The Truth About “Writer’s Block”

I’ve heard of this thing called writer’s block before. See, it’s this condition of not being able to think of what to write or how to proceed with your writing. Supposedly it is a writer’s worst enemy. And why not? Creative quicksand – OMG! Run! Run away as fast as you can!

But here is the thing about writer’s block most people don’t know: It does not exist.

Now I know to those who have experienced writer’s block, they might be thinking, “What the hell? Oh yes, it does!” or something similar, but the thing is what they are experiencing is not actually some mysterious block or a drain or absence of ideas. No, the thing about writer’s block is that it’s just another name for fear.

Now I feel the need to backtrack really quick with the one exception to this, which is one’s health. The mind and body are connected so if one is hurting or failing or trying to heal, this can certainly impact one’s writing ability. When I was 25 I had two severe strokes and several grand mal seizures after a fever spiked to breach the 109 degree mark. Lots of head trauma. Lots of relearning things. Lots of treatment for the illness that caused the fever. The entire time I felt utterly disconnected from my writing. It was as if there was a chord from my brain to my heart to my hands and that chord had been severed. It took a long time to reconnect and only happened once I was past the worst of it and had truly begun to heal. So the physical, neurological, etc. – that is the exception.

But for everything else, including emotional conditions or distress fall under that same big umbrella that regular writer’s block does: Fear.

I mean if you think about it, it makes sense. Why can’t you think of something to write? The world is full of ideas. You should have dozens of ideas screaming for your attention. In fact, that is the thing I struggle with the most: Fear of commitment. Which ideas deserve to be NOW and what ideas can wait? What ideas can be left behind? There is always too much to write about and not enough time or not enough me (usually both). Most writers I know, know this struggle. I don’t know a single writer who is simply blank, wiped free of ideas or inspiration or plans. In this case, the “Block” is not about not knowing what to write. It may be not knowing what to write first. But this goes back to fear. The fear of commitment is real. And then there is the fear of making the wrong choice… Of losing the pull you have to your other ideas and writerly ambitions… but it still comes down to fear.

Well what about people who know what to write, but can’t seem to do it. I think this is the most common type of writer’s block. Either you’re stuck in the middle of a project and don’t know how to proceed, or you have an idea or burst of inspiration that is nagging at you, but can’t seem to get started. Welcome to the Fear or Failure. Fear of what other people will think. Fear of being an imposter. Fear of if the project is even marketable. Worth your time. What’s the point? Fear of not being good enough to deliver the product. Fear of what you’re writing about. Fear of going to that place you need to go to, to get the writing done. Fear. Fear. Fear.

I don’t always write about the most comfortable things. (HA! I never write about anything comfortable, like almost ever.) I write about child abuse, domestic violence, marginalized voices, various health conditions, the body and healing, trauma, growing up gay in hostile territory, dying, grief, depression, discrimination, hate, etc. Not the touchy-feely happy-bunny stuff. And sometimes what I am writing or my vision for a project scares the crap out of me. And then I get stuck.

In graduate school I gave a seminar/class/whatever it’s called (it was a graduation requirement) about “Writing Through Fear”. I broke it down everything down as belonging to one of two groups of fear. One is the nasty, horrific things that we don’t want to write about. Rape. War. Murder. The things that we don’t want to explore because they are the darkest aspects of life and being human. And as writers, villains need to be human. They need to be fully formed. They can’t just be bad. Even a rapist or an abuser or a killer. You have to make them human. Which means you have to get inside their heads and give them a chance. And that can be fucking terrifying.

The other group was more about being PC and simply not committing. I’m white, but one of my characters is Black. Jewish. In a wheelchair. These are not my experiences. But nothing should be off limits when you write. The thing about writing from a different perspective is that that is a writer’s job. There is no going around that or you will end up writing the most boring crap that no one will want to read. But how do you go there without pissing anyone off? You don’t. You’re going to piss people off. You could write a picture book and still piss people off. That’s life. Stop thinking and start feeling. Write these characters authentically and responsibly. Do your research; talk with people who share similar experiences to your character; be empathetic and then just go there. Seriously don’t hold back. Because it’s that hesitation and holding back, that fear, that fucks up the writing. It’s what makes the character you create incomplete. Because he or she is tainted by your fear.

Would it help to remember that all of your characters are the same down to their cores. They are human. They are not disabled; they are people who happen to be disabled. They are not Black; they are people who happen to be Black. They are people. They are not race or sex or religion or disability personified. They are people.

I realize now that my “senior lecture” focused mostly on fiction, because when it comes to creative nonfiction, whether it is personal essay or memoir, it doesn’t matter what you’re writing about – it’s fucking terrifying, regardless. I’m not one who really cares what people think of me. I always have bigger things to worry about, things to do and so on. I know I’m not for everyone. I’m intense and opinionated and fiercely loyal but painfully honest. I don’t hold back. I hate small talk. And I never put up with bullshit. But when I write about my life, my experiences… I become a neurotic child terrified that you (the reader) will hate me or pity me or think I am selfish, petty, immature, scandalized, drama queen, obtuse… the list goes on.

The thing is I always wrote fiction to hide. Nearly all of my fiction was more real than not. But if I just tweaked a few facts and changed the names no one would know that the homeless kid in college was me. Or the boy who was abused as a child who then went on to be abused as an adult was me. No one would see my low self-esteem, my desperation to hide the things that made me different that I could, while own the things that I couldn’t as if I were my own parade. But it was all for show, bravado. My writing told the truth. It laid all my truths bare. And in nonfiction I couldn’t pretend otherwise. From the get-go, people would know this was me. My experience. My life. My heart. Um yeah, that is fucking terrifying.

But that fear cost me so much time – all of those years when I wanted to write “me” and instead wrote someone else. Now, I don’t let that fear control me, but don’t think I don’t struggle with it every time I sit down to write. When I write about the abuse I suffered as a child or my latest brain surgery… there is all this room for others to judge me. And I know inevitably they will and there is nothing I can do about it. So I push it out of my head; I get out of my head completely. I feel and vibe and just let the writing flow. I don’t think or plan when I write. I am not in my head at all. That comes later, when I revise and rewrite I can think about the consequences of my writing. I can think about word choice and language and construction and technique. I can think about market. I can think about whatever the point is. But not when I’m writing. Writing is feeling, it is natural and instinctual. You have to get out of your own head to truly be free. And then go back and be in your head and even freak out if you must. But it doesn’t matter because you’ve already written it.

There is no magic block or drain or wall that cuts you off from your writing. There is only fear. Whether you’re starting or continuing on – that is what it always comes down to. What are you afraid of? Seek it out. Face it. Make it your bitch. And then barrel through that block. And then… write on!

-DMW

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