I have a confession: I've had writer's block for two years.
If you are a friend of mine, you may be surprised to hear me saying this; after all, I've been doing readings for the last couple years, putting out zines, and getting things published in literary journals. Unless you were hiding in my closet at night watching me binge-watch Hoarders episodes on my laptop, you would have no idea that I wasn't really producing anything. If however, you are one of my friends and you are also a writer, you've probably already figured it out. I've been saying as much for the last two years, saying things like, "I haven't been writing very much lately, I have been feeling shitty, I've been watching this great tv series etc."
But Martha, you may ask, how is this a confession? You've been saying you haven't been writing, how is that different than saying you have writer's block? The reason it's different for me, is that before I accepted the fact that I had writer's block, I had to acknowledge the fact that it existed. I never believed in writer's block. It's like not believing in ghosts until you see one. I always thought that writers who said they had writer's block were lazy, or making excuses, or weren't trying hard enough.
I've had plenty of writer friends over the years who've complained about writer's block to me and as I moved away from judging them, I began to feel bad for them, and then to wonder why this had never happened to me. What made me so lucky?
I used to be the kind of writer who would get up every day before work and write for two to three hours. I loved writing and looked forward to it every evening as I fell asleep. I loved being alone with words, I loved the thrill of getting closer and closer to what I really wanted to say. I liked playing with ideas and editing my own work. If I had a few days when I didn't write, I felt panicky and anxious. I was compulsive, impulsive, obsessive and myopic. As far as I knew, I was as hard a working writer as any of my writer friends and I was proud of it.
The writer's block began during grad school. It wasn't a cause for alarm, I barely noticed it. I was fighting a disease and just trying to keep my head above water, so I gave myself permission to slack off a little. I coasted along in grad school for the most part, producing new work in dribs and drabs. In hindsight, I know I didn't take enough advantage of my time at CCA. I had such a backlog of material I had already written in the last ten years, that many people there didn't notice. I say people didn't notice, but I also think, in a way, I was in deep denial; I'll never forget one mentor who said, "Martha, sometimes when you are a talented writer, you have to work even harder to make it better." The subtext being: you are not writing to your potential. At the time, I didn't let what she was saying sink in. But now, thinking about this, I am filled with regret because I know she was right.
I wasn't being lazy however. It was something else. It was lots of stuff. It was nothing. It was all the pills I was taking. It was the fact I had PTSD from Cushing's disease. I had been through a war; I was just glad to be alive. It was the fact that I just didn't care anymore. It was the fact that I hated San Francisco, how crowded and dirty it was. It was the fact that I was proud and wouldn't admit I was struggling with my writing. It was because you couldn't smoke indoors. It was because there were no good coffee shops in my neighborhood. It was because I didn't know who I wanted to be - now that I was still alive.
After grad school the writer's block got worse. I focused all my energy on my new relationship and not on my writing. I reconnected with old friends. I got a book published and went on tour.
I woke up one day and realized I hadn't written anything halfway decent in a year. Not only that. I was totally depressed. I was in so much physical pain I thought about killing myself. Hardly anyone knows this: that I contemplated killing myself to stop the pain of my depression and fibromyalgia. I was in a not-very-supportive relationship (at least, not in the ways that I needed.)
And writing about any of it seemed dangerous; I didn't want to name these things. It was better to let them exist in some kind of inarticulate miasma than to have to face them by writing about them. It was better to gain weight and drink wine and watch episode after episode of reality tv in bed, or on my futon in a house too big for me, while someone did my laundry for me. To me, life seemed too hard to live.
But that didn't make sense to me. How could my life be hard? I had already been through hell and back; I survived Cushing's disease. I was with a great guy, I had a book published, I was cured. How could my life be hard?
I realize now that I'd thought that once I'd written my first book, once I'd found love, once I'd been cured, that life would be easy sailing. It had been so long since I'd had a normal life that I'd forgotten that so-called normal life is hard. IT'S STILL FUCKING HARD! Something that used to come easily to me, writing, now seemed extremely difficult. I started to feel like a fraud. I was teaching writing and yet I wasn't writing myself. Was I even a writer? Was I all washed up?
I kept these doubts to myself. I became more guarded and started resenting others their literary successes. I became the writer I used to feel sorry for: the writer who didn't write.
The summer before last, after I broke up with my boyfriend and moved in with my parents, my writer's block didn't get any better. I still felt like I should be writing, but, for whatever reason, I wouldn't, couldn't, didn't, fucking write. It got so bad, that the idea of a daily writing practice seemed like a distant memory. Something I did when I was a different person, when I was living in a different universe. Something I did before I had grasped my own mortality, when I was young and naive and thought that one day I would be a famous author, sometime later down the road when I was old. That year I was lucky if I could write an email, let alone write for hours on end.
I avoided writing by doing artwork, by going to readings, by watching tv, going to the gym, drinking wine. All I wanted to do was write but it was always the lowest item on my agenda. And my self esteem and identity as a writer was getting weaker and more neglected by the day. The writer's block became the elephant in the room, the skeleton in the closet. If I pretended it wasn't there maybe it would go away. I knew I was a good writer - So why wasn't I writing?
By this summer, however, I was feeling great physically and emotionally. So I couldn't blame the writer's block on depression; it wasn't physical health or painful transitions that were keeping me from writing. So what was it?
Then recently, I stopped drinking. It's something I've done before periodically, but this time it felt different. I felt like I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Today I realized that this writer's block was like my nightly glass of wine. It wasn't some big scary addiction, it wasn't some deep-seeded psychological puzzle that needed solving.
It was habit. Habit. Nothing more, nothing less. It was something I was choosing not to do - just like I had been choosing to have that nightly glass of wine.
I also realized that by avoiding writing, by stopping doing something that had been so essential to my identity, I had become scared that I was losing a part of myself. However, this wasn't what I should have been worried about - my identity as a "writer" was distracting me from the writing itself. I was worried about being a fraud and what I should have been doing is just fucking writing. Instead of choosing to not fucking write.
It wasn't rocket science and I didn't need a psychology degree to figure it out. What had started as one kind of writer's block had morphed into one form and then the other. If I had waited any longer, I might have given up writing all together.
That's what I realized tonight when I sat down to write; the writing is important but being a "writer" isn't. Being a published author and a teacher is all a distraction if I'm not writing. If I never have anything else published ever again, sure, I'll be disappointed, but thinking about those kinds of goals has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the daily practice of being alone with words.