On "Writer's Block"

May 13, 2016

Last night I was awoken in the wee hours by a wicked loud thunderstorm. As I swam up out of dream-land and came to consciousness, this is what was going on in my head: Why is there a thunderstorm? How does that fit into the plot? Okay, it's not affecting THAT character, but it furthers the arc of the other's storyline...wait, how? No it doesn't, I need to think this through again, why did I put so much thunder happening here?

 

Then I was fully awake and realized that I did not in fact control the heavens, and this storm had no place in my current work-in-progress. The thunder had no purpose beyond waking me up and making me miserable because I couldn't fall back asleep and so I had to lie there and stew about the cruel, cruel weather gods whilst occasionally shaking my fist at the sky à la Grandpa Simpson. 

 

 

 

It also gave me a chance to contemplate what a lovely little miracle it is that my brain is so enmeshed in a story that even when sleeping (maybe especially when sleeping), it wouldn't stop working on it. This is miraculous because I spent about 9 years not writing, not inventing stories, and not even thinking once about the characters and plots I had simply abandoned mid-story. Before that 9-year silence, I'd been writing fiction for a couple of years. I had completed one novel and had started another. The first one was written very quickly (maybe 8 months?) and the second was going So. Much. Slower. For no reason I could see, writing this second novel was like pulling teeth. The words came at a maddeningly slow trickle and then one day they just stopped. 

 

I felt guilty for not writing, and then I decided after a year or so to stop feeling guilty. Feeling like crap about it wasn't helping the situation, after all, and I figured one day I'd write again. I figured eventually I'd get the urge, and then I'd sit down and write. Then one day I looked up and it had been nearly a decade. 

 

Sometimes other writers will pontificate about "writer's block" and in the course of their pontificating they make me want to lance a freshly sharpened pencil through their sclera and watch them scream in horrified pain. Like parenting, or dieting, or any number of other complex activities, people think they know about writing and How You're Doing It Wrong. While it's true that for some cases, the answer is to sit down with the blank page every day for a little while and fake it til you make it, that is not the answer for all cases. Because in some cases - my case, specifically - saying "just make yourself write something" is like saying "just make yourself jump into a boiling pit of lava, what's the big deal?" It's a different experience for everyone, with different causes and different treatments. So really, it's best to just show sympathy and support and then shut the hell up, thanks. 

 

In my case, I came to a point a few years ago where I wanted to write again, but somehow I couldn't. It was a pattern: I'd tell myself to write a little something, no stakes, allowed to not even finish the sentence, just write something. Then I'd avoid it, confront myself, make excuses, run screaming into the night, and feel like a total loser. Lather, rinse, repeat. I didn't know why this was the pattern, but I knew I had to break it somehow. So I went to a cognitive behavioral therapist (they specialize in pattern-breaking) and after a few months, we'd figured it out. I won't go into the details because it's

(a) kinda personal, and

(b) really, really specific to me and therefore not helpful to anyone who doesn't have my exact brain.

But finally, after a few months of work with this therapist, I could make the first steps toward writing again. 

 

I dug up my long-abandoned novel (The King's Man) and reacquainted myself with it. I spent months fiddling with what I'd already written and then the day came when I knew I had to write new stuff. I wanted to see if I could finish it. I knew what came next in the story - I'd always known what came next in the story, that was never the problem even though that's what people tend to think "writer's block" is. It was there, I just had to get it out of my head and onto the page. 

 

It was pretty scary, I'll be honest. And it was still like pulling teeth for some reason. But I just kept slowly putting one word after another until finally I typed THE END. Which is one of the most amazing feelings I've ever had, I don't mind telling you. A billion times more meaningful than finishing the first book, for instance, and that was pretty meaningful.

 

There's no grand revelation here. I don't have answers for anyone who has this problem, just loads of sympathy. (Although I will vouch for the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy, go on and give it a whirl if you want.) This is just my experience, and I wanted to share it because I would be lying if I didn't say that it hangs over me like a cloud of doom every second of every day. My variety of "writer's block" involves scare quotes because it's not a block, really, and it's probably not confined to writing. Anyone in any field could have it. It feels like it should have a name, like a monster or a villain, and Bertha is what comes to mind. Bertha is my anti-Muse. She's mean and rude and she glowers at me and takes up the whole couch. But she lives here. Her name's on the lease, so I can ignore her but I can't kick her out entirely. (Worst roommate ever. )

 

Anyway, at this point it feels to me like the "writer's block" is a chronic ailment that can flare up at any time. Right now it's in remission, and I do whatever I can to maintain a healthy mental lifestyle that is conducive to creativity. 

 

But I live with the knowledge that at any moment, for any reason, my brain could turn off again. It could stop making movies in my head and stop wondering what would happen if he just kissed her, what if she poisons the wine, what if his brother kills her son, what if she laughs in his face, what if all the what ifs dry up and thunder in the night is just thunder again? What if my brain stops believing that it can control the heavens? 

 

I don't know. I just know it could stop. That could happen. I hope it doesn't. I also regularly warn Bertha that I have a novel to finish and I will cut a bitch, so help me God.

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