Saturday, February 15, 2014

Writer's Block Knocks Me Down. But I Get Up Again.

I didn't used to believe in Writer's Block. I was doing a book talk somewhere or a school visit and during the Q and A a person asked me what I did to combat Writer's Block and I said, with a straight face and totally meaning it, that I did not believe in it. Then, I probably laughed. Ha ha. Writer's Block. Pshaw. Never happened to me before. Unless you count a few false stops and starts. And those weren't such a big deal.

Anyway, I knew the solution to slow/bad writing days: keep writing.

And then I came down with the affliction. Yes, Virginia, I am here to tell you that Writer's Block is real and I have been suffering from it, acutely, for the past six months.

The past six months I have also been promoting the heck out of my first book. Coincidence? Probably not.

Here's what my writing life was like BEFORE I had a book on the bookstore shelves:

  • I wrote, nearly every day, 1500 words, when I was writing a first draft, or a chapter or two, when I was revising. 
  • The majority of those days I had a hard time sitting down and beginning, opening my file, and getting to work. 
  • The majority of those days I doubted what I was doing. I realized almost at the same time that the words were spilling out of my head and onto the page that they were kind of sucky but I told myself that I would try to fix them later. 
  • I worried as I was writing a book that I would never finish and if I did ever finish, no one would ever read it. 
  • Some days I felt like my words were glorious and brilliant and hilarious and heartbreaking. It was easy to slip into my story. The empty page would magically transform into a dark pool and I would fall under the surface and disappear from myself. The story would spool out like it had always been there and I would watch and take dictation. 
  • But most days the empty page was an empty page. There was no dark pool. Or there was a dark pool but it was frozen over and I was shuffling around on the surface and slamming an axe at the ice and only chipping up a few words here and there but mostly just chunks of stupid ice and my hands would hurt and I'd want to throw the axe down and kick it.
  • Later, when I went back to read over my pages, there would be no difference between the output that came from the lovely dark pool days and from the painful frozen ice days. Which I thought was freaking weird. But whatever. I didn't question it. I had just enough of those dark pool days to keep me slugging through the difficult days. 

I know it was like this for me because I can look over old blog posts--the first two years especially. The posts are a string of wondering and worrying and whining and complaining. Figuring out my process. Absorbing rejections. Making peace, finally, with the idea that I might never be a published writer.

In the meantime I went to writers' conferences and retreats and I heard other writers talking about similar struggles, and the common denominator, the mantra, in so many words, seemed to come down to: Keep writing. Trust the process. 

I believed it even though I hadn't actually seen it work. I trusted the process--trusted that I would get better at writing if I kept at it, trusted that plotholes would work themselves out if I fiddled with them, trusted that if I kept submitting, eventually something would click.

And it worked.

In that very long time between when I finished my "first" book Thin Space, I wrote four other books. I had my mostly bad writing days and my rare good ones. I had my tricks for getting started and sticking with it and checking off goals, and I patted myself on the back that I was getting better, that I knew what I was doing.

Here's what happens now when I write:

It's EXACTLY the same as the list above. It's hard to sit down and begin. The initial words come out sucky. Doubts churn around in my head. But everything is amped up exponentially. Instead of worrying that no one will ever read what I'm working on (which I DO worry about, obsessively) I also worry about future readers comparing this new thing to Thin Space. I imagine meh Goodreads reviews and weirdly jouncing around Amazon ratings. And a whole bunch of other stuff that I have no control over.

I keep writing, but I feel like a fraud. This isn't a frozen pool I'm chipping away at. No, it's a mucky swamp and all I can do is descend into it each day and try not to suffocate.

Writer's Block--at least as I have come to understand it--is not the inability to write--I can always string sentences together, I assure you--it is the inability to fall into that lovely deep dark pool and lose yourself in a story. It's the fear that you've lost whatever it is that you don't even understand you have. It's staring at a blank page and seeing that frozen pool and holding your axe and not having the energy to swing it anymore. It's the terror that you will never see the dark pool again.

But before I depress whoever happens to be reading this (and myself), I want to remind you (and myself!) that I know the solution.

You write.

On the days you want to and on the days you don't. On the good days and on the bad days. You write when you are travelling and when you have a head cold and when you have ten million emails to answer and when your house is a laughable pigsty.

You keep writing. You trust the process.

So that's what I've been doing for the past few months. I wrote and worried and flailed around in the swamp. Until finally I had a few days of chopping ice. And yesterday, for a glorious moment, it happened.

I forgot about twitter and Goodreads ratings and emails and hilariously dirty bathrooms, and the page disappeared. It was only for a little while, but there it was--the dark pool shimmering and gorgeous and right in front of me.

Under the surface was the story, waiting for me to shut up and let go, waiting for me to lose myself so I could find it.

And I did.


  1. Jody, congratulations on your breakthrough yesterday! And for starting today out with this incredible blog post. Maybe to you blogging doesn't feel like "writing", but I was mesmerized by your descriptions of your process and your lovely, evocative metaphors. I guess the one that resonated the most for me is the chipping-away-at-the-ice, since I'm an East Coaster and that's literally how I've been spending much of the past week! But seriously. You have so many deep and wonderful posts about The Process. I think that if you gather them all together, you'll find a book hiding in there - and a lot of people will read it.

    1. Thanks, Susan. In Ohio we are chipping away at actual ice too. And thanks for the kind words about my blog. Most of this stuff feels stolen--I don't think I've had any original insights, is what I am saying. Oh, here's a book on overcoming writer's block that has helped me immensely over the years: Steven Pressfield's War of Art. I reread it ever couple of years and it's probably time to read it again.

  2. Loved this post. I need to be reminded that all writers struggle. That we sometimes feel like we are just writing crap and what is the point. Glad you have made a breakthrough, and I hope you are keeping warm while you swim in that chilly, dark pool. =)

  3. This is reassuring. It's good to be reminded that no one is immune!

  4. Thanks for your images, Jody. I'm still dancing around my novel revision. But I keep writing other things and it seems to take the edge off. No dark pools recently. But your images give me hope. And your suggestion of going to a Highlights workshop. It's not a reality yet but is still giving me hope.