Writer’s Block Cause 4 (and Big Hope): Your Vision

Epiphanies are not common, but I recently had two whoppers about the writing experience. One sidled up between the lines of Ann Patchett’s book, The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. The other coalesced while I listened to Jen Louden’s wonderful Shero’s Journey class. The one-two punch of these realizations is still settling in, but I couldn’t wait to share them. 

Writing is a big deal. It carries a certain responsibility. Unlike speech, which hangs in the air for only a moment, the written word can long outlive its creator. The written word can be shared from person-to-person – pushing the writer’s thoughts and ideas far outside her immediate realm of influence. So, when we writers put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, we want to get it right … whatever “right” is.

And therein lies the problem.

Our vision for our work – our story, poem, or novel – can play a huge role in holding us back. Though it may be the thing that inspires us, it can also leave us feeling unworthy, incapable, small. The fear of failure that we talked about in the first post of this series attacks us from the outside with blatant negativity. No one wants to be rejected or ridiculed, but at least those demons are easily identified. They can be fought head on.

Fighting your vision is like fighting yourself. You cherish your opponent so much it hurts. The only feeling I can liken it to is the feeling of an expectant mother who is elated about the birth of her child, but at the same time paralyzed by a fear that she will not be a good mother.

In her book The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, Ann Patchett writes about how she creates a novel in her head before ever writing a word. She describes this unwritten book as a butterfly companion that moves with her through her days:

This book, of which I have not yet written one word, is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see. 

The metaphor turns dark as Patchett explains what she must do to put the novel down on paper:

… I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it.

This is how our vision keeps us from writing our stories. It is more than a fear of being unable to capture the essence of the thing. It is a deep inner knowing that the process of writing a story will destroy that essence – the vision we have of it in our heads. Patchett says that the book she writes is “the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled.” She has betrayed her story. She has killed the thing so that she might see how it works and show it to others.

And here is where, for me, Jen Louden picks up the story.

In her Shero’s Journey class, Jen speaks about self-trust and self-betrayal. She talks about how we strive to achieve the one, but will always fall prey to the other. It’s human nature. We will make promises to ourselves, and we will break those promises. We will set goals and fall short. And that’s okay.

The important thing is to keep moving forward. Jen sees the cycle – which I believe applies to writing as well as to life – as making a promise, betraying yourself, forgiving yourself, beginning again. Most of us are probably already well versed in the promising and betraying parts of the process. (I know I am.) But how well do we even acknowledge the need for forgiveness and new beginnings?

If you have a beautiful story inside you, and you are afraid to commit it to paper or screen because you know to do so will mean maiming or outright killing your vision, remember this: you are the only one who can tell your story. You are the only one who has the vision to see its beauty. Without your sacrifice, the world will never be able to share in that beauty.

If a story were a living, breathing creature, I would never condone its murder for the purpose of letting others see it. But a story is not alive in that way. In fact, one might argue that a story must be killed in order to truly live. Think of your writing as the alchemy that transforms the idea of a story (which only you can enjoy) into a “living story” that can entertain, teach, and inspire others. The writing, then, is a kind of birth at least as much as it is a death. Without that transformation, the story will simply dissipate into nothingness. It will never make its way into the world as something of substance, a force that can move people to see the world and themselves in new ways. Without your sacrifice and labors, its spark will be extinguished, its light and color snuffed out.

Sure, its brilliance may be diminished in the process of being written. It may seem crippled to you – you who have seen it in all its original and pristine glory – but even crippled, it will have a new life and freedom. It will no longer be imprisoned inside your head. It will have the ability to go out into the world – touching minds and hearts, making a difference.

And, isn’t that why we write in the first place?

Tell me, is your vision holding you back? Are you willing to make the sacrifice to bring your story to life?
This is the fourth (and last!) post in a series about the causes of that fictitious condition known as writer’s block. In previous entries we talked about fear, finding the time to write and getting started. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who feels they have suffered from this inability to put words down. I just believe that if we can uncover and face the root causes of this uniquely literary affliction, we can slay the writer’s block dragon and get back to the work at hand. Who’s with me?

