Blocked and ignorant

by DRM

When I hear the words “writer’s block,” I think of something that is big and formidable. The image is wrenching: an imagination has been blocked by an organic, but chimerical force. A person wants to do something badly, but each time they start off to do it, they are thwarted. It’s like Sisyphus straining to push the rock up the mountain, only to have it come crashing down before him: an endless and frustrating agony.

But when I hear the words “writer block,” I also think, Nonsense. Why would anyone put up with so much failure and frustration for such a long time? Prolonged frustration is a sign that something has to change. If they are struggling with this force, but making no progress, then they are making a bad decision. They are trying to do something that they aren’t meant to do. I feel sorry for them, because it’s hard to see someone be in discomfort, but I am impatient with them, because they should be sensible enough to turn their attention to something else.

So imagine how odd it was for me to write these words: Over the past two years, I have worked my way out of a 20-year writer’s block.

Even writing them a second time makes me feel stilted, self-conscious. The statement is stark. 20 years! What a challenging and tormented time that must have been! How exciting it must be to have gotten past something that was forcibly holding you back!

The reality is more mundane and somehow sadder.

I didn’t even know.

I didn’t know that I was blocked. Or, as the person who helped me see things differently said, that I was suffering from a phobia.

I just thought I stopped writing because I wasn’t very good at the kind of writing that I was trying to do, and because I didn’t want the life of a writer doing the kind of writing that I was probably better at.

That’s the part of my mind that treated the idea of writer’s block as Nonsense. My response to an extended period of internal confusion and frustration was to accept it as an insurmountable obstacle and to strike a new path that would be easier and more immediately rewarding.

The mind is a powerful ally and a powerful enemy, I’ve learned. There’s sense in shifting your tactics when you are thwarted. But when your mind tells you that you are experiencing pain, it can be trying to find a path to get more quickly to pleasure.

The remarkable thing is how powerful this beast is that pushes you to do something that it wants. It is cunning, conniving, intuitive, irrational, crabby, clutching, peevish, preening. When the beast gets the better of you, it works a constant campaign of persuasion, telling you why you’re making the right choice, even if the right choice appears to be sitting in one spot all day, doing nothing, getting more and more flabby in body and spirit.

I remember what the pain felt like. I can remember the pain so vividly that when I feel like I’m touching up against it again, my instinct is to flee. In this case, fleeing would mean taking my fingers off the keys, shutting this document down and going back to the kind of things that I was doing over the past 20 years. They aren’t bad or wasteful things. But they weren’t this thing, this thing of writing, of putting together words to find some more understanding, to walk into the powerful landscape of the imagination, to feel the vibrations that come with capturing a thread of knowledge, of seeing a story, or a person or an idea suddenly lighten. There are few things in my life that compare to this feeling. And if I stop now, because the pain – once so familiar – is making me remember the discomfort so clearly that it is real again, then the beast won.

That is a phobia, my friend said. The fear is so powerful that you cannot process a rational response. The fear is bestial. It controls your body. Something happened that feels so dangerous to you that you don’t want to risk it again.

I remember what the fear felt like so clearly that even describing it makes me feel worried that I will fall prey to it again.

That is why I stopped writing.