Tackling the Dreaded “Block”
By Jonathan Farrell
The Sunset Beacon
Very few writers have the opportunity to share with readers the creative process involved in writing. This process is sometimes shared among fellow writers, but not often with the public.
San Francisco writer Joseph Sutton’s novel, Morning Pages: The Almost True Story of My Life, provides a rare glimpse into all the thoughts and feelings a writer has in the quest to do what writers do—write!
Yet there is one obstacle to the creative process that most writers know all too well—the demon known as “writer’s block.”
In his first novel, Sutton confronts writer’s block head on. His main character, writer Ben Halaby, faces it by writing at least three pages first thing every morning. His routine requires that he cannot stop writing until all three pages are finished. A simple task but a very disciplined one. There is to be no stopping or looking back, only continual writing.
How does Halaby discover this writing method? By stumbling across a book on creativity called The Artist’s Way (an actual book by author Julia Cameron). Cameron instructs blocked writers and artists to follow the principle of writing down three pages every morning for 84 days. This is what she calls “morning pages.”
“The character of Ben, of course, is me,” said Sutton. “I can’t help but write in an autobiographical style. I don’t know how other writers conjure up fictional plots and characters. I can only write from my own experience.”
One of his experiences was battling “writer’s block.”
“I was in the throes of writer’s block and happened to meet a stranger I will never forget. She was like an angel. Maybe she was an angel. We struck up a conversation, and while she talked about her art work and I about my writing difficulties, she recommended that I read Julia Cameron’s book. She said it helped her overcome her own artist’s block. I paid close attention to what she was saying: ‘Read the book as if you’re taking a course in college. If you follow the instructions for twelve weeks, you’ll become your true artist-self again.’ The next day I went out and bought The Artist’s Way and approached it just like this angel had told me.”
As soon as the twelve weeks of writing was completed, Sutton read what he had written and said to himself, “I think I can make a novel out of this.”
Of course, continual revision—arranging, adding, deleting—took Sutton a year and a half to complete Morning Pages. But the discipline of those 84 days paved the way.
Sutton loved the format of a writer writing anything that came into his mind. “It was the easiest novel I ever wrote, but surely the most interesting. The reader wants to know what Ben Halaby is going to write from one day to the next.” Sutton admits, though, that he did have his struggles.
“As soon as I got out of bed in the morning, I was always asking myself, ‘Should I fix the bed first? Should I take a shower before I write? Should I eat breakfast?’ Sometimes I would do maybe one, two or all three of those things before I sat down to write. That was actually the hardest part of doing the morning pages. As soon as I sat down, the writing came easy.
“It’s called ‘stream of consciousness’ writing,” Sutton explained. “This is when a writer gets rid of the censor/editor sitting on his shoulder. Just dive right into the writing. There’s no holding back on anything, especially your feelings. There’s no caring about grammar, punctuation or the quality of words. The main thing is to sit down and write as fast as you can.”
While the primary theme of Morning Pages is about a writer overcoming the barrier of writer’s block, other themes weave their way through the novel, such as standing up for oneself, fatherhood, athletics, perseverance, loyalty and the complexities of marriage.
Sutton has written two other novels, both as yet unpublished. His first novel emerged out of his teaching experience at a high school in South Central Los Angeles in the late 1960s. “Those were very turbulent times,” he said. “Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, psychedelic drugs, Black Power and the sexual revolution—all these things were going on simultaneously.”
Sutton’s second novel was about his travels around the country in a Volkswagen bus. “I sent each of those novels out to probably a hundred publishers and got rejected by every one of them.”
After writing on and off for nine years and earning very little money, Sutton, to help support his wife and newborn son, returned to the teaching profession. He taught in the secondary schools of San Francisco, never once forgetting that he was a writer. Forced out of teaching by stress in 1984, he worked several years as a salesman for a costume jewelry company.
“I did very well as a sales rep,” Sutton said. “I made more money than ever before, but it still left me with a hollow feeling. What I needed was to get back to my real calling in life.”
After quitting his sales job in 1988, Sutton got the idea to compile and categorize over 2000 inspirational quotations covering all aspects of health.
He plucked quotations from every conceivable source—from books, magazines, newspapers, lectures and even personal conversations. His manuscript, Words of Wellness: A Treasury of Quotations for Well-Being, was immediately accepted for publication by Hay House in 1991.
“Rejections are the worst part of writing,” Sutton confided. He estimates that in the thirty years he’s been a writer, he’s received more than a thousand of them.
Despite all the disappointments, he is confident his previous works will eventually reach the printed page.
Sutton’s present publisher, Creative Arts Book Company, has already confirmed part of his resolve. They will be coming out with his story collection, The Immortal Mouth and Other Stories, next year.