The Real Source of Writer's Block

Years ago I read the Goethe quote, "The worst thing one can do is to think ill of oneself." It seemed true enough to me at the time - I certainly thought ill of myself now and again and it never led to any good. But Goethe didn't say thinking ill of oneself was one of the worst things you could do; he said it was the worst thing you could do. I was much younger when I read this quote, and I was inclined to question a rule when I ran into it. "What about murder?" I thought. "Certainly murdering someone is worse than thinking ill of yourself."

I thought of Goethe's quote again yesterday when I was talking to my wife Jen about our high school experiences. I met Jen when we were both seniors attending separate schools in the same city. She was explaining that if I had met her when we were freshman, we might not have become friends. "I spent most of my first three years in high school feeling bad about myself. That had just started changing by the time I met you."

Interestingly, I met her because I saw her in a play, and thought, "I've got to get to know that person." She was in that play because she had decided to enjoy herself her senior year. So she took a creative writing class and a theater class and auditioned for a play. Not only did this decision lead to meeting me, but it also introduced her to what would be her career. Jen went on to become a writer and artist. Until her senior year in high school, she did not even perceive herself as a creative person.

Hearing her story, I thought, "Old Goethe was right." The worst thing I can do when I sit down to write is to think ill of myself. I will not write one word I want to share with another person if I think, "I'm not smart enough," or, "No one cares what I have to say," or, "I don't have what it takes." These simple thoughts, sometimes arriving in my mind dressed as false humility, sever my connection to creative thought, to my muse, to my imagination, and ultimately to myself. To think ill of myself is a form of instant suicide, suggesting somehow that nothing I do will be worth doing, nothing I say will be worth saying, nothing I write will be worth writing.

Fortunately, everything I most want to do, say, or write waits patiently while I'm thinking, "Why bother?" Life can seem cruel and complicated while I am asking, "Why bother?" or, "What is wrong with me?" The moment I stop asking those questions, and start asking, "What do I most want to do?" life becomes much simpler and much kinder. But I can only ask one question at a time. It is up to me to decide which question I will ask.

I cannot prove it, but I believe every murderer that has ever lived thought ill of himself long before he pulled the trigger or struck the blow. When I am thinking ill of myself, I am very likely to start blaming other people for how bad I feel. I blame the people who have rejected me, or ignored me, or disagreed with me. But when I am connected to what my self-criticism blocks, other people are no longer a problem. How could they be? No one else can answer, "What do I most want to do?" for me, nor can they prevent me from hearing that answer. Nothing can possibly come between me and my muse and my imagination other than the idea that my creative thoughts are not worth listening to.

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