On Dealing with the Untimely Bullsh*t of Writer's Block
Feb 21, 2012One evening last summer, my best friend Christopher and I were drinking wine and watching the sun go down over the Atlantic Ocean when he decided that it was the perfect time to give a solemn recap of South Park's mid-season finale, "You're Getting Old." Though neither of us are big South Park fans, we do (how predictable) love Stevie Nicks, and the episode's last three minutes feature "Landslide" as the soundtrack to 10-year-old Stan's disillusionment as he watches everything he loves and depends on turn--quite literally-- to sh*t. Struggling not to make fun of Christopher during his reverent summary and critical analysis of the episode, I suggested that we watch the final three minutes together on YouTube. And my friend was right: between Stevie's heartbreaking croon and Stan's 2D frown at the disappointment surrounding him, it was enough to prompt some depressed sighs, not to mention two more very tall glasses of wine. Since that evening, I've thought often of Stan and of the unsettling "transformation" of flowers, the sun, Stan's food, and the kids in the cafeteria. I have spent the majority of the past 9 months experiencing this unfortunate reverse alchemy of sorts in my own life, particularly with regard to my writing. Some people don't think writer's block exists--they say it's laziness, a lack of focus or discipline or commitment, clinical depression, la la la. And it might be related to all of these things, sure. But for those who have spent months and years looking for what's salvageable amidst the sh*t, lying in bed like Stan, staring at the ceiling in that all too familiar posture of exhaustion, restlessness, cynicism, and rapidly-approaching apathy--for those people, and for me, writer's block is the real deal. At best, it's inconvenient. But most days, it just feels toxic as hell. You sit at your computer and stare. You sit at the coffee house and stare. You write and scratch out, write and delete. You are perpetually annoyed with yourself. You read the writers you admire, thinking it will spark creative energy, but it only prompts procrastination and confirms that everything you've written is sh*t. You're jealous of everyone, including the postman. You consider a career in zoology and start weird self grooming rituals. You feel like you can't get comfortable no matter where you sit. You carry a notebook around because "that's what writers do," but you never use it except to sketch the occasional picture of a slice of pizza because you're always hungry. Except when you're not, when all you do is drink the same cold cup of coffee all day long. This has been my life for 9 months--a twisted pregnancy, with no due date in sight. I wish I had answers, but if I did I wouldn't be writing this post. However, I would like to suggest the following to any brave, burn-out readers who are also considering careers in zoology. These things have helped me during the days when I have felt the most pathetic and somewhat incapable of normal human interaction. Perhaps they will help you, too:
- Move your body. Stop sitting at your desk. It's screwing with your posture and you're starting to look like Aunt Mildred. Invest in a decent sports bra and go for a run. Lift some weights--you know, those heavy things. Find some hippies and do yoga in the park. Play tag with your kids. Pull weeds from the garden. Just break a sweat. If nothing else, you'll feel like you accomplished something today.
- Rest. 7-9 hours of sleep every night for a week. I dare you. I know, I know--nobody has time for this. So how about a nap? Joyce Carol Oates says that busyness "is the remedy for all the ills in America, [but] also the means by which the creative impulse is destroyed." Schedule time for leisure--the not-doing is as precious as the doing.
- Go outside. I'll bet you this cold cup of coffee that we're both vitamin D deficient. Go sit in the sun for 20 minutes. If you're in Seattle, go to the light box at UW. If you don't have a light box, get yourself some D3 capsules. And while you're at it--eat something green. Those Totino's pizza rolls won't equip you to write the next great American novel.
- Get uncomfortable. New experiences can really shake things up, sometimes even enough--dare we imagine it? --to spark a paragraph or two. Allow yourself to experience things that threaten to make you wildly uncomfortable. Go to church and call your mother. Wear a dress, dye your hair, and stop wearing makeup. Raise your hand in class. Go to the party alone and dance in public. Tell someone you've had a crush on them forever. Eat a bug.
- Stop thinking about you. Because ultimately, it's not about you. Or me. Or that writer you love and hate at the same time. It's about something a lot bigger than any one of us. And I really believe that one of the best ways to feel better, no matter what you're struggling with, is to get your mind off yourself. So volunteer. Write thank you letters to your favorite teachers. Set an intention for someone you know who is hurting. Drive someone to the airport. Call that one friend who you know is going to keep you on the phone for 2 hours, lamenting the latest details of some sad, unending tale.
- Watch this video.
- Write yourself an encouraging letter. Julia Cameron suggests this in her book The Artist's Way. Write yourself a letter from you at 8 years old, and then write yourself a letter from you at 80 years old. It's amazing, the wisdom and perspective we had when we were younger--and equally amazing, the hope we have for ourselves that we won't admit we have.
- Read outside your genre. This has been one of the more helpful things for me in an effort to salvage my love for writing. If you're a poet, stop reading poems and read The Hunger Games instead. If you're a memoir writer, read the collected Jack Gilbert. Get outside of your box.
- Or, don't read anything at all for a little while. This, oddly, works wonders.
- Clean your bathroom. This one is terribly underrated. There's creativity to be found when working with your hands. Scrubbing a tile floor can be life-giving (and, for some of you, life-saving, considering the last time you cleaned your bathroom). Try it, mindfully. You'll be surprised. Then go wash your dishes.
- Imitate the trees. In her Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton writes about the importance of patience, the kind that kicks in when everything really does appear to be turning to sh*t. She says we should "learn to lose in order to recover." Think about the trees in wintertime--so many of them lose their leaves and look deader than dead, even though we have all the confidence in the world that come springtime, they'll be in full bloom. If we believe this for the trees, why don't we believe this for ourselves?
- Put your hands up and step away from the screens. Stop making excuses and give yourself the gift of a technology-free day. It requires some planning, but you can do it. No computer, no GPS, no iPad, no TV, no movies, no video games, no Nook. You can do it! Don't lose your soul to your smart phone! Pick up an actual pen. Play board games. Take out an actual map. Go see a play. Send some snail mail. Listen to music. The possibilities, we forget, are endless.
- Don't be afraid to feel awful. I recently went to a reading in San Francisco. There was a Q&A at the end, and I raised my hand to ask the famous memoirist what advice she would give to writers who struggle with loneliness, since so much of our profession requires time alone. She suggested that these writers should simply find another profession. The more I think about her response, the more I think it was ridiculous. Some of us are more suited to the solitude of a writer's life, and others take energy from interaction with others. The latter reality isn't incompatible with being a successful writer--it just means we might need to work a little harder and let ourselves feel lonely sometimes. And that's okay.
- Don't just watch everything turning to sh*t-- participate! Allow yourself to write some sh*t. This can be hard to do with intention. But, as Anne Lamott says, if we aren't going to give ourselves permission to write sh*tty drafts, we're never going to write ourselves into anything we actually like.
- Get a life. In the eloquent words of Kurt Vonnegut, "literature should not disappear up its own @sshole." I really, really believe this. Writing is an amazing, beautiful, important way to spend a lifetime½ but so is living. So let's get some hobbies. Heck, let's go crazy--let's love some people. Let's invest in our communities and get to know our neighbors. Let's be more than just brilliant writers--let's be brilliant people. Because if you and I never do write the earth-shattering novels or poems or short stories that we've always dreamed of writing, we're going to want to have something to fall back on½ and a good life is a really good start.