A simple yet challenging approach.
Like every writer, I can lose myself, and suddenly I’m in writer’s block. Though writing always comes back to me, whenever it’s blocked, I’m convinced I’ll never write another sentence worth reading. If this sounds familiar, keep reading — I’ll show you how I’ve learned to return from this hell.
For me, writer’s block is connected to depression: both states occur when I’m ignoring a feeling, which disconnects me from myself. After I read this piece in my writers’ critique group, several people told me that their experience was similar, though they had not articulated it before.
Mulling it over, Taj Johns, who is writing about internalized oppression, observed, “As women, we’ve been told all our lives that we have nothing to say. So it’s not surprising that when we try to say something important, we get blocked.”
Mental health clinicians understand that emotions are supposed to move through us unimpeded; mental illness happens when there’s an obstacle to this flow. When I ignore my hurt at a friend’s slight, when I quash that pain, the wound lurks, silently weighing me down. I start to feel dull, foggy, stodgy: the beginning of depression.
When I acknowledge an uncomfortable emotion, it loses its stupefying power and becomes merely a feeling to manage, like thirst or cold: I drink some water or don a sweater; I talk to a friend or have a good cry. When the emotion is spent, another arrives to take its place, then another and another in an endless stream — but only when I trust that process enough to feel the pain in the first place.
When I try to thwart an emotion, when I deny it and quash it, I start feeling dull, and foggy, and stodgy.
This time, it took me a few weeks to recognize writer’s block. I thought I hadn’t been writing because of intervening reasons, not excuses or procrastinations:
* My computer was in the shop.
* My sister-in-law was visiting, sleeping in my office.
* I had a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime; “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” demanded my attention
When I have writer’s block, everything is reduced to a grey-scale, devoid of color.
When I finally sat down to write, my mind felt heavy and languorous, like eyelids in church on a warm summer Sunday. The harder I tried, the further the words and phrases slid from me. If you’ve had writer’s block, you’ve been there.
One bright Sunday morning, I awoke to the thought: “so much loss.” When the tears came, I knew what had fueled my malaise.
Like most people, I’ve had losses that were universal: the deaths of loved ones, the loss of youthful invincibility, the loss of youthfulness itself. Other losses were more exceptional: I lost my spine’s flexibility to an impressive array of surgical hardware. Some losses happened suddenly, like my brother’s fatal heart attack. Still others happened gradually: it was twenty years from my first spine surgery to my last.
I now understood that my weeks of not-writing began when Susan Efros, my writing coach said, “When you’re making your outline, make sure to pull the thread of loss through the whole memoir.” As usual, it had been a positive, productive coaching session — so much so that it didn’t occur to me that her innocuous reminder could have landed with such a heavy thud in my subconscious.
But sometimes, the mind balks. As I pored over my notes from that session, my psyche hissed, “Uh-uh, no way, we are not engaging with that ‘thread of loss’ crap.” I swear my subconscious folded its arms and glared.
And so depression crept over me like a blanketing fog, turning everything gray.
The best thing I can do when I’m depressed is to be very, very kind to myself. I imagine that I’m a wounded bird that I’m nursing back to health. I stay hydrated. Though I crave chocolate, I avoid sweets. I indulge neither self-blame nor martyrdom. I spend time with friends, despite yearning for hibernation. Eventually, my little bird feels safe enough to try her wings, to let those emotions flow.
And so, that Sunday morning I bawled, crying and wailing until my eyes were puffy, my nose was clogged and I’d run out of tissues.
Once I exhausted my tears, I sat on the edge of the bed, quiet and empty. I looked out the window at the day, brilliantly sunny for the first time in a week. Moving tentatively, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I felt myself slowly coming alive again, as if I were awakening after a years-long slumber.
The return of color signals the end of writer’s block for me.
My approach to vanquishing writer’s block is simple yet challenging. If you have hidden difficult feelings away from yourself in a sealed box on a high shelf in the back of your mind, bring that box down and break its seal. To coax your psyche to open it, be infinitely kind to yourself. Imagine how you might treat a young child who is hurt and scared: with exquisite gentleness. Breathe.
Jan McClain, a life coach who’s writing about shedding her “good girl” persona, agrees with this approach. She sometimes reminds me that “treating ourselves with kindness makes change possible.”
I was showering when it came over me: that “gotta-write-right-now” feeling. With my bath towel still wrapped around me, I opened my laptop, placed my fingers on the keys and let the words flow out of me. Writer’s block was over. I had returned to myself once again.
This essay previously appeared on Medium.com.