I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writer’s block. It’s a subject I’ve addressed before in previous blog posts, but, as I’ve said numerous times (to myself anyway), writer’s block isn’t really a thing. People either write, or they don’t. I mostly don’t these days.
I could blame my old BFF “Deppie” because depression is just a daily part of my life, and despite being managed, it doesn’t really get better. But I’ve written through depression before. I’m not sure what’s different this time. Except I just feel like all my good ideas have dried up. So it’s actually painful sitting in front of the computer (or in a notebook), trying to compose.
I should have a lot to write about—two months in Scotland for instance. And I still have my Medea project and my Mary Magdalene project, both of which offer ample opportunities for expansion. They’re just not speaking to me. In fact when I go back and read poems from those sequences (with a few exceptions), my response is invariably “bleah.”
So try writing something else you say. Well, I’ve tried writing a little fiction, and writing letters, and writing a bit of prose, but I don’t know, my heart’s not in it. I feel like such a fraud too. I always tell my students that the best way to avoid writer’s block is to just write something. But when you hate everything you write, that’s kind of hard.
So do some reading you say. That I am doing. Just not poetry. Talk about painful! I know that writing is difficult for everyone, so when I see great poems in books, I just feel worse. Very petty and jealous of me, I guess. So I’m sticking to light novels, but that only puts off the inevitable.
What’s the solution? I don’t know. Not writing makes the depression worse, because if I’m not writing, what is my purpose in living? I don’t mean to get existential, but it does feel that not writing is a threat to my existence.
Folks trying to be supportive have suggested that I just—for a while—not write and not stress over it. How does that work? Because the longer I don’t write a poem, the more it seems like I’m forgetting how to do it. And I have been trying to engage different parts of my mind and body—I’m crocheting a shawl right now, and sewing, and playing tennis again after a Covid haitus. I’ve even thought about getting out my paints and trying to be creative that way, with the thought that maybe I could “unlock the block.” (But I haven’t done that yet.) Maybe I just need to try a different medium until writing wants to come back to me. But that’s scary too… because what if writing doesn’t want to come back?
Oh well, I’m not really accomplishing anything with this blog post, except reiterating my basket case status. So forgive me, my five dear readers, for my pity party. I hope it doesn’t last too long.
The pandemic is almost a year old (in the US, anyway), and it’s been a horrible year for so many people, including the half-a-million folks who’ve died from Covid, and their families. Then there was the bizarre and unbelievable insurrection on Jan. 6th (Epiphany!), and now the Texas power grid disaster and the below freezing temperatures across the country—with people dying, in their houses, without heat or water. It seems that we are beset with tragedy everywhere. I don’t want to sound dismissive, though I fear it might, if I say that the year has been hard on me, because I haven’t been able to write like I’ve wanted to.
Of course I was saying that five months ago, too. And in the intervening months, there were Halloween, and Thanksgiving, and Christmas, which are always bright spots, if momentary. But my depression persists—made worse, of course, by the tragedies that surround this country, the inability to see family and friends (oh my goddess, do I miss my Mom), the loss of a friend to suicide last October, the incessant stay-at-home-ism—the endless, endless darkness (not to be a drama queen or anything) that has just taken the spirit out of me.
I can’t seem to do anything. I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t want to do much more than read books (to take me away from myself) or sleep. I’m irritable, sad, lonely, hating myself, and suffering migraines all the time. Sure, those are all garden variety symptoms of depression (well, maybe not the migraines), and I’m still relatively high functioning (though I can’t manage household cleaning chores), but I am exhausted all the time. Weary. Unmotivated to the point of laziness. And so very, very heartbroken about my writing.
Yes, I know there are thousands of people who have it worse. I know that. I loathe that I’m sounding like a whiny little bitch, when relatively, there is so much decent (if not good) in my life. But part of the depression sphere is that knowing something objectively doesn’t mean anything if you can’t feel it.
Feeling anything has come hard to me as an adult. How many therapists have said to me that I live too much in my head? Some of that, I’m sure, comes from feeling too much as a child and a teenager, when I was told over and over again that my feelings were invalid/ unreasonable/ ridiculous/ unwanted. So I learned to suppress so much of my humanity—just became a floating intellect. I was pretty good at school, so I did that. Kept my emotions in check as best I could for as long as I could, till I didn’t seem to have them anymore. (Like I intellectually love my family and friends—they are great, wonderful people—but I secretly wonder if I really feel that love? Like, can I ever feel anything, authentically? Or am I always processing everything on such an intellectual level that I’ve atrophied anything else that was real inside of me?) Everything on autopilot.
Or is this all just depression talking?
It’s not a lie to say that I have developed a true fear of writing (scriptophobia!) this past year. Fear is a feeling—though I “feel” very intellectual about it. As in, I can compartmentalize it—and do the writing I need to for work without a thought. But when it comes to my own writing, I’ve been terrified (again, intellectually speaking). What do I say? What does it matter? Who cares if I write or not (besides me)? I’ve wondered if I’ve forgotten how even to write poetry. Or if I’ve developed a fear of poetry (metrophobia). This is beyond writer’s block (which I don’t actually believe in)—this is something fundamental, and deeper. Like poetry is a mountain I can see across the forest, but forget about crossing the forest, I’m floating by in a river, trying not to drown.
