Carving Up Writer’s Block

The other day on my Twitter feed, I stumbled into a conversation about writer’s block. I’ve addressed the topic before in other blogs, but never here. And I wouldn’t have decided to address it here, excepting that the conversation shed some light on an issue I’ve been peripherally aware of for a long time: Whether or not writer’s block actually exists. (Spoiler: I believe it does.)

If you want, you can read some articles supporting the idea that writer’s block is a myth here, here, and here. You can even reference this Google search. All of the articles dismissing writer’s block as a real phenomenon say pretty much the same thing: It’s an excuse people make for not doing the work. It’s lazy and you should “just power on through it.” Sometimes people will acknowledge that maybe there is some other thing–life stress, a change in the weather, self-doubt–interfering with a person’s ability to write. But writer’s block as an issue in and of itself…no, that’s not possible.

All right: Nothing exists in a vacuum. Writer’s block as I have experienced it is intimately related to many other factors, and the presence of those other factors may make writer’s block more likely to appear. (In disease theory, this is known as “co-morbidity.”) But dismissing writer’s block because other things may contribute to it is like dismissing someone’s depression because they also suffer from hypothyroidism. Treating the second does not necessarily cure the first. Also, I’m going to come right out and say that any time I hear anyone say “It’s a lazy excuse and you should just muscle through,” or if I read those words, my head explodes. It’s an ignorant and judgmental stance. “Lazy” is a word meant to shame, both when other people use it toward you or you use it on yourself. It comes from a reality where everyone must be engaged in productive industry all the time, where work for its own sake is accounted the highest virtue. After all, you don’t want to go to hell like those naked heathens who pull fruit off the trees and lounge naked on the beach all day! White Westerners have a tendency to believe that any easy path is invalid, and it shows up in attitudes toward making art as well as in everything else. And as for “just muscle through,” that advice may be wonderful for healthy folks in ideal situations. It’s not the reality of most people most of the time.

Is it, or is it not, an actual thing?
Is it, or is it not, an actual thing?

So what is writer’s block?

I actually think about this a lot, because although I have “been a writer” virtually all my life (okay, since first grade), when I add up all the years, I have spent a great many more of them not writing than I have writing. Sometimes it’s been through choice, and sometimes not. Sometimes I’ve had ideas that fizzled when I tried to put them on the page, sometimes I’ve had ideas too distant or uninteresting in the moment for me to put them in any coherent form, and sometimes I’ve had no ideas at all. All those experiences are subjectively different. So are all of them writer’s block? Some of them? None at all?

I think any discussion of writer’s block needs to begin with defining what it means to be a writer. My handy dictionary tells me “writer” means “1. One who has written something” or “2. One who writes as an occupation, an author. ” This is practically useless, because it encompasses just about every literate person on the planet. If I go to “author,” the results aren’t much better. I find 1. “The original writer of a literary work,” 2. “One who practices writing as a profession,” and 3. “The original creator of anything.” I could go on unpacking by looking up “literary,” or “profession,” or even “creator.” It wouldn’t be helpful.

Looking at my writing friends and my life experience, my personal definition of “writer” is as follows: “A person who is dedicated to the process of making art with words as their medium.” I find this a useful definition, because it encompasses both those who write as a profession and those who don’t (or don’t yet), those who are currently engaged in “writing behavior” and those who, for one reason or another aren’t. “Writing behavior,” to me, describes the Gestalt of the writing experience and can include research, plotting, thinking about what happens next, and even sitting in your recliner staring into space while things gel as well as the act of setting words on the page. Since every person’s process is different, everyone’s writing behavior is also going to look a little different from everyone else’s. AND THAT’S FINE. It’s up to every artist to find their own definition of success, and their own way of achieving it.

