Water Is There Somewhere
I wrote the following blog a couple weeks ago, when I was suffering—and I mean that, suffering—a major attack of writer’s block. Friends were worried about me. I suspect even my dog felt sorry for me. My husband bore it all quite patiently and offered glasses of wine and advice. I was feeling pretty low and he suggested I write about it just for me. So I did. I’ve since broken my way through that wall, but I wanted to share what I was going through just in case it helps anyone else dealing with the bane of a writer’s existence. Side note: a few days after I wrote this, I picked up a photography book by Olivia Bee (Kids In Love—it’s fantastic) and got a brand spanking new idea for a novel from one of her photographs. I’m now 30K words in. So, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there,
I have worked. I have dug. I have submitted and knocked. For nearly two months. I have tried to write several different novels: different genres, age groups, time periods—you name it. I have gotten to nearly 20,000 words on several projects and then found myself stuck, my creativity a tire lodged in unyielding mud. I have forgotten how to plot. I can’t seem to manage prose with even the smallest scrap of elegance or delicacy. My characters are flat and I couldn’t care less about them. We have nothing to say to each other. I have been in a tailspin, a general shouting Advance! Advance! despite the obvious fact that I am going to lose this battle. And perhaps the next one. And the next.
People in my life have often remarked upon how many ideas I have for stories, like it’s a good thing. It’s never a good thing. It makes knowing which story to write harder, it makes it easier to give up on stories that don’t immediately yield fruit. You wonder which stories are the ones that should be told, but not by you. And which ones can only be told by you. The answer is not always apparent. Having so many ideas reminds you of your mortality: it is unlikely you will live long enough to tell all these stories.
This is the crux of the problem: nothing I work on grabs hold of me and refuses to let go. Nothing is igniting a spark. There is none of that je ne sais quoi that keeps your fingers moving across the keyboard. Every story, every character, seems disposable. I’ve lost steam—it’s hard to know whether I’m just tired and creatively depleted or whether I’ve lost something I can never get back. Did I push myself too hard these past few years? Have I succumbed to the ravages of an industry that constantly fucks with my serenity?
I can no longer see my way in. Before, there would be obstacles, yes, but they would be solved by a chance idea, a reader’s comment, a moment of clarity. Not so anymore. Those moments of clarity are non-existent. I’m stumbling around in the dark. It’s always like this: I have an idea, a few characters, a general (very general) plot – a beginning and an end. No middle. I start writing, all the while miserable because I have no flow, because that joyous outburst through the tips of my fingers is little more than a trickle. Not one word I write will survive the cutting room.
People close to me tell me I need to take a break. I don’t know what they mean by this. What am I supposed to do all day? You can only read for so many hours. You can only go to so many museum exhibits. Suddenly, there are too many hours in the day. Not long ago I’d hoped for more. The thing is, I want to write. I don’t want to take a break unless that break involves international travel which it doesn’t because I live in the most expensive city in the world, save for London and, I don’t know, Dubai.
I wonder if my husband is losing patience. Am I exhausting him when I bring up my writer’s block, when I vent about how wasted another day was? He tries to listen to yet another mangled story idea or commiserate when one dies a painful death, but what he really wants to say is: Snap out of it. I try to take breaks. Read a lot more. But nothing comes except a distinct whiff of failure.
All I want to do is write. I want to be able to imagine stories, then tell them well with vitality and meaning. I want to inspire, amaze, terrify, embrace. I want my words to mean something to others, to ignite their imagination, jump start their hearts.
I know all the sayings you could throw at me: trust the process, you say. What if this miserable state of being is my process? Is this what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life?
I used to be a figure skater when I was a kid. I loved the ice, loved everything about it. Except the Axel jump. One and a half rotations in the air, a forward entry point where you stand on a one quarter inch blade and hoist yourself in the air using a combination of speed and strength. For some reason, the jump terrified me, not the least of which because I fell nearly every time I did it, even after I began to stick the landing. The Axel jump ruined me. There would be no Olympics in my future. What I needed was a sports psychologist. What I got was an increasingly fed up and disappointed coach and a single mom who couldn’t afford to have me there in the first place, let alone when I was failing. I knew. Some part of me knew that fucking jump would do me in. Self-fulfilled prophesy.
I can’t have another Axel jump in my life. Or, if I do, I need to jump without fear and stick the landing. We hear so many awful stories about writer’s block. Some think it’s a myth, others a harbinger of creative death. I even hesitate to say I’m blocked because I don’t want to give it more power than it already has. Thus far my approach has been to keep working (Advance! Advance!). I figure something’s gotta let me in, something’s going to give me that fire. But it’s exhausting. Long days where I sit in front of my computer in fear and shame and frustration. Long days where I wish I cared less than I did.
I’m going to come out the other side of this, I know that. I have to, I want to, and I will. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be learning from this experience. Am I supposed to write less books? Switch up my artistic process? Go with the proverbial flow? Am I like that pilot in Top Gun who was holding on too tight and lost his edge? I won’t have Tom Cruise to talk me through this landing.
I guess I’ll do what Rumi says—keep digging. I just have to go deeper this time.
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