Writer's Block

 Once I was experiencing writer's block at a coffee shop. That's is a very public place to experience writer's block, and in hind's sight, it looked silly. I was sitting there, drumming circles on the table with my thumbs, with my face screwed up into the shape of a fist. The coffee shop was busy, but I was on the moon: What am I writing about? What am I trying to say? What concept am I getting to here? What am I doing exactly? I didn't even notice when someone I sort of awkwardly know* came and sat down across from me. 

"There's no open tables," he said, "do you mind if I plug in here for a while?"

I said sure, and he opened his laptop. I probably should have been more personable in that moment, but this writer's block was really getting to me. He was staring at me with the fascination a child gives to an unidentifiable fuzzy caterpillar. 

"If you don't mind my asking, what are you doing?"

This question annoyed me. I did mind his asking. Wasn't generously giving half of my table to this person? A half of a table, mind you, that I had been using to stare at while I experienced writer's block? He should have at least had the decency to leave me alone while I writhed around and contorted my face across from him.

"I'm having writer's block," I said. "Do you know any antidotes?"

"Oh yeah," he said. "The only thing I can do to stop writer's block is to not write. I have to get out there and run and do other stuff and not think about writing at all, until I'm ready to write." For a moment, I felt like this answer was a really good one. That's what I wanted to do, after all. I wanted to not write. I wanted to go home and get on the bed and not write and read a comic book or eat a hand pie. I mean, I didn't want to go for a run, because I'm not insane, but the not-writing part of his advice was really sounding good to me.

So I talked to him some more for a little while; checked in about this and that, looked around the room and wondered about the other patrons at the coffee shop, and felt a little bit better. But I had this nagging suspicion that something was wrong.

When he got up to leave, I suddenly knew what it was. He was not a writer! He was a soccer player. I'm sure he writes sometimes -- everyone writes sometimes. But he's one of those people who says, "I have this thing I want to start working on, when I've got the time." One must be wary of "this thing I want to start working on when I've got the time." There's always the time. When you say something like that to yourself, you're passive-aggressively telling your fear to please move out of the way, when it feels like it. Unfortunately, fear is lackadaisical. Sometimes it has to be pushed.

Barbara Kingsolver, who is a writer, has this to say about her own writer's block: "I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer's block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don't. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done."

At first, this seems antithetical to the basic Buddhist principles I have been pretty diligently studying for the past few weeks. There is a notion that one should not force oneself to do anything, or push oneself beyond one's limits. I think that's important. And, if for some reason you do not make it to your desk, or the fear around writing is too large, I do think it's important not to beat yourself up over that. 

But here is the thing about writer's block for me: all it is is fear. Maybe I've recently written an essay I felt very proud of. I am worried that any subsequent essay I write will not be as good. I am worried that the half-formed thought I have is not ready to be born, and if I try to put it into writing it will collapse under poor foundation. I hear all the red-ink comments on my college essays spoken out loud in my head: "unclear;" "trite;" "what's the point here anyway?" And that's all self-talk that doesn't have my best interests in mind. That's a voice in my head that is not a gentle guide; it's a bully.

You know that children's song, "We're Going on a Bear Hunt?" In it, the characters are faced with swishy-wishy grass and a cold dark river and a tiny little cave on their way to finding a bear. At every obstacle, the lyrics are, "We can't go over it, we can't go under it; we gotta go through it." 

To write is to be brave. Maybe some days I will feel more ignited to do it than others; maybe sometimes I'll have something more interesting or important to say. There are mornings when I leap out of bed and say, "I know exactly what I want to write today." But the truth is that they are few and far between.

The antidote to writer's block is to write. Just write through it. Write crap! Write drivel! Write in long run-on sentences that abuse commas and send seventh grade Language Arts teachers into hyper-grammar-police overdrive. Write into canyons and over ledges and off cliffs. Write stuff that doesn't make sense; write stuff that will never get finished. The antidote is to write. Even if no one is reading it; even if it feels meaningless. It's not meaningless. It's writing.

I am saying all this not for you, but for me. I have been waking up every morning feeling creatively blocked for a few weeks now. This morning, my pillows felt so soft and the air was so nice and cool that I could imagine nothing worse than having to come up with something to write about. 

My process, for those of you who do not intimately know me, is to get up at 4 (Hemingway said you have to beat the sun, and I have found that to be helpful), drink very strong coffee (like the Portland-brand hipster I am -- I actually special-order it from Portland every month; judge me if you wish, but it makes a difference), eat fruit and dark greens, journal longhand for three pages, and then compose an essay. Sometimes the essays are dumb. I'll go out on a limb and say that usually the essays are dumb. But I write through it. The point is not fame or glory or even to create something profound. The point is to build the muscle, so that when the time comes, I can lift something that matters.

I have this Sylvia Plath quote taped to my printer. In terms of life choices, she is maybe not always the role model I want to follow, but in her writing practice, she was a superstar. Here's the quote: "And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

So if you're reading this, and there is something you love to do, but you feel blocked, or afraid, here's what I think: go through it. Don't go for a run. (Unless the thing you love to do is running.) Don't not do the thing. Do the thing. You have time now


* Do you have relationships like these? Maybe you went on a few dates with the person, and it's not like you hated them or anything, but you didn't really hit it off, and you didn't ever hook up, and neither person really followed up, so you're stuck in this eternal purgatory of maybe-I-used-to-kind-of-like-you-like-you-but-not-anymore. You know what I mean? Well, that was my relationship with this guy.