(Old word; new word)
For a good portion of my writing life, I did not believe in “writer’s block.” I viewed it in the way a child might view the term “heart break.” The whole idea was melodramatic.
It seemed to me it was more an excuse to procrastinate than anything else. If you hadn’t written anything in a while due to “writer’s block” surely you could stop the whole mess by… writing! Ta-dah! There was, of course, a thing called free writing, where you just made yourself write something for ten minutes or so, and after the ten minutes, you had something written. I did this all the time, particularly when I couldn’t decide what to write, so the whole thing felt obvious.
All the talk by authors of establishing a routine writing at least an hour a day only reinforced this idea. Real writers clearly didn’t suffer this. They write literally every day. Your move, self-diagnosed “blocked” writers.
Then, at the start of last summer, it happened. I was doing fine in the beginning— developing characters for a growing science-fiction novel that was three and a half chapters strong, revising poetry for a novel in verse, and supplementing my thinking on each of them by watching creative writing lectures online and reading books.
One day, I realized the half a chapter I had written was terrible. None of my characters were themselves, all the dialogue felt forced, and the whole thing was packed with awkward and unclear sensory information. Chapter four may have pushed the story forward, but it pushed it directly into a muck pit where it was promptly stuck.
No bother, though. I put it away and decided to start fresh the next day. Only my next draft was awful too. And the one after that. I began to feel uncomfortable with the story, and decided to leave it alone.
I took my own advice and tried some free writes, but every single one was garbage. The most cliched language with the most trite ideas paired themselves and began romancing in the uncomfortable way of bad romantic comedies where the characters had no business existing at all, let alone contemplating procreation.
I was writing horrible things. But, I could still revise. I took out some of my poetry and began to go over it, looking for areas where I could pull music, imagery, or stronger connotations to the surface. I found places they needed work, but the poems soon petrified me, because my new drafts were worse than where I started.
Incapable of writing anything worthwhile or revising my work in any beneficial way, panic set in. I ate my words about writer’s block, and they tasted like moldy bread.
I want to make clear that through this, I kept writing. I continued to be able to write, but I could only create terrible things. I was a tiny god dreaming of creating vibrant worlds who kept ending up with barren wastelands that couldn’t even catch a proper orbit around a star.
Writer’s block has absolutely nothing to do with not being able to write. It is the horrible suspicion that everything you’ve ever written and might ever write is completely useless. It is the growing shame of knowing that because you’ve poured your life into a single skill and you can’t even do that, you stupid, incompetent fool, you are effectively nothing.
You’re like a worm if a worm couldn’t even move or fertilize soil and just waited until it rained so it could drown, bloated in a puddle. You’re not a writer, but you’re not anything else. You have done nothing with your life, and you will go on, creating meaningless poems, incomprehensible stories, and boring personal essays until you die miserable.
The word is terrible because it implies the wrong threat, so no one is really prepared. A writer’s block isn’t about not being able to write, it’s about crippling self doubt to the point that you hate yourself and feel shame about all your life’s efforts.
For this reason, I’d like to rename “writer’s block” to “Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt.”
But, asks the hypothetical reader, that sounds even more melodramatic than before. So much that I can’t even use it in a casual context. What am I supposed to say, ‘I’ve been dealing with a bit of Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt lately’? Is that what you want?
Yes, it is what I want. If you have it, you’ll need to be able to communicate what’s really going on, and we all know you won’t be very effective with your words at the time.
You won’t need someone like past-me telling you to try free writing, you’ll need someone like present-me to send you Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech and tell you all the ways your writing is wonderful and how that one line in your free write is just lovely— or it could be with a little revision.
Okay, but it sounds like a disease.
Absolutely. If a writer develops W.C.S.D. they should be treated immediately with motivational quotes and compliments directed towards whatever they’re currently working on. If the symptoms of crippling self doubt are left without notice for too long, W.C.S.D. may progress into W.C.I.C. (Writer’s Complete Identity Crisis) which is characterized by existential crisis and possible sobbing.
How do I treat that?
Same way you treat heart break— with love, reassurance, and good food.