By Erika Grumet
I’ve been staring at blank pages for days, deadlines lurking right around the corner on my calendar… wandering between in a funk because I can’t think of what to write about and Kermit-arm-flailing panic that the words are never going to come back. I don’t exactly think of it as “writer’s block” because for so many years that phrase meant I felt like I couldn’t write, whereas this is different. This is me knowing that I can write, but not being able to find the right place to start. When you read you begin with A-B-C, when you sing you begin with do-re-mi. Where do you begin when you’re a writer who can’t figure out what to write about?
I’ve had a really productive year as far as writing goes… to go from not writing at all to producing the amount of content I have. It was bound to catch up with me eventually. I just didn’t expect it to be quite as abrupt as it was. It’s been one of my biggest fears: that the words would stop again. The last time they stopped, I chose to stop them. Writing was something I made a deliberate choice not to do. Even during all those years, when I’d have a thought about something, I’d think “I should write about that,” and then I’d chase it out of my head, squashing it and running away–the way I remember doing with the first conscious inklings of my own queer awakening. I stopped writing because I had a boyfriend at the time who was getting his MFA in creative writing, and I listened to him when he told me that I was worthless, that I was a terrible writer, that my stories weren’t worth telling, and that his work would always be better than mine. I heard it enough, and I began to believe it, and eventually I embraced it and I stopped writing. I wonder sometimes about what I might have done if I hadn’t stopped writing. Would I have pursued it with the kind of intensity I do now? Would it have become a casual hobby? Would it even be important at all? I wonder if maybe the work I was producing then was good… for a person at that age, in that part of my life, and with the experience I had. I don’t know where it is now. Hiding in a box, gone forever. Does it matter whether it was any good? It won’t give me back the time I avoided doing something I loved. Dwelling in the past like that doesn’t get me where I want to go, though. I have to acknowledge that experience as part of what shapes the writer I am now, to honor the way it has both helped me and held me back. But right now, it seems like the words are frozen. Maybe not the words, so much as the themes. I mean, I’ve written these essays, thousands of words at a time, over the last six months, and all of a sudden, I stare at my screen, and I haven’t got a clue about where to start. It’s not the words that aren’t coming now… it’s the ideas.
I’ve compared writing and knitting before. At the beginning of a knitting project I pick the pattern, I pick the yarn, I find the right size needles, and then cast on and begin. When I write, I start with a theme or a topic, an idea, a quote… there’s something, and then my own words begin to spill out, until I craft something. This time, I can’t find the beginning… it’s like I have this gorgeous yarn but I can’t find the right pattern for it. So as a knitter… what do I do? I pack it carefully away in my stash, but if I leave it for too long, the knitter’s nightmare–moths! I have the same fears about writing now that I’m doing it again–that whatever the writer’s equivalent of moths will happen to my writing.
We haven’t quite reached moths yet–right now it’s more like the part where your yarn and your pattern are just a mismatch for each other. I’ve still got words and I still want to write, but I just can’t seem to make any kind of a topic jell enough to write about it. If I were writing an assignment for school and someone had told me “write about this topic,” I probably would be able to write something. It’s not that I have absolutely no strategies for getting unstuck either. I’ve gone through pages and pages of writing prompts and college admissions essay questions as I’ve searched for inspiration. I’ve listened