Digression: This is the main reason I have an extremely hard time with “writing rules.” Rules–especially rules about art–presuppose everyone has the same process and that there’s some magic code for unlocking success. It ain’t true. I have a particular dislike of the biggest rule of all: Write Every Day. What other profession requires of its practitioners that they go to work every single day, whether they feel like it or not? You don’t hear “Paint Every Day” or “Do Spreadsheets Every Day.” Granted, working in the arts differs substantially from working in an office or as a physician. There are times when you DO engage in your art every day, especially if you’re learning a new technique or absorbed in a new piece. And since art, and one’s relationship to it, is ever-changing, it’s a good idea to keep your hand in. But once you reach a certain level of skill and professionalism, writing simply to write every day can be a waste of energy. [N.B. As far as arts go, music and acting are a bit different because they’re more body-centered. When I don’t play the flute or sing for an extended period of time, I lose skill. I get rusty. I don’t experience the same thing with writing. Even so, taking a weekend or a few days off from scales and tunes actually makes you better when you pick up your instrument again, because you’ve had a chance to absorb the practice. And in this case, the experience of writing is the same.]

burning words
And so it begins…

 

Will you PLEASE get to the point?

Okay, fine. Writer’s block. In my experience, there are three kinds. I’m not saying these are the only kinds, mind. But these are the ones I’ve been through personally and feel competent to discuss: Depression-related, Fear-centered, and Wrong Direction. They can occur simultaneously (there’s that co-morbidity factor again) and in any combination of intensity.

Depression-related writer’s block is both the easiest and the hardest to deal with, and it’s the one that’s most interfered with my engaging in writing behavior. When I first started writing in a serious way, around about eighth grade, it was all joy and puppies. Writing was my escape and my haven. I loved the process of letting the story unfold, the time when I entered a different world where nothing hurt me. I loved the feeling of doing something I was good at. I looked forward to opening up my notebook and taking up my special pen and seeing what happened next. It was delightful and it was easy. I didn’t have to struggle the way I did in my non-writing life. Every contest I entered, I won first prize, and that was pretty keen, too.

And then my depression got worse and the words dried up. Just like that. One day I opened up my notebook, more out of habit than for any other reason, and I felt nothing at all. The story didn’t come, the characters didn’t speak, and I didn’t see the landscape. I’d stopped caring.

For at least five years after that, I didn’t write at all. Not a single word. Not even in my journal. I didn’t agonize over it, because I was too sick. I wasn’t even sure I’d live to see the next day–no one was–so whether or not I wrote wasn’t important. When I came out of that first bad episode, I remembered my writing self, and for the next ten years or so I sometimes wrote and sometimes didn’t. I dropped into and out of degree programs in writing and turned out the occasional short story when the spirit moved me. But mostly it didn’t move me. I got down on myself for “being lazy” and “waiting around for inspiration,” both of which I had learned were the wrong way to go about writing. But the truth was, when I didn’t have any inspiration, I didn’t have anything. I lacked the spark, the thing that made me write in the first place. So I figured I wasn’t a writer at all. I did some other things. I got a degree in Dance Therapy and worked as a counselor in a women’s shelter. I facilitated workshops on women’s spirituality. I developed a radio show.

In my better times, the times when I felt most alive, I still wrote. I actually finished a couple first drafts of novels (including the one that would become The Unquiet Grave). More often, I got halfway through a story, lost my impetus, and stopped. Not because I didn’t want to do the work. Because I didn’t care.

In the mid-2000s, my depression got debilitating again. I did virtually nothing for five years but sit on the couch and stare into space, and I ended up hospitalized and over-medicated. Eventually, late in 2009, after trying about every antidepressant medication on the market and many combinations thereof, my doctor prescribed me a new one, and it worked.  Before that point, I had never believed the stories of antidepressants changing people’s lives, but that one did. By January of 2010, I had started writing again. It wasn’t hard or unnatural. I didn’t have to think about it. I just opened up the manuscript of The Unquiet Grave and began to work, as if I had never left off. Since then, I’ve taken a few breaks (some lengthy). But I’ve never again lost the ability to write at all.

