Blocks and Breakage

antique bookpileIn talking about the changes in the publishing industry and their devastating effect on midlist authors, I’ve touched on the phenomenon of writer’s block. I talked about it briefly in a guest blog elsewhere. For authors whose careers have been shattered, this is a very real and debilitating problem.

Really? you may say. Just this week, a twitter link led to a set of advice for writers that stated categorically, “Writer’s block is bogus,” and instructed the writer to just sit down and write and the words would come.

And on another blog, the same one where I was a guest in fact, a fellow longtime writer declared, “I don’t understand why people stop writing. I’ve never had that problem.”

This is so common it’s a meme. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s just an avoidance mechanism. Or an attention-getting device. Or an excuse. The advice is invariably, “Quit the drama and write.” “Just sit down and push out the words.” “Stop claiming you believe in ghosts and get real.”

I used to be that person. I had contracts. I had deadlines. I had bills to pay. I couldn’t wait for the Muse to get off the beach in Aruba and deliver the latest masterpiece. I had to get out there and write it no matter what state of mind I might fancy myself to be in. Of course there was no such thing as writer’s block. Who could afford it?

There were times, I will admit, when the words weren’t flowing and the well felt so dry I could feel the bucket scraping bottom. I’d push through to the end, send the ms. in, and collapse for a few days or weeks and let the well fill up. But it always did. And there was always another contract to keep me pushing on.

As the contracts got smaller and the bylines had to change to try to capture a new level of sales, the push got harder. The burnout came sooner. The love wasn’t there–the books were what they were, but that was mostly this season’s hay bill.

And then the contracts…weren’t. Other things happened at that same time, life things, emotional things. Everything crashed down. The well was dry, dry, dry.

And this time it didn’t refill.

Oh, there were words. Blogs. Articles. Editing happened, and teaching–those used different parts of the virtual brain, and paid the bills that writing could no longer pay. Insofar as writers write, this writer wrote…nonfiction.

Fiction wasn’t there. Everything else was just words. Stories were like breathing.

I coudn’t breathe. Literally. Would sit down and try to come up with something, anything, that resembled a story. And there would be nothing–except cold sweats, sick stomach, throbbing head.  A panic attack, when I tried to do what I used to do all day, every day, because it was what I was.

Oh yes. Block is real. I have no doubt that a large part of what passes under that name is indeed an excuse, but for all those who deny that there is a genuine, gut-wrenching, brain-breaking, soul-destroying inability to get words of fiction down on a page, I am here to tell you in all sincerity: Lucky, lucky you. May you always be so blessed. And may you never slam head-on into that wall and have to hear that there is no wall and you are just making it up and what you are going through is bogus.

They used to say that about fibromyalgia. I have that, too. That’s not bogus, either–but now there are drugs and foundations and television commercials, so it must be real.

There’s no drug for genuine traumatic writers’ block. Tincture of time is about all that works. Support. Validation. Realizing you’re not alone–that’s huge. Accepting that the words that used to come at the speed of wings are hobbling along on crutches, and they may not come every day, or even most days. Finding a little bit of the old wonder again–an attack story, an idea that won’t let go. Recovering the confidence that used to go without saying. Learning to believe that the words are worthwhile, along with the ideas behind them and the writer who writes them.

I’m told I’m coddling victims here. Should just shut up and let the weak die off so the strong can rule. Never mind all the lost words or the lost writers. Who cares about them?

I do. Their readers do. And now there’s room for them to find their words again–to get them out there and be heard.

Some may not find the words again. They’ve said all they have to say. And that’s perfectly all right. But those who had more words in them, who were silenced by the collapse of the market for those particular words, no longer need to stay silent. Can find their way back.

In the comments on one of the earlier posts, someone asked, “Can a writer who has laid down the sword take it up again?” More than one writer responded, “Hell, yes!”

It’s not easy. It can be brutally, stomach-wrenchingly hard. Not helped at all by all the chirpers chirping, “There’s no such thing as writer’s block! You just have to write!”

If Only.

