The Little Man Upon The Stair

One way to get some insight into the state you're in when you're blocked is to compare the symptoms to those of psychological depression. One of the symptoms in clinical depression is a sense of doom—eternal gloom and doom. Things are awful. They're going to stay that way. They'll never be good again. The depressed person doesn't think, I feel horrible, but I'll get through this, recover, and feel good again. And when you're blocked, you're never thinking, This is awful. I feel worthless and talentless, but I know that's just a state all writers get into. I'll get through this and write really well again. No, if you have that much perspective, you're not in the throes of a serious block. When you're truly blocked, even though you may know that all writers get blocked, you're certain your block is like no block in writing history. For you, it's truly the end. You'll never write a decent sentence again as long as you live.

The other symptom of this kind of depression is hostility turned against yourself—an all-out attack. Olivier, in belittling the audience ("Not one of you bastards. . ."), was instinctively doing the right thing— trying to turn the hostility away from himself. Of course, no one in the audience was hostile toward him. They loved him. He could have fallen on his face, and they would have applauded. They weren't the enemy, but it was better to attack them than himself. The enemy without is less threatening than the enemy within.

My Psychology 101 textbook defined what they called free-floating anxiety as "a vague objectless dread." That's especially apt for blocking. Vague, yes, because often you don't even let yourself think about writing; you keep it out of your consciousness as much as possible. You have a vague dread that if you go sit down, it's going to be awful. You keep it out of your head because you don't want to face up to what a coward you are (too scared to sit down and put words on a page). The psychology book quoted a poem that characterized this kind of anxiety.

I saw a man upon the stair.

The little man who wasn't there.

He wasn't there again today.

I wish the hell he'd go away.

Maybe he'll go away on his own, but we can't afford to wait around gambling that he will. We have to find a way to get rid of him. But we need to finish with our examination of blocking first.

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