That’s what it looked like when I couldn’t write because of depression (and I want to make it clear that I mean the debilitating mental illness and not just feeling blue and out of sorts, or even lacking energy because of other life factors). I couldn’t “muscle through” because there was no muscle and no through. It was the hardest thing to conquer because it took thirty years of trying different medications before anyone even invented one that worked on my brain chemistry. It was the easiest because I’d also done thirty years of therapy, so once the meds kicked in everything fell into place. I didn’t have to work or try–not very hard, anyway. The words returned in the same way they had dried up, suddenly and without warning.

If you are clinically depressed or believe you might be, GET HELP. Find someone to talk to. Use your support system. Talk to your doctor or another person you trust. You may want to try the medication route. Keep in mind that psychoactive medication does not work for everyone, and even when it works, it takes time.

What it feels like. (Image credit: Joel Holland)
What it feels like.
(Image credit: Joel Holland)

Fear-centered writer’s block is the one I believe most people think of when the term comes up. It’s probably the most common, and it may be the most responsive to the advice to “power on through.” The tricky thing about it is that we don’t always know what we’re afraid of, or even that fear is the thing keeping us from writing. Fear is a difficult emotion to process, and our culture doesn’t make it any easier by painting fear in a negative light, as something only weak people experience. So when you have a fear-centered block, it can present a lot of different ways. It might be a lack of interest or an inability to focus. It might be that the ideas you came up with in the coffee shop, or on your daily walk, or lying in bed at night dribble away or vanish when you try to put them on the page. You might make excuses for not writing, like not having time or other things in your life being a priority right now. This is when turning writing into a discipline by setting aside a dedicated time to write regularly and sticking to it whether or not you feel like it can actually be helpful. And for some people, this works.

The problem is, when you “power on through,” you haven’t actually faced the fear that’s causing the block in the first place. And when you don’t confront a fear, it finds ways to come back and bite you in the ass. So while it might work in the short run to work on your discipline, in the long game it’s possible that writing will become harder and harder until you’re banging your head against your desk because you simply can’t make it work. Or you get stuck on writing the same page over and over, “making it better,” because every time you look at it you only see the flaws. And this reinforces all the negative self-talk that likely is the source of your fear.

In this case, what you need to do it take a deep breath and ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Try to be honest. Some fears are common. People fear the empty page. This is one I’ve never had to deal with personally, so I’m afraid I’m not really sure what it’s about–maybe the idea that YOU’RE ABOUT TO CREATE SOMETHING AND IT HAS TO BE SIGNIFICANT takes over. To this I can only say, nothing has to be anything. Loosen up. A description of your cat sleeping or of your lunch is still writing, even if it isn’t the Great American Novel that will win awards and earn millions. Let go of your expectations of yourself. Give yourself a break. Every writer churns out thousands and thousands of words that never see the light of day, much less publication, and that’s fine. Or maybe you have an image labeled “WRITER” somewhere in your brain and the idea that you might not measure up terrifies you. In that case, too, it’s maybe a good idea to go back to the simple dictionary definition: A writer is a person who has written something. There’s no value judgment involved. If you’ve passed notes in school, you’ve written something. Maybe someone–or multiple people–has dismissed your ability, or your dream, or sneered at the idea of you being a writer, and you want to prove them wrong by making a success at it. Maybe there’s a quiet voice in your brain telling you “maybe they were right all along!” This is a lot of baggage you’re bringing along to your work. I’ve found an effective technique for dealing with it is to make a pact with yourself, and with that doubt, that you’re not going to bring that baggage into your writing time. You write for you and not that voice. So what it thinks doesn’t matter.