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About Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is a writer, a freelance editor and writing mentor, and a lifelong horse person. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses.
This entry was posted in Publishing, Rants, Writers on Writing, Writing life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to Blocks and Breakage

  1. Melisande says:

    It can be so very devastatingly real. From the staring at the empty page and plinking out a single tortured page after hours, to the days taken up by “real life” when you are to exhausted to think straight, to the realization that you can’t find a quiet space in your own head to string together a coherent sentence.

    Then every day that passes without pages eats away at the confidence, and the well meaning questions of non-writers asking “how much did you get written today” “It was a short story, what do you mean you’re not done yet?” or the ever shattering “When are you going to stop messing around and do some real work?”

    The bottom scraping truth comes when you have to decide if you have to keep trying and have to keep writing, or if you walk away. Sometimes you only know if you get there, and sometimes you change your mind, and start again. But it’s never easy.

  2. I have always said there’s no such thing as writer’s block…but I begin to suspect I may just define it differently than some. Because what I’ve always also said is that a story that won’t come is experiencing one of two things–a writer who isn’t listening to where it really needs to go/what really needs to happen next, or a writer who is experiencing Real Life Crap. So that doesn’t mean I don’t believe there aren’t circumstances under which the words won’t come, only that the experience is a message, and that the muse is waiting to be heard.

    I have for sure been in the middle of Real-Life Crap that nearly destroyed the muse. And at the moment, I teeter dangerously on the edge of industry-induced stoppage. If I hadn’t done a number of independent projects, I expect I’d already be at standstill, but those are so invigorating! For one thing, they made it very clear where the problem is…and it’s not with my muse at all. That reassurance is a tremendous thing.

    But to me that’s not writer’s block. That’s the result of a writer being damaged. Rather than blame the writer, I say…go looking for the cause.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      You haven’t been there, then. I hope you never will be.

      It’s like Lipizzans. Ya gotta be there.

      • Oh, I have. (I skimmed over details because they go off track, but it comes under Real-Life Crap and involved all the cold sweats, I’m-gonna-vomit, blank-screen panic one could hope for and I hope I never, ever see it again.) As I say, I think I just look at it differently. My way of looking at it isn’t meant to invalidate how others experience it.

  3. Mary says:

    And then there’s the keeping writing bit:

    The other thing that I would say about writer’s block is that it can be very, very subjective. By which I mean, you can have one of those days when you sit down and every word is crap. It is awful. You cannot understand how or why you are writing, what gave you the illusion or delusion that you would every have anything to say that anybody would ever want to listen to. You’re not quite sure why you’re wasting your time. And if there is one thing you’re sure of, it’s that everything that is being written that day is rubbish. I would also note that on those days (especially if deadlines and things are involved) is that I keep writing. The following day, when I actually come to look at what has been written, I will usually look at what I did the day before, and think, “That’s not quite as bad as I remember. All I need to do is delete that line and move that sentence around and its fairly usable. It’s not that bad.”

    What is really sad and nightmarish (and I should add, completely unfair, in every way. And I mean it — utterly, utterly, unfair!) is that two years later, or three years later, although you will remember very well, very clearly, that there was a point in this particular scene when you hit a horrible Writer’s Block from Hell, and you will also remember there was point in this particular scene where you were writing and the words dripped like magic diamonds from your fingers — as if the Gods were speaking through you and every sentence was a thing of beauty and magic and brilliance. You can remember just as clearly that there was a point in the story, in that same scene, when the characters had turned into pathetic cardboard cut-outs and nothing they said mattered at all. You remember this very, very clearly. The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! Which I consider most unfair. As a writer, you feel like one or the other should be better. I wouldn’t mind which. I’m not somebody who’s saying, “I really wish the stuff from the Gods was better.” I wouldn’t mind which way it went. I would just like one of them to be better. Rather than when it’s a few years later, and you’re reading the scene out loud and you don’t know, and you cannot tell. It’s obviously all written by the same person and it all gets the same kind of reaction from an audience. No one leaps up to say, “Oh look, that paragraph was clearly written on an ‘off’ day.”

