-step move I’m calling Kung Fu Take-down.
The first step is BLOCK. This refers to writer’s block as well as any kind of anxiety or lack of confidence you might experience when faced with the daunting reality of a blank page. Block isn’t always bad, however. Your body is a highly intelligent organism. It lets you know when it needs something (like rest, a change of scenery, a cuddle, therapy etc.) and when something’s not right (toxic relationship, too much on your plate, unhealthy lifestyle etc.) The problem comes when you, the driver of said body, don’t bleeping well listen.
Stop the BLOCK by listening deeply and giving body and soul what they need.
BLOCK segues into the next step in the move – DELAY – which includes anything along the lines of procrastination, lack of motivation, etc. What in the old days was called laziness, but now we know it can be a bit more complex than that. IMHO, DELAY is more fear-based than BLOCK and therefore more dangerous. To undo a blockage you need a plunger or perhaps a plumber. It can be fixed by addressing the problem. But DELAY means the system is backed up, so where do you poop? You start taking out your frustrations on others, finding things to blame or turning in and beating up on yourself, none of which is good for your or others’ mental health.
You’ll stop DELAY by figuring out what you’re scared of and facing it.
Herewith, two little anecdotes:
The first comes from a poet friend who would send me regular texts wondering whether she should write or not, or whether she should write poetry or prose or whether she should even write … she’d go round in circles despite my reminding her that she’d had a poem published in a journal. I can’t tell you how many times I said: do what makes you happy! Or, as Joseph Campbell advises, “Follow your bliss”. My good friend Bill Knight puts it this way: “Do you have the fever?” If you do, then follow where it goes, but for god’s sake, don’t stifle it with demands so it can’t breathe. That’s the quickest way to ruin any relationship! First chance it gets, it’ll hurtle away from you at warp speed. (Liz Gilbert deals with all this very nicely in Big Magic.)
Don’t be creative to make a living. That might happen – you never know – but it can’t be your motive. Creativity is an outlet, a way to eject the metabolic waste of living. A way to say what needs saying so you don’t clog your toilet. If you can grab people’s attention with your creativity, it might help them unclog their own, and the world becomes a better place.
The second anecdote is from a Facebook post on one of my writers groups. A chap was asking, what do you do if you just don’t want to write anymore? Like, you’ve lost the actual desire. Most responses gave great feedback on dealing with writer’s block, but I suspect he meant ever; that he wanted to hang up his quill, and it was causing inner turmoil.
What is it with all this pressure? What if your inner artist wants to bake or sew or craft or hang glide or counsel troubled youth? Why are you trapping in an unhappy marriage? What if it wants to dance, and here you are shackling it to a laptop?
I live by Erich Fromm’s “Life is giving birth to yourself.” Artists often regard their works as children – it’s a common theme. BLOCK and DELAY, therefore, can also be seen as stifling your creative birthing process – not just in your work but in your Self.
Focus on what Life wants to birth in you now rather than torturing yourself with phantom pregnancies.
The third step in the Kung Fu Take-down is PERFECT. This is probably the sneakiest but most interesting part of the move. Depending on how you execute it, PERFECT can catapult you into exile in the Limbo Badlands (i.e. hell) or to infinite joy (i.e. heaven). Perfect is as perfidious as a plate of piranhas!
For starters, as a noun, it doesn’t exist.
Hang on … maybe it does. But can you define it for me? So slippery, these words.
Something is perfect when you don’t feel the need to change anything, right? But that’s highly subjective. If you measure your work against others, you’ll be in the Limbo Badlands for a loooong time.
Nonetheless, we all want to look at our work and say “I wouldn’t change a thing!” Right?
I’m queen of the Limbo Badlands. I rationalize thus: there’s such a gluttonous sea of bad-to-mediocre writing out there; such heavy competition for our ears. I’d rather write one brilliant work that gets remembered than a bunch of twaddle that’s forgotten the minute it’s put down – if the reader even makes it past the first paragraph.
I’d rather die.
Maybe they can engrave my tombstone with, “She died in perfect limbo.”
I believe that limbo, aka stasis, is rooted in something far deeper than fear, and that’s comfort.
Just ask any one of those Iranian artists absorbing the systemic punch for us. Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof, Mani Haghighi, and Mostafa Al-Ahmad amongst others – like young rapper Saman Yasin, who’s facing execution. They were targeted specifically because their art has the power tostir the masses.
And it’s working. The government is preparing to execute 15 000 of ‘their people’, many of them youngsters. Such is the power of words made into art.
The world has a long and rich literary legacy, much of which was borne of deep suffering. One of the best books ever written (IMHO) is the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross. He was imprisoned in 1978 for (surprise!) criticizing his government through his involvement in a community-based play, “I Will Marry When I Want”. Ngugi’s story, both within and without the fictionalized text, is fascinatingly disturbing. What’s more, his words marry the tender agony of suffering and beauty in an alchemical experience made infinitely richer for being translated from his native Kikuyu into English.
Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom was also smuggled from prison on toilet paper. As a South African, I find his legacy deeply inspirational, even though the current squandering of that legacy fills me with despair.
But what’s important here is toilet paper.
In those moments when we wonder if toilet paper is all our words are worth, or our toilet is clogged, perhaps we can be inspired by these heroes. They have honed their art with the strength, control, simplicity and tactical prowess of a kung-fu fighter, and they know which side of the battle they’re on.
If we’re not there, perhaps we haven’t made ourselves available to the stories that need telling. We’re not ready to give ourselves to something bigger than us: our purpose in this world.