P.S. I highly recommend both Ann Patchett’s book Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Lifeand Jen Louden’s class Shero’s Journeyand – no – those are not affiliate links. I just love both enough to share them. 🙂


Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Curious Expeditions

57 thoughts on “Writer’s Block Cause 4 (and Big Hope): Your Vision

  1. Wow Jamie, what a powerful metaphor for the writing process! A million thanks for sharing it with us! That one is gonna live with me. By the way, I also love Jen Louden- way back from the Women’s Comfort books she wrote (in the 90’s I think). I didn’t know about the shero’s journey work she’s doing now. Thanks for letting me know about it!

  2. I read Ann’s book about six months ago and loved that very passage. Is my vision holding me back? Are you KIDDING me? Some days it not only holds me back, it’s like one of those martial arts movies where the villians just keep coming out the woodwork – one right after another. And I am NOT Jackie Chan! More like Lucille Ball try to hide from Ricky Riccardo because she’s done something terribly wrong!
    But the stories are like ghosts – they haunt me, so I have no choice but to revisit them at some point, no matter how demonic they (or I) seem to be. I pray for myself, try to have faith in the gifts I’ve been given – work ethic, self-discipline and creativity. How can we write without knowing the light and the dark anyway? To quote my old Bible: “In the beginning, there was darkness, and the earth proved to be formless and waste and God’s active force was moving to and fro, and THEN there came to be the light.” And so, who the hell do I think I am – if God went through the same process of creating the heavens and the earth, shouldn’t I experience the same thing in writing?
    I like those words too – “active force.”

    • As a fan of “I Love Lucy,” I love your alter ego, Laura. 🙂

      I also agree that everyone (and I mean, EVERYone) goes through some form or other of this process. It is PART of the process. Perhaps it is meant to ensure that we understand the gravity of what we are doing. This act of creating is a big deal. Though it can be imbued with fun and even chaos, on some level we are changing the fabric of Things As They Are … and that’s never a small matter.

  3. this post speaks my heart out1 many times i feel that my story has been tainted and crippled by my fears…many times, i hold back my ideas out of fear of disapproval..but in writing one thing that i have come to know is this: whether it is good or bad, just write..let it flow..set the butterfly free and watch as it takes its own beautiful course 😀

  4. This is an awesome blog! What you say is so true. Sometimes what I see in my head and feel doing so never quite makes it onto the page. But sometimes it does and that’s when true literary magic happens!

  5. Jamie, I have absolutely loved this series, and have taken so much from it, thank you.
    Everything you talk about in this series has held me back with my book, and my blog.
    First it was fear for me, the fear that nobody would like it, that it would be rejected.
    Once I got over the fear, and my “Rocky attitude” started swinging, I had no idea where to begin, I had never written a book before, and was never taught how to.Then the time thing came into play, owning my own business and traveling a lot for it, and being a husband and a dad, and a grandfather (whew) did not leave much time for writing.
    My vision for my book was never clouded, however my vision for my blog was definitely clouded I was so worried about getting traffic and subscribers that I wasn’t writing the way I wanted to.
    I wrote for what I thought would drive in the numbers, with no passion, and it was a miserable failure.
    I am now happy to tell you that the book is done (and I already have notes for the next one which will be young adult and up) you know that my blog is doing quite well because of some recent changes in the writer in me.
    And I have set aside time for just writing and or reading.
    This is a great series, Jamie.
    Thanks Again 🙂

    • Love what you’re doing and how you’ve come into your own, Jim. Kudos to you for just getting out there and doing it. That is usually the biggest difference between those who “make it” and those who don’t – getting off the sidelines and into the game.