    It is very unfair. I don’t think anybody who isn’t a writer would ever understand how quite unfair it is.

    Neil Gaiman

    Full interview here.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      Gaiman hasn’t been there, either. I’m not talking about writing it down and feeling it’s crap. We all get that. Young, effortless, arrogant me got it regularly. To me, this long passage reads as just a bit of a whine. I remember when I talked like that, too. I was young then. And blessed. And so privileged.

      What I’m talking about is when you can’t. Truly can’t. And when you try, it’s like scraping your nails across rotted wood on the bottom of a disintegrating barrel. And if you get words out, you have a panic attack. Hyperventilating, cold sweats, the works.

      No one I’ve yet talked to who has not been there has understood what it’s like. And the vast majority don’t believe in it. They haven’t felt it so it doesn’t exist. I was one of that majority once.

      Not any more.

      • BTDT. Twice. Talk about black emptiness.

      • Sherwood Smith says:

        Yeah, that was my thought as well. Gaiman is one of those blessed individuals whose every touch turns to solid gold. I’m sure there is anxiety in that, too, but this isn’t one of them, at least according to that long screed.

        • Judith Tarr says:

          I’m glad I’m not the only one who read it that way. The golden and the fortunate have their down periods, too, but the person who can’t walk has a little bit of trouble feeling sorry for the one who could only run ten miles this morning instead of twenty.

          People who complain that something isn’t fair have mostly, in my experience, been among the blessed. The un-blessed don’t have energy or time to worry about fairness. They’re coming from a whole different place.

      • Elizabeth Lynn says:

        Yes.

        My block lasted twelve years. It felt as if someone had cut off my hands. It went away, I wrote two books, and then it crept back.

        It’s hard to talk about. Thank you for doing so.

      • Barb Caffrey says:

        I’ve been there. Life interfered majorly when my beloved husband Michael died in September of 2004. I kept writing, but it was much slower, then it stopped for a while . . . and after it restarted, it’s been much, much slower than it was when he was alive.

        I tend to think what’s going on is a combination of a few things. First, I’ve been fighting big-time exhaustion (I have a diagnosis right now of chronic fatigue/exhaustion) and some major illness problems. Second, when my husband died, I had no one to “talk story” with. (For a while, I was able to “talk story” with my best friend Jeff. But then he died, too, in 2011.) Third, because the two major people who’ve supported me as a writer emotionally (and Michael, my husband, in every possible way) are both dead, it’s a lot harder for me to be able to sit down and get something done.

        I continue to edit, I do what I can, and I am looking forward — finally — to my novel, “Elfy,” coming out over at Twilight Times Books later this year as an e-book. I’m also considering independent publishing for my husband’s works as I don’t want them to die out, and have read that a combination of indy and small press (or larger press/traditional publishing if you can get a good contract without all of the restrictive and detrimental clauses) is probably the best way to grow any sort of career these days for a new author. (I don’t *feel* new — I’ve been writing now with a serious attempt at publication for eleven years. But to the marketplace, I still *am*. That’s disorienting in and of itself.)

        All of this gives me hope as I continue to come back from the worst case of bronchitis I have ever had (it drained me significantly), do my best to plot out a short story for an anthology (I really hope that will work out) and prepare for “Elfy” to finally, finally see the light of day.

  4. Sherwood Smith says:

    Oh, yes. It reminds me of the helpful person who tries to pep up a depressed person by saying things like, “If you just smile, the world will smile back! Don’t be such a gloomy June!” or to the chronically ill person, “If you really want to get better, think healthy thoughts. It’s just a matter of attitude.”

    I guess it’s a human tendency to sum up someone else’s problem in a neat little package, deliver the one-sentence cure with a grin and figurative pat on the head, because (at best) we do want to see others well, and sometimes feel helpless to fix it, or (at worst) we don’t want the hassle of trying to deal with the complexity of someone else’s problem. We want it to go away.