And maybe it’ll just be temporary. Like, maybe this past year is too much to process, and the only way to “cope” (not very effectively, of course) is depression and an “inability” to write.
Intellectually, I know I will write poems again, when I’m not so depressed and stuck. But it’s hard to feel it. But, even when I do write poems again, to be honest, I know they will be the intellectual exercises they have always been for me. That’s why I’ll never be a great poet—because my poems don’t have an emotional core, they just don’t—but it will have to be good enough to be good enough as poet. Because if I’m not a person who writes poems, I’m not sure what my point for being is?
Thanks, always, to my five readers for reading this. I wish I had something better to share than just head garbage.
Six months ago, back when quarantine was new and more frightening than annoying, I was advocating writing through the boredom like that would be easy. But what I failed to think about—or even take into account at all—was that, far from having so much to write about that I’d be crazy prolific, churning out poems like a bakery turns out baguettes, I might actually find myself frozen, unable to write anything at all. And yet, that is precisely what happened. I’ve written maybe 5 poems altogether. In six months. Five poems is usually what I do in a single month.
Now, Writer Twitter is where I get a lot of my anecdotal evidence about writers, but it seems that I am not alone in my frozen state. Many other writers have struggled to get words on a page, and I find myself taking comfort in that somewhat—like, at least I’m not the only one. But I feel really quite miserable about it because I always believed that IF I had “unlimited” free time, I would have so much more to show for it. Granted, I have been working, but I save a couple of hours not having to commute every day (or even getting dressed—heh), and that time adds up. But when you can’t write, all that ends up as is two more interminable hours, making the days seem even longer, endless.
Of course, there are the nauseating writers who obnoxiously crow about how much they are accomplishing with this time—how they are writing more, submitting more, and publishing more. Well, excuse me for being a jealous hag, but bully for them. Take your accomplishments and stick them where the sun don’t shine. Yes, I know, that’s mean. I should be happy for them that they are feeling successful. But mostly it just makes me sorrier for myself. Why couldn’t that be my experience?
If I’m honest, part of my inability to write is lack of outside stimulation. When you don’t go outside except once a week to the grocery, your life becomes insular and small. I get pretty tired of my own company. (Which, if you think about it, would be a GREAT reason to write fiction—you could make up a wonderful, interesting world and live there vicariously.) (But that would require my imagination to work, and sadly, it’s in the shop and looking like it’s D.O.A.)
The other, more compelling reason, is a depression that has just gotten out of control. I don’t talk about it too much, because after all, what have I got to be depressed about? I have a job, a wonderful home, and a loving family. But when I don’t have my writing, I feel like an utter failure. I miss language. I miss falling into a poem and feeling that transformation that poetry brings me. My therapist, who is neither a reader nor a writer, doesn’t really understand this situation and tells me, not wrongly, that writers write, so get off my tuffet and write something. Which is not especially helpful.
The problem with this depression is that in many ways, it’s quite compartmentalized. Yay for high functioning! I am taking care of financial business, exercising, cleaning the house periodically, doing my job, teaching my class. But it’s just so damn hard. It’s exhausting. Sometimes, the thought of getting out of bed defeats me. Of course, I get up, because my cats would slay me if I didn’t feed them. I don’t stop taking care of them just because I feel miserable. Which is as it should be. But being compartmentalized like that means that there’s just not much left over to be me. To be JC the Writer. Like I can only manage so much, and that’s it. Anything else doesn’t fit in the compartment. It takes its toll.
Sometimes, though, I wish I could just fall apart. Throw my hands in the air and just give up. Stay in bed all day and cry. Just be one fucked up mess. Then, no one would expect anything from me. And then I could feel justified in my not writing. Well, I mean, how could I possibly write when I’m a total basket case? Nobody expects anything from people like that. Oh, so you’ve only written 5 poems in six months? Well, you poor dear, of course not, not when you feel absolutely on death’s door.
But being responsible has always been a strength as well as a weakness. And so I struggle valiantly, doing what I can when nearly every day feels like agony. And maybe only once in a while admitting to my close friends that I’m not doing too well. But after all, no one really wants to hear about my depression—can you blame them?—so I mostly just suffer in silence.
And instead of being genuine and honest about it, I make things worse by hiding it—proving to myself (at least) that I am responsible and taking care of things and don’t need to rely on others, who, after all, have their own problems and are struggling in unique ways as the pandemic wears on.
All of this is to say that I know I’m in a really bad place when I can’t write. (And don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me how much of a fraud I feel, telling my students they need to write constantly, and then not following my own directive.) I want desperately to write something—even this blog post is a big deal, and let’s be honest, it’s really just a navel-gazing poor-me—but every time I sit at the computer (or face a page of paper), it’s just blank, blank, blank. Nothing comes to me. At all. And all the tricks I teach my students to do to fight off writer’s block seem to fail me. It’s intolerable.
I really don’t know what to do. If any of my five dedicated readers have any suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.
Stay safe and Covid-free, y’all. And keep me in your prayers, if you pray. I need all the help I can get.