The start of an essay on Writer’s Block

by DRM

Two things have happened over the past week: I let my daily routine of posting here slip; and, I’ve gone back to a notebook from last year to visit the two pages that are duplicated above.

I’m trying to understand how they are related.

The notes were the beginning of an essay on writer’s block. I’ve written on the topic in a few places over the past couple of years. The quick summary: I began to write again after 15 years away. I feel like a gift had been given back to me. The process of coming back to writing started with the question, Why did you stop? The fact that I couldn’t easily answer that question led to a series of other questions that concluded by identifying a phobia that was so strong and painful that I’d gotten into a position that I couldn’t write at all.

In the past two years, I’ve been able to write steadily and without pain. I feel fortunate.

I also feel like I’m at risk. The feelings that made me too scared to write haven’t been cast away, eradicated, destroyed, dissolved. They have been quarantined, like a destructive virus under lock and key in a research laboratory.

Posting daily on this site, no matter how trivial or uncrafted the sharing is, serves the purpose of keeping me close to the habits and impulses that let me write. It’s my daily check-in, a curfew of creativity, that makes sure that I haven’t wandered off and gotten myself into a situation I can’t control.

I had a reason for breaking the pattern this week. I’ve got other obligations I’ve had to spend a lot of time on, and I have only so much imaginative bandwidth. I found myself stretching at the very end of the day to get something up before the clock struck midnight. I even toyed with the idea of changing the date on a post so I didn’t miss a day.

You need to keep your imagination focused on the long project, I told myself. Don’t worry if you miss a day here or there.

This is a reasonable approach to time, creativity and focus. I know that. But I also know that I shouldn’t trust myself. This might be an early slip into the emotional state that takes me away from writing again. The doubts, the uncertainty, the fear and the pain could all come back, and my creative self could run off and hide somewhere. I would get discouraged again and try to forget about it. And then all this work would vanish.

In the original examination of why I stopped writing, there was one question that was never answered: What was the event that caused you so much pain that it made you frightened to write?

I couldn’t come up with an answer. Anything that I thought about — a comment my father made, or a rejection of some kind — made me feel weak, like I was making excuses, laying blame somewhere, being foolish and silly. In the end, we agreed that the answer to the question wasn’t important so long as I recognized the signs of fear and had routines to cope with it, so that I could keep writing.

The first piece I completed after I started writing again was a recollection of an old typewriter. It let me visit the early days of writing, when I was filled with energy, hope, promise and uncertainty. The reasons why I stopped and started again were buried somewhere in the memories, but weren’t ready to come out.

Later, I started to make notes on an essay about the experience of not being able to write. One thing that made this experience distinctive was that I manufactured an intentional amnesia about my life as a writer. One day I stopped and walked away into a new life, acting like my old life never existed. It wasn’t a tormented act, but it was a moment of leaving the deep waters for the shallows, and that has its own limiting and stultifying impact on one’s life.

I wanted to write the essay because I felt like if I shared my experience, and it helped someone else find a path out of a creative dead-end, or affirmed for someone that they should stay purposeful and focused on their work, then I would have made up for some part of the years of my own creativity that I squandered.

I didn’t start the essay because every path I went down took me to the question of Why? again. Why did you feel so inadequate? Why did you need confirmation of your identity so badly? Why was it more important that someone told you you were good than it was to do the work? Why were you scared? Why did you want to stop?

I love the question Why? That question drives my stories, my research, my work, my energy. The essential question is always, Why?

But when I contemplate trying to answer those questions that I ask about not writing, I get thwarted. My answers would be fiction, I think. I’m not qualified to write about the torment of an ill-conceived identity. And, I don’t want to travel back to my childhood and lay the responsibility for that frightened adolescent on anyone else. He got scared, he ran and hid, and he wasted years. Don’t let him drag you back, I think to myself.

When I skip a couple of days of posting here, and make little progress on the long project, I see the warning signs. I think to myself, maybe you do need to answer the question, Why? I go back to the start of the framework in the old notebook, read the lines, and feel nervous, threatened.

The beast lives there. The notes are its spore. Maybe someday I’ll feel ready to go track it, try to hunt it down. For now, I’ve got to keep remembering it’s there, and that the only way to keep it away is to write. Just write and write, no matter what, no matter how good, no matter how awkward.