    I learned long ago to keep lip buttoned and fill my life with other things during those dreadful times, but three in the morning, after another dry day, and I stare up at the ceiling . . . empty. Except for the pain.

  5. green_knight says:

    I’ve had the kind of blockage that stems from anxiety and that meant that I could not – even though it meant I had to change careers (and am I ever glad I did!) do one more bit of work on something. It wasn’t writing, it was coding, but it took two or three years before I could *do* that particular form of coding again, and five or six until I remembered why I’d been doing it in the first place: because I enjoy it.

    And if anyone had told me at that point that the overwhelming anxiety I felt at even the thought of sitting down to work was ‘only in my imagination’ and I should just ‘go and do it’ I would have snarled at them mightily.

    And I think it’s important to distinguish between stuckness (words won’t flow, you hate your writing, you’re writing the wrong thing and need to think about the story more) and writer’s block. I tend to compare it to the difference between a horse running away (common, and usually curable) and a horse bolting: once you’ve experienced a true bolt you’ll develop a hatred for people who say ‘oh, your horse only ran away, and if you’d reacted a bit quicker/hadn’t set him off/used magic trick x, it wouldn’t have happened’ always with an undertone of ‘well, he wouldn’t have bolted with _me_.’

    So yes, if someone hasn’t experienced writer’s block (yet): good for them. Congratulations, and long may that state last. But don’t dump on the people who *do*, because they’re not volunteering to be blocked, and you’re not helping.

  6. One of the many reasons I love Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird and Dennis Palumbo’s Writing From the Inside Out is that they get this — they recognise that writing block is real, that writing fear and writing terror and writer crazy are real — and they don’t patronise or prescribe. Just seeing it recognised, rather than the usual ‘oh, that’s a myth’ response is so helpful. Which is a long way round to say Thank you for this.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      You’re welcome. It’s important to know one is not alone–and to stop feeling so beleaguered by the chirpy chirpers and the naysayers and the finger-shakers. I’m in recovery, but last week I was ready to reach through the screen and throttle that “bogus” person and that “I don’t understand” person. These are writers. They are supposed to be able to imagine things they haven’t personally experienced.

      But of course, for this, they don’t want to. It’s the thing every writer fears most. Not being able to write. Fear creates denial. And blames the victim.

  7. I have been unable to write any long form fiction now for upwards of a decade. I get started, and then panic ensues and I back away. It has taken years of building up my blogging for me to get to the point where I’m willing to try again — but I’m absolutely not willing to be at the mercy of a publisher, given what my writer friends have told me about the state of the industry. At this point, it’s self-publish or perish (or both).

    I have embarked on a new journey, and have decided I will no longer work for anyone else but me and my family. I’m splitting my work time between my therapy business (under my Real Name) and my writing business (under this long standing pseudonym). I have vowed to listen to my body and to the rhythms of my life to find answers I need.

    I certainly hope you find your muse again. I have greatly enjoyed reading your books in the past.

  8. There are writers who are like football fullbacks. Wham them, and they come back harder, stronger. (More full of painkillers and steroids! Except writers do scotch and drugs.)
    And then there are writers — I am one — who are honeybees. If you want honey from us, you cannot wallop the hive with a baseball bat. This merely leads to unpleasantness and pain for all parties. You must surround us with sweet things, and shine kindly upon us, and supply enough but not too much rain. Flowers are good, candy is better. And leave us the F alone to do our work! If you do all these things for your honeybees, you will have good stuff.
    It is a waste of energy to tell the honeybee that he should be more like Dexter Manning.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      Indeed. And even Dexter Manning might find himself in a place where he can’t back that line any more. Then he’ll know what it’s like to unable instead of unwilling or plain lazy.

  9. Jon Chaisson says:

    Yep, definitely been there. The last book in my trilogy came to a complete stop in 2005 due a number of reasons both good and bad, and I wasn’t able to work on it again until 2009, when I finally got back on track. Sure, I soldiered on and worked on a few other projects, but those four years were absolute hell writingwise. I only worked on them through sheer New England stubbornness, and the end result for most of it was half-assed prose that doesn’t work at all. Thankfully my work has gotten better since then and I feel a lot more confident about my work, but I really do NOT want to go through that Block again if I can help it.