  6. It IS a birthing process. When you are pregnant, the child withing you is nothing but possibilities and dreams; they are an unwritten, perfect story. Then they are born, and life starts to shave potential off as their path is narrowed by society, reality, parenting, and eventually themselves. So it is with stories. Unwritten stories have three-dimensions, four-, five-, more-dimensions. You can smell them, breathe them, taste them, love them. And words are such a poor medium for translating your personal experience so that other people may try to understand it for themselves. But for all that it is a poor substitute for the truth that underlies it, words are all we have…as writers. I imagine ALL artists feel this way, from painters to musicians. i am now reminded of a line from a poem by Nikki Giovanni: “I share with the painters the desire/To put a three-dimensional picture/On a one-dimensional surface.” But we all do the best we can with what we have.

    Thanks for this blog. it is inspiring and keeps me writing. 🙂

    • HI, Katy!
      I hadn’t thought about the challenge from the perspective of visual artists, but you’re so right. In any creative endeavor (writing, painting, sculpting, even designing a room or cooking a meal) we begin with a vision and then we do our best to bring that vision to life – create a reality from our ideas and our experience. It’s no surprise that so much gets lost in the translation.

      Thanks for sharing your insight!

  7. Thanks for this post – I love it.
    One thing I also think of is that the reader might read my story and see in it something that I’ve never thought of or intended. In story telling it takes at least two people – one to tell and one to listen. You can never guess what a reader will find valuable in your work. I’ve been consistently surprised by what others find in my writing – they often find meaning I never intended and just as often a piece that I thought was worthless I find that someone really found meaning in it.

    • That’s really interesting, Andrew. People do see and “read” different things based on their own experience. The story we tell may mean one thing to us, but something completely different to someone else. It’s all about our perspective. I love the idea of a story being so multi-faceted or layered, like that.

  8. Like others, I thank you for such a powerful and eloquent post.

    For me, the key is trying always to be in the present moment. Looking back I can easily see what I’ve failed to do, how I’ve come up short. And looking ahead I open myself to the fear that the work will not measure up. But if I can stay in the right here and the right now, I can write. And when I can’t, I fall back on the essential virtue, forgiveness- of myself and others.

    • Thank you, Thomas. I can see from your blog that being in the moment is a passion for you. It’s one of the hardest things for us to do in this hectic and driven world, but the rewards are beyond measure. As a mother, I have learned just how important stepping outside the world and immersing myself in the moment with my daughter really is. That focus and attention makes all the difference in the world – for both of us. And, you’re right, the same applies to our creative work – we need to give it that much attention.

      Thanks for coming by and for the comment.

  9. These words need to have a more permanent home! We might already know them on a gut level, but you are so eloquent. There’s a book here, isn’t there? Your advice would benefit most of the human race–from scientists to dancers–all of us who hold back, not daring to risk the bloom. I’m saving your words on my computer under “Inspiration.” Thanks, Jamie!

    • “… not daring to risk the bloom” – both eloquent and poetic.
      Thanks so much for your kind words and encouragement.
      I do wonder how much beauty and knowledge passes through the world unknown because someone was too afraid to share what they held inside themselves. I wonder if those particular visions will ever come this way again, or if they have lost their single chance to manifest in the world. It’s a bit boggling to think about it!

  10. Beautiful post! Thanks for sharing your epiphany and also the great reading selections. I’m a huge Ann Patchett fan and had somehow missed that book.

    • Hello, “another Jamie!” 🙂
      I have only just discovered Ann Patchett. I’m a big Audible fan and they gave away copies of her short book “A Happy Marriage” which she read for the audio recording. I was transfixed by the simple beauty of her language.
      A few weeks later, someone mentioned “Getaway Car” and I downloaded it to my Kindle immediately. Loved that as well.
      Now I’m just stuck undecided about whether I should read Bel Canto next (which I have a copy of on my bookshelf), or go right to State of Wonder. Any suggestions?

