48 Hours of Writer’s Block

It is seven o’clock on Sunday night and I have been on the couch since two o’clock with a mild case of writer’s block. Which is annoying because I’m writing a book.

I say “mild” because it’s not that I can’t write. It’s just that I can’t write anything that’s not crap. I was trying to write a blog but that was crap. Then I was trying to edit the Mozambique chapter of my book, which I thought was the best chapter, but that actually turned out to be crap too! Then I tried to write in my journal about how I could only write crap, and that’s what this is, and if it’s not crap and you love it, it’s because I edited it four days later.

Now my eyes are bugged out and exhausted from looking at the screen and I crave gluten but there isn’t any in David and Ashley’s apartment. 

I want to be a writer who writes good stuff, but I already wrote good stuff when I was in Spain and stuff, so how can I ever write stuff as good as that stuff? If only I were traveling, I’d write good stuff instead of boring stuff. But if I were a better writer or if I just tried hard enough, I’d be able to find a way to make even the boring stuff into good stuff, so that shows I’m not being as creative with my current circumstances as I could be, because all I’ve got to show for it is this stuff here… 

I’m still on the couch thinking this lame stuff when Ashley gets back from Whole Foods and gives me an organic grapefruit and a glass of rosé. She puts chicken and tomatoes and olives in a pan. This reminds me that the world is bigger than the couch. There’s a kitchen out there.

I feel like I haven’t earned dinner but I shut the laptop anyway and cut brussels sprouts and kale and put harissa on them and also capers till the pan is heavy, and then I put it in the oven and enjoy the harissa and rosé.

Sunday: Bedtime

I mean, I woke up at 6:00 today, and tomorrow I’ll wake up at 4:30. I’m now in my own bed about to sleep, but I feel just a tickle. Just a nudge to write. When you feel that, you must open the laptop again.

I’m so sleepy. I’m typing this with the display all the way down and my eyes closed and my head to the side and the lights off. Whatever I thought I might say, I’m not saying. I forgot.

Thanks, Muse.

Monday: Morning

And last week Jo asked me how the book was going and I vomited a paragraph in reply, waxing luscious, spastic poetic about my love for it in a way I hadn’t in any previous epics I’d mentally formulated in response to that delicious question, how is the book going. Usually, I can’t get enough of the book. I never tire of contemplating it. Each time I think about it, I think something new.

But apathy is a symptom of writer’s block. It does not delete the doubts (that it’ll be a good book, that there will be enough money to publish it, that anyone other than me will like it, that it will ever have a title). It dulls their urgency so that I stop caring whether it’ll be good or not. That’s the worst feeling: losing the feeling.

To combat the apathy and work myself back into the normal pleasant frenzy, I have dressed myself in low-grade artificial panic and tried to fill my spare moments with writing and also making a blog (not this one I’m writing now, though: this is just the flotsam and jetsam that naturally occurs whenever I’ve had too much screen time: this is shaping up to be something that I’ll edit later and pass off as a blog [since I haven’t had any other good ideas] to get people to click on stuff I say and pay attention to me and hopefully not think I’m too navel-gazey).

I’m one week behind on the book, on my arbitrary, self-dictated editing schedule. So I’ve been trying to work extra hard to catch up and do better. As if 27 years of being a Lutheran who knows the folly of working my way to heaven has taught me nothing.

Well, I have worked and it hasn’t worked. Now I just feel like I can’t catch my breath. I’m bored with the book and have no way to improve it. So I’m going to do what I should have done, what I know to do and usually do but have not: take a break. Look at something other than that freaking screen with its devilish blue light. It’s hard to not be on your device too much when you are writing a book but you’ve gotta find a way to look at things far away. You got to.

Monday: Bedtime

I had a three-hour chunk of free time. I have conditioned myself to view such blocks as book time, but for the sake of the book, I went to REI and looked at hiking boots. I touched all the latest quick-drying, insulating fabrics and read all the multilingual tags on the coat sleeves. Then I drove to Queen Anne and put my seat back and listened to a podcast for a half hour with the windows down in the sun while I waited for my ward to get out of kindergarten. He and I went home and played too many games on his tablet (kids these days!) and chased each other around, playing Roadrunner and Coyote. I went to yoga and got sweaty. I ate a big salad. Google Docs lay fallow. 

And now I am in bed. I have gone to bed early, and I have just watched the rest of a TED Talk that Seth from Adventures sent me a while ago. It was a TED Talk by David Whyte, and it was about reality, and it was laced with poetry and vignettes of the Camino and it made me feel stuff and remember the days I knew I was doing a great thing but didn’t feel excited or powerful in the moment.

He said many great things that made me pause the video to think, but the thing that made me tear up was this:

If you’re sincere about your work, it should break your heart. You should get to thresholds where you do not know how to proceed, you do not know how to get from here to there…

I haven’t considered this case of writer’s block a form of heartbreak because it hasn’t given me any intense emotions. But it is helpful to do so because it tells me that this dismal, momentary struggle is real, and part of the process, and a signal that I’m on the right track. Sure, it means I should stop writing and striving for a day and trust that it will get done and relax and go to REI and have a beer and play Angry Birds with a six-year-old. But it does not mean the work is not worth doing. It means the opposite. It is one of the ways work affects the worker. It’s all part of it. It’s good to be affected by your work. It’s good to be affected by your work. It’s good to be affected by your work.

So writer’s block isn’t the enemy. It’s just something to meet along the way. It fires me up to keep going. I think I won’t have writer’s block tomorrow after hearing this talk and a day of healthy eating and no screen time and a night of good sleep. So I’m going to shut my eyes and breathe deeply and try to sleep as soon as possible: the sooner we sleep, the sooner we wake, and the sooner we wake, the sooner we get back to the book.

3 thoughts on “48 Hours of Writer’s Block

  1. Whyte wrote this meditation about heartbreak in his book Consolations: “Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control, of holding in our affections those who inevitably move beyond our line of sight. Even the longest, strongest marriage has had its heart broken many times just in the act of staying together over the years.

    Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is just as much an essence and emblem of care as the spiritual athlete’s quick but abstract ability to let go. Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.

    Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream, a child lost before their time. Heartbreak, we hope, is something we hope we can avoid; something to guard against, a chasm to be carefully looked for and then walked around; the hope is to find a way to place our feet where the elemental forces of life will keep us in the manner to which we want to be accustomed and which will keep us from the losses that all other human beings have experienced without exception since the beginning of conscious time. But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.

    …If heartbreak is inevitable and inescapable, it might be asking us to look for it and make friends with it, to see it as our constant and instructive companion, and even perhaps, in the depth of its impact as well as in its hindsight, to see it as its own reward. Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is a deeper introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something or someone who has been with us all along, asking us to be ready to let go of the way we are holding everything and everyone that comes our way, and preparation perhaps, for the last letting go of all.”


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