  10. Asakiyume says:

    I have an ignorant question… or questions.

    What you describe, it sounds so complete, so positively neurological. Like having a strong and not being able to talk. But at the end of your essay, you mentioned
    those who had more words in them, who were silenced by the collapse of the market for those particular words –and that to me sounded like you were talking about an exterior cause. So I’m wondering, do you feel, in your experience, that it’s something brought on by bad life circumstances—like the market, or, say, family tragedy? Or something interior? Or could be both?

    I worry about it for myself, and it feels very interior–like it could be due to my brain stiffening up or something. And I try to console myself with the thought that I’ll always create *some* how, even if it’s not novels or even short stories. Like Matisse doing collages when he couldn’t paint anymore.

  11. Cat Kimbriel says:

    You know how completely I understand this…and still work with it.

    Thank you for writing on this topic.

  12. NicoleL says:

    Judy, thanks for sharing. I’ve been there too, carrying around a cloud of misery that might as well be a reinforced steel wall because I can’t reach through it to any words no matter how much I want to or try. And I’ve been told that writer’s block doesn’t exist. Luckily one of the things I was able to hold onto was the certainty that this was real and I wasn’t making it up and I couldn’t make it go away just by being positive. It did not help though that people told me there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Slowly, the cloud eventually dissipated, with time and care, but it’s still frightening to have the memory loom over me on a bad writing day and have my fingers go numb and wonder if it’s coming back.

  13. beth meacham says:

    Anyone who hasn’t read this should:

    http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html

    All the way through. Because Reasons.

  14. I was once told by another writer that there is no such thing as writer’s block, just as there is no such thing is PMS.

    Clearly, she hadn’t experienced either one.

    Clearly, since she hadn’t, they could not exist.

    Clearly, they both do exist, to the torment of way too many.

  15. Lo these many years ago, after a shattering breakup of a relationship that I had invested everything I had in and had hoped would be THE longterm relationship of my life, I quit writing, stone cold turkey, for over a year. Couldn’t. Just COULDN’T. It wasn’t there. The thing that had been my lodestar and my guiding light all my life was just… gone. The heart had been ripped out of me and I couldn’t *find* the well, never mind figure out if it was “filling” or not. Gone gone gone, the words…and I swear I nearly went mad.

    Until the day I heard a small voice in the back of my mind telling me that if I didn’t write I’d DIE.

    So I scretched out words again. And it was bitter and cold and a long hard slog up a steep mountain… but I climbed out, in the end, and wrote once more. A LOT.

    Until recently. Until everyhting began to fall apart, and nothing I wrote seemed to MATTER to anyone out there (I’d send out a story or a novel and get… crickets…)

    It’s hard again, now. I keep on looking at stuff I’ve written, fiction, and shaking my head. It feels like a foreign language.

    Perhaps there is hope still and I am just going through another trough. I KNOW I have the stories inside, somewhere, but they’re also locked away and beyond my reach right now. Maybe all it would take is a piece of good news. A sign. Someone telling me that what I do is actually worthwhile and not just self-indulgent claptrap.

    I need some good news before i can carry on, I think. A few good reviews would do, just letting me know that someone somewhere read and appreciated something I’d released out into the wild. But even they have been few and far between of late.

    So. Waiting for Godot, or that good news. Whichever comes first.

  16. Melisa Michaels says:

    I used to think there was no such thing as writer’s block.

    Now I’m a quilter.

  17. Peg Kerr says:

    I had a dozen short stories and eventually two novels published, after seventeen year’s work. And I thought to myself, “I’m a slow writer, but I’m figuring this out, and pretty soon I’ll be hitting my stride and…”

    And then my third book died in the water. I had a day job, and I was raising kids and dealing with issues of depression. And I fought and I fought and I fought for four years to try to get the writing going again, and I just couldn’t. It was heartbreaking. Especially because my writing peers, the ones I’d started out with in writing groups, were able to keep going. I researched writers block and tried every way I could think of to get under it or over it or around it, but I never could.

