A Take on Writer's Block That's Helpful

Illustration of an octopus with tentacles curling up.

"Goddammit I'm stuck," I told my husband one Wednesday morning as I wrote and rewrote the same paragraph. "This sucks," I fumed, adding a few favorite swear words.

I sat at our dining room table, laptop open and my attention focused on the sun rising in the sky on a warm September, the lake cast in pink. My husband stood behind me at the kitchen stove frying eggs. The sputtering of oil on the pan sounded like my mood: hot, skittery, restless. 

"Do you have writer's block?" my husband asked.

"NO." I didn't turn around and arm-punch him like I initially wanted to. "I don't believe in writer's block!" I expect my husband, who is not a writer, to understand my core  beliefs. "Writer's block is a myth for people who can't make a decision!" I snapped. "You can always type on a keyboard or scrawl a pen over a notebook."

He served the eggs and we ate in silence.

Here's the thing: I don't believe in writer's block.

I have steadfastly, purposefully NOT believed in writer's block over the years. I didn't believe in writer's block even after I left a job in order to do more writing, and then went on to produce fewer pages than I did during my job. I held fast to my belief even after I spent a summer  aimlessly editing old pieces rather than producing new stories. I didn't believe in writer's block even with this hair-ball blockage in my gut, which grew every time I even THOUGHT about my book project.

And then something happened.

I read Dan Jones' version of writer's block.  Dan Jones is the editor of The New York Times' "Modern Love" column. A few years ago he posted a series of Submission Tips on the Modern Love Facebook page. These are generous and excellent tips on writing, being a writer and submitting to his or any other reputable newspaper, magazine or journal.

And there it was, in Submission Tip #17: Dealing WIth Writer's Block.

In a nutshell, Jones describes his writer's block like this:

           "...being too impatient to waste time writing badly."

He describes his writer's block as something that occurs when life is so busy that when you finally sit down to write, you can't waste time not making every precious word count. NO WASTED WORDS. No playing. No prompts. No fucking around. No messing up. No crazy sestina essay writing weirdness. No "let's see where this goes." No creativity, no fun.

"You have to write badly to write well." Jones writes. "And you have to sit with the bad writing and write more of it and then sit with that until eventually you start writing well."  

Well shit. That is exactly what I was NOT letting myself do while sitting at the dining room table swearing at my husband as he cooked me his perfect over-easy eggs. This is how I've felt about my writing for the last two months--that it is all very serious and important and meaningful. NO TIME TO WASTE.  I'm not getting younger!--and every stinking word must COUNT. Harumph.

Sounds like a block alright. A writer's block, a life block,  a creative block--call it what you want.  It's a hard way to live.

I had stopped giving myself the room to play, experiment and most importantly write terrible prose and fail until I wrote myself into something cool and new and real. I had stepped out of the mad-scientist lab and on to some imaginal stage where the spotlight was rooting me out and everyone was watching so god help me if I messed up.

And as you know, this is total bullshit. A mirage. No stage, no critical eyeballs, no one giving a rip, nothing but time and space to play; just a scared ego getting in the face of time, wagging a finger at every second going by, every word tumbling on to the page.

Now I sort of love Writer's Block

I find some relief in Dan Jones' definition of writer's block, in the same way there's relief when we can name the pain in our knee joint: it's a thing. We can see it, we can define it, we can do something about it.

I can eat my husband's peppered eggs, I can scamper off to the privacy of my office, open the windows, smell the air rush in and chill my shoulders as I set off to write the two worse pages of scenes and dialogue and narrative that I possibly can.

And then see what emerges. After all, writing takes you to some pretty spectacular and unexpected places.

Later on that Wednesday, after I spent some time doing some messy writing, I met my husband in the kitchen for a happy hour kombucha.

"Sorry I was grumpy," I said, putting my arms around  his waist. "You're right, I've been wrestling with a bout of writer's block."  

"But you don't believe in writer's block."

"Oh, that." I batted my hand and told him about Dan Jones' definition of writer's block. "I found it so exciting, I wrote a blog about it. You're in it, frying us eggs."  

Maybe I used a bit of creative license, because they were actually soft boiled eggs; but I wanted the sputtering butter and the smell of dill.

"Instead of cooking eggs, can I be cooking a brisket?" he asked, referring to an upcoming weekend barbecue project. "Write that I'm mixing a rub to cook a brisket--that sounds more manly  than cooking eggs."

I laughed and scrawled a couple lines on to a sticky note. Then we took our fermented drinks on the patio and watched the  sail boats zig-zag across the lake in the evening light.