Another thing I’ve discovered about fear-centered writer’s block is that it often strikes when you’re about to get better at writing. Remember how I described writing being easy and full of joy, way back in the long ago (both of my life and of this blog post)? A lot of that writing, from a critical standpoint, wasn’t very good. It was derivative and it rambled. The characters didn’t have clear motivations, and I had no idea how to plot. Later, I discovered that good writing is actually work, and that it doesn’t happen quickly. My joy level diminished exponentially because I was no longer able to fall right into a different world. I had to think about it. And when my joy level diminished, I began to wonder why I was writing in the first place. Not being able to answer this question kept me from writing at all. I had to make a leap of faith, convince myself that whether I experienced joy in the moment or not didn’t really matter, because the act of writing mattered. When I realised this, I started writing again and the writing was better. I’ve gone through this cycle over and over again, and I’ve learned that some days are great and some aren’t; some days I’m “in the zone” and some days I’m not. And this is okay. I miss the joy and the spark when they aren’t there. I feel frustration on the days when writing is drudgery. But I don’t waste time on longing for it (not much, anyway), or berate myself for not experiencing it.

In the end, you have a lot of power over fear-centered writer’s block, because you’re the only one who can figure out the nature of your fear and what you need to do about it. If sometimes that means stepping away for a while, that’s okay. (Yeah, it becomes more frightening and problematic if you’re operating under a deadline. But even in that case, taking a reasonable break usually does more good than harm.)

My brain on bad days.
My brain on bad days.

I guess Going the Wrong Direction may not be a type of block on its own, but I mentioned it, so I’m going to talk about it (even though this blog is already 3000 words long and shows no sign of ending anytime soon). It has a lot in common with fear-centered block, and is sometimes a result of it. I experience it often, both in regards to pieces of projects and projects as a whole. What happens is this: I start out great guns one a book or a chapter, and the writing gets slower and slower and harder and harder until I give up. Then I sit around on my ass for a while. I complain that I don’t like what I’m doing. I complain that it doesn’t make sense, or it drags–this is a HUGE indication–or it doesn’t feel right in some indefinable way. I can’t think what happens next. I can’t see the scene or hear the characters talking. I’m not THERE. I’m stuck. I piss and moan to my husband for a few days, and eventually something clicks. And inevitably what I realise is that I am going the wrong way. I’m writing the wrong book, or the wrong chapter. I have to back up and start over.

This, incidentally, is why Book Four of the Caitlin Ross series is a prequel instead of a story that continues the internal timeline. After finished A Maid in Bedlam, I tried to go right on into the next book. I wrote 400 pages and stopped because something was off. I cut 200 pages and wrote 200 more, and stopped again. I abandoned the project and didn’t write much for the next year because of life. When I did start writing again, I wrote The Parting Glass because I had NO IDEA how to deal with the next events in the timeline. After finishing The Parting Glass, I went this way and that way–tens of thousands of words that were fine words, but they just didn’t work. Finally I realised I was starting the book in the wrong place. I had jumped too far ahead in the continuity, and I needed to look at an earlier point. By a strange coincidence, this earlier point took me to a story I had thought of before but was afraid to write for various reasons. Out of fear, I made a conscious decision NOT to write the story that needed written. Once I faced the fear and decided to write the story anyway, the block dissolved. This is a good example of how fear-centered writer’s block and going the wrong direction can work in concert.

There’s always a reason not to write, and many of them are valid. Not all of them constitute writer’s block, and most of them have to do with a writer’s particular process. Some people can come home from working a day job eight hours and jump into another five to six hours of writing (I have a suspicion these people are extraverts, and I have no idea when they sleep). Some people don’t have the energy or even the desire to write after working a day job, so if they want to dedicate time to writing they need to find another way. Both these paths are legitimate. There’s no one right way to be a writer; in fact, thinking there is and trying to fit yourself into a box where you don’t belong probably causes more writer’s block than anything else.

In writing, being your authentic self is the best way to be. Depression, fear, and mistrust can interfere with your ability to be that self. Developing awareness can help you chip away at all those things and become better able to convert your writer’s block to dust. And sculpture, of course.

 

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