    I have a day job I hate, and I justified for years by saying, ‘But I’m really a writer!’ Now I just have the day job, and I stick with it because it pays the mortgage and the health insurance. Writing never really did.

    I’m involved in a collaborative fandom/fanfic writing project now which is much more pure fun than all my previous attempts to write for publication. But I get no money for it of course, and I still feel guilty for abandoning my attempts to do original work, despite the fact that I went through agony trying. I write every day, and the fact that I’m still creative is a little comforting. But only a little.

    I still feel like a has been failure.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      Fanfiction is actually a splendid way to fill that well. It’s fun, it’s freeing, and it keeps the stress down in a life with too much stress already. Good for you for doing that. May it become such a fun habit that you find those other stories!

      • Melisande says:

        It can be very freeing too, you borrow as much or as little as you need and sometimes the flood comes and the words run out as fast as you can get them down, and then oh joy, it primes the pump and the rest of the words come again.

        I’d never thought of it as a well filler or pump primer until I wrote something as a favor, to make my sister smile. But lo it was something that worked!

  18. I’m not sure I ever had full-blown writer’s block. But my writing has dwindled away. I’m now self-publishing some stories I wrote years ago, because I can. And I hope it’ll ignite that spark again. But right now, most of my time goes into building a coaching business. (At least it means I’m writing a lot of non-fiction and playing with language to convey concepts.) So I’m in a writer’s dry spell.

    And since, like Maureen, I’m a therapist in my other life, I do understand fears, panic and the feeling of failure. I believe that creative people are more susceptible to them. I totally know they can be overwhelming. And I would love to point all of you to EFT. Google it. I’m not plugging my practice here, even though that’s my speciality. But I have seen and experienced EFT stopping panic attacks cold. I’ve seen it giving life back to desperate people fast. I believe it could be one way to make the struggle less bitter, less painful and shorter. I so want that for you. The world needs your stories.

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  20. SnickerKitten says:

    If ever you should find yourself being blocked because you don’t think your work means enough I would like for you to picture a 17 year old high school senior with such extreme generalized anxiety disorder that the only way for her to make it through a day at school is to have a book she can sink into available to her. I’d like for you to picture that awkward girl as she enters a classroom where she has no friends. She sits down at her desk and opens up A Wind in Cairo. Fantasy is her favorite genre and she has eagerly chewed through author after author and book after book. This book is special, though. In this book she finds true history blended with the fantasy she always runs to for comfort. Being a rabid fact checker she is delighted beyond reason to find that everything in this book “fits”. There is nothing to disturb her serenity by jabbing her with a spark of “that’s inaccurate!” or “that doesn’t fit!” That school day and many more after it pass by without her breaking down because after reading that book every book she finds with the name “Judith Tarr” on it provides the same marvelous escape with a masterful blending of true history and fantastical stories. Book after book she makes it through day after day.

    Thank you very much for getting me through many days of school in 19(mumbles) beginning with that book. You have no idea the miracle you worked by being there. I do appreciate it. To hear that you are struggling with the muse supposedly attendant upon you is wretched. While I can’t shove the block out of the way for your cart to trundle smoothly down the road, I can tell you that the magic you work when you find your way around that rock is invaluable. If ever I can help you poke and pry at that rock I would be happy to do so. Maybe your muse is feeling anxious and a fellow spirit with knowledge of how it feels to be ridden by anxiety can offer her the encouragement she needs to circumvent that rock.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      Damn, my screen is blurry.

      That is indeed the kind of thing that helps to break the block. A fan who is now a friend told me the same thing about another book, when I was at rock bottom, and while there was no instant cure and the struggle persists, I did and do think of her when the urge to eat worms becomes overwhelming.

      Now I’ll think of you, too. And hope that everybody else here who is struggling will also find that validation. It’s a tremendous gift. Thank you.

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