How to Overcome Writer's Block (Hint: You Won't Find it On a List)

 

I’m exhausted. 

Why?

Because I write all the time. 

Read: all the fucking time. 

And if I’m not writing, I’m reading (or talking shit at the TV, hoping my insults might reach the writer’s room telepathically). But never, in 7+ years of professional writing have I ever experienced what we commonly know as “writer’s block.” I’m not saying that it will never happen in the future, but it has certainly never occurred in my past. Then again, creating ideas is not my problem. No, my problem has always been figuring out ways to communicate those ideas. And I have failed - miserably - many, many times. Oh, let me count the ways. 

There was my brief stint in Live Lit, which, at least to me, feels like group therapy with a louder microphone. And being that I’m extremely competitive, and this particular group of writers seems to get off on how awful their lives are, I wrote an entire essay detailing each and every horrific, embarrassing, and shameful sexual experience I’d had. Sure, I won the competition - but at what cost? Oomph. I really regret that one. 

Then there are the novel drafts - which I believed to be finished, perfect, brilliant - only to share them with people I respect, then recoil at the discovery that my work was absolute shit. To this day, I have moments where I shudder at the very thought that I shared those drafts with others. 

And of course, there was my work as a theatre critic - a job which drove me to the point of a mental breakdown in under three months. Why? Because most storefront theatre productions are works in progress, and you have to say something truthful about their quality in order to get paid. Try seeing artists work their ass off to produce something that doesn’t work, and then have to turn around and tell them why it didn’t work, while also guiding audiences on whether or not to go see it. I’ve produced plays. It’s hard. And a critic can make it so much harder. I took that power very seriously, and its weight was crushing. Such pressure! Never again. 

Then there have been entire play structures, scenes, and moments written that have never left my office. (They’re now collecting dust in a drawer.) The priest dying of rabies, the prostitute explaining economics, the William Dafoe colostomy bag commercial idea, the intersex hero of an epic tale that fell apart like damp tissue paper. These were exciting ideas at first, but all collapsed during execution. 

And that’s not including three years trying to write a novel, only to discard it, pick up an old manuscript of mine, go through seven variations, scratch and rebuild, and finally end up where I am now: with great feedback from a literary agent, but only bullet points and character profiles to guide me forward. 

Now, I don’t know why I keep writing. Yes, I love it to the point that I will defend it to the death; but I don’t love it in the sense of “my life is a fairy tale romance with nothing but sunshine and puppies” sort of way. Writing is who I am. I am a writer. So, I have never looked at a blank page and said, “Oh shit. What do I do?” 

Of course, I get antsy when I know I’m about to start writing a new draft, whether it’s for an article, blog post, or creative pursuit. I can even morph into Joe Pesci on occasions too. (It really depends on the time of day.) 

But when I think about writer’s block, I don’t think it’s about writing at all. I think it’s about ego. 

This too is something I know a ton about. 

In the past, I’ve been arrogant - but only to mask my insecurities. I’ve been aggressive in my views - but only to hide the fact that I didn’t know what I was talking about to begin with. And I’ve been shamefully ignorant, hoping no one would find out. 

On those days, sure, writing was a bitch. How do I know if what I’m saying is 100% true? Am I right? Am I actually completely incorrect? Am I going to be shunned, slammed, or stunned at the horrific comments which shall inevitably follow (but never come)? 

It’s my understanding of this feeling, and the yearning to be liked, loved, wanted, appreciated, respected, revered, and at peace that drives me to contemplate the causes of writer’s block. 

But if I fail at writing something, it’s often because I’m writing it for the wrong reasons. If I fail at being creative, it’s often because I’m too obsessed with what will happen once I “make it big.” And if I fail at being the best version of myself, it’s often because I’ve gotten in my own god damn way. 

Because here’s the thing: writing is literally creating something out of nothing. Even your word choices are suspect because they are the bricks used to build your house. They are the walls, the foundation, the pipes, the electrical system, the roof, the plumbing, the central air conditioning system. And the thing holding all this shit together is your idea. It’s terrifying to consider building a house with your own ideas and words, then spending the night under that easily collapsible roof. How do we even know it’s safe? Secure? Trustworthy? Or able to exist at all? Maybe the house we’ve dreamed up is just an illusion. 

I think that’s the fear that keeps us from writing. 
It’s the fear that we’re not good enough. 
That we’ll never be able to support ourselves with our art. 
That our writing will be laughed at, ripped apart by the critics, and held up for our embarrassment in front of people we love and respect. 

We’re afraid of the torches and pitchforks coming for our fragile words on Twitter and Facebook. 
We’re ashamed of our deepest yearnings and darkest secrets.
We don’t want to share who we are with the world. 
We don’t want to reveal our soft little underbellies. 
Because, then, if we’re stabbed, we’ll bleed. 

That’s the cause of writer’s block. 
It’s not that you have nothing to say. 
It’s that you’re afraid to say it. 

I know, because even with all the shit I’ve written, I’m still afraid to say some things. 

Terrified. 
Anxious. 
Panicked. 

But the other thing you should know about writer’s block is that it doesn’t always mean you’re afraid of the blank page. Another symptom is filling the void with all the words you have, but never really saying anything. And that’s the affliction more of us have, I think. Myself included. 

We feel that we have to say something
So we end up saying everything, and nothing at all. 

As for that cure? 
I’ll have to get back to you. 

I’m not tired enough to reveal that painful truth.
The one that creeps into my dreams, gnaws away at my subconscious and pushes me to reveal more and more with my words and language with every iteration. One day I’ll answer the call...hopefully someday soon. And all the pieces will magically fall into place, I pray. 

But until then, I’m an imperfect work in progress who'll just have to keep writing. 

What about you? 

-A.J.