Writer’s Block, Real Life, and the Desire for Connection

I don’t believe in writer’s block because, generally speaking, there is no muse hanging out. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what writer’s block is supposed to be. I get a few ideas a day that seem like great subjects for short stories and novels. I don’t write about them because I never fill in the details. They remain just what they are—ideas.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who does believe in the muse, says that the many ideas writers get come from that living creative spirit. But if the writer is too slow to act on them, the spirit becomes restless and seeks another vessel to embody it and make it tangible. To her credit, she gives an example of this that is both excellent and incredible in her book Big Magic. (I reviewed and discussed it here.)

If writer’s block doesn’t exist, why are people—who claim that their lifelong/greatest desire is to write—so slow in acting on their ideas? Or worse, why do they never act on most or all of their ideas?

Let’s say some people are lazy because it’s true. Most people are not. I think writers who write little (or not at all) might be the do-gooders of the world. That is, duty binds them in a way that confounds others. This is particularly true of women, who have always been expected to put others first. It’s also particularly true of Catholics, at least previous to this generation, who were supposed to feel guilty whenever they did something that was self-glorifying or, well, self-anything. I’m not sure if it’s a misfortune—there are wonderful things about being female and wonderful things (so I’m told) about being Catholic. However, as I am the one and used to be the other, I can say the combination generates more anxiety and self-loathing than it does novels.

I’ve spent my life working pretty hard. There were times when I was working about fifty hours a week, was raising small children and was going to graduate school. I wrote when I could, but my sit-downs were far enough apart that I couldn’t keep any sort of through-storyline in my head. I’d forget pretty much all the details of my novel, even the minor characters’ names. Every time I wanted to pick up, I’d have to reread the entire text to remember what had happened. I’d think, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good—I forgot I did that.’ Time elapsed and notes were lost, computers crashed and software systems, as well as methods of backing up information, changed. (Remember those 5” floppy disks?) I lost a complete novel, tens of stories, dozens of poems, two children’s books. At the time, this felt like the universe was over and over again giving me the sign that I was meant for nothing beyond what I was already working at. I have since stopped believing in these sorts of signs, just as I stopped believing in writer’s block. Having moved past the heartbreak of loss, the experience has simply become part of the necessary 10,000 hours of practice required to become good at what I do. (My thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule are here.)

While the novel, stories, and poems were lost, the craft is retained. Like most people who work long and hard, I haven’t found myself to be an outlier in any sort of Beatles sense (surprise, surprise), but I do find that having a passion for the discipline of writing is rewarding. (Which is not to say that going on to have that writing published isn’t more rewarding. I’ve been around too long to start lying to myself now.)

Since guilt is such a destructive force, writers who are hard at work on many things other than writing might remind themselves of the value of what they are doing. If you’re raising kids, you want to be present. If you are getting paid to work, you owe someone a job well done. Are you really a terrible person because your novel is unfinished? Maybe the way to think of it is that you feel lousy, but not because you aren’t good enough or working hard enough (“I’m waking at 5 AM, but couldn’t I get up at 3 AM to write for a few hours?”).

You feel lousy because you want to write as a way to connect with a larger community of thinkers, of people who sense the environment in ways similar to your own. You want to explain yourself to people who feel very different from you, and you want to understand those people as well. This, of course, is not only why you write, but why you read a shit ton of books—the other thing you have been making time for in a world that prefers the pace of tweets and posts.

While I attended a summer session in Cambridge, England—one of these things that anyone who can wrangle up the money is welcome to—I read E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. I was already a teacher and went along with some dozen or so high school students. I don’t know how I missed Howards End as an undergrad, but I was so excited to finally read it that I went to a bookshop (Cambridge was a bibliophile’s dream in that regard—bookshops and knowledgeable booksellers at every turn), and bought a second copy to mail to my best friend. I wanted to talk about it as soon as I got home.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

I had a similar feeling when I was a young teacher and my school got a new textbook for the junior year American Literature class. There was another famous piece I had somehow missed—this time from that most American poet, Walt Whitman.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider”

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

So, yes, for many years, I was an English teacher and then a teacher librarian. My job was to help teens become better readers and writers. That’s not a bad way to live a life. I never had to be unethical or immoral, and I valued what I was doing. I should have been able to turn off the inner critic, but I couldn’t. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who never has met the challenge to run faster and jump higher. I’m guessing most writers feel this way.

Something that I think about a lot now—but have no idea how to begin—is to start and edit a literary magazine that accepts work from people who are 45 years or more old and are emerging writers. I see many lists of young people to ‘watch out for.’ What of people with a good deal of life experience who have been quietly, slowly honing their craft while they were duty bound to children, to parents unable to care for themselves, all while they were working to put food on the table and volunteering in their communities because someone had to do it? They must have stories to tell, stories they’ve been working on in the rare quiet moments. They’ll tell them from a different perspective than they would have in their twenties.

My worry about such a journal is that a shit ton of ‘chicken soup’ type submissions would pour in. Because most short work we see anthologized about anyone middle aged and beyond is about getting to the settled place, where the protagonist is working or has already worked things out and come to a Hallmark-channel place of happy new beginnings. So, if I were to ask for the writing of the literary cocooners, the latent talents, I would have to make clear that sentimentality is not allowed. It’s time to spin the silk.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on the tools we’ve used to feed creativity. I can share some of the weird and wacky ways I have kept the creative fire kindled over the years. (The photo is a hint.) Because let’s face it, even when a writer isn’t writing, everything she does, experiences, sees and feels is filtered through the author prism. She asks herself: how does that experience fit into the next story? And then everything becomes writing.