      • Hi Jamie, My book group read both Bel Canto and State of Wonder and agreed that Bel Canto was the better read (and we don’t agree on much). I enjoyed State of Wonder once I was able to let go of some aspects that seemed too unrealistic. Also check out her nonfiction book, Truth and Beauty. “The other” Jamie

    • Thanks, Deborah. It’s an idea that is new to me, but which has many possibilities for helping me over some writer’s block humps of my own!

  11. This is a wonderful post. It captures much of what I feel about the creative process. It’s true that we need to be vulnerable in order to share what we’ve created. The blogging process has given me the courage to bring my writing to life. Thanks!

    • Hi, Cathy! 🙂
      Being vulnerable is, I’m finding, more important than I ever thought. It’s also one of the most frightening things we can do. As writers, we are skilled at creating smoke screens with our words – sometimes without even realizing what we’re doing. But, in the end, it is what we write when we let those screens fall that really makes a difference … to our readers and to ourselves.

      Thanks for coming by. Always good to “see” you. 🙂

  12. Really fantastic post -thank you so much for articulating it like this. I find this is particularly true for me when I am reaching the end of the novel – where everything needs to come together. And the way you put it, that it will kill what we have as our vision – is exactly my fear! Now that I understand it in this way, maybe I can face it head on. Sounds like Ann Pratchett’s book is definitely worth a read. Thanks so much

    • I really enjoyed Ann Patchett’s book. She has a very “inviting” voice and her words were full of a quiet wisdom that I found both comforting and inspiring. I hope you do give it a look and enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂
      Good luck with this latest novel you’re working on!

  13. Being a big fan of epiphanies (hence my blog name) I love what you said! I agree that real epiphanies are hard to come by…and lovely when they come! I love when they come in writing…and you go, “Oh, of course! That’s the thing to do!”

    • Hi, Gretchen!
      Yes – epiphanies are SO much fun. It feels like that moment when you pop the plug into the outlet and all the lights on the Christmas tree are suddenly lit and sparkling. The lights were always there, but it’s not until you connect the power that you get to see them. 🙂

      Here’s to more epiphanies – especially ones about writing. 🙂

  14. Jamie, I am hacking away daily at turning my vision into a book, a real live being that I will put out there for all to see and read. Thank you for reminding us that we are the only ones who can turn our vision into a book.

    • You’re so welcome. We each have our own stories to bring to the world. It’s important that we do what we can to give them life. Good luck – keep “hacking!”

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  16. Thanks, Jamie! I’ve been struggling with this syndrome for years. This is EXACTLY what keeps me from writing! (It seems I’ve tuned in at just the right time.) Hopefully, with this new information, I will be better able to “push through” and at least get something down on paper. There’s always rewriting!

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  21. Jaime, I just wanted to say that I loved this whole “Writer’s Block” series that you’ve written. It is nice to read that other people feel the same things I have felt and it’s reassuring to know that if others have conquered these same road blocks, then I can, too. Very inspiring. Thanks for writing this! 🙂

    • LOL – the name spelling thing happens all the time. No worries. 🙂

      I’m so glad you liked the series. Thanks for taking the time to read them! So glad to have you here … I can see from a quick visit to your blog that we share a lot of “faves” including The Hobbit/LOTR movies, a not-so-secret love of animated films (though I *still* haven’t seen Despicable Me 1 or 2 yet!), and an addiction to Netflix.

      Thanks for coming by & so glad to have inspired you!

      • And then I replied to the wrong comment. How obvious is it that even though I’ve had my blog up for over a year, I’m still quite new? 😛 Aw, thank you for taking the time to visit my blog! I really appreciate that! Ah, you must watch both Despicable Me’s!! They are brilliant. I’m excited to read more of this blog. I have enjoyed it so far. And hopefully someday, I can write something that inspires you like you inspired me! 🙂

      • There’s nothing wrong with being “new.” It’s often the people who are new to something who are best suited to see how to make it even better than it already is. 😉

        My pleasure to visit your blog. Love your style. I may watch the first Despicable Me tonight & I look forward to being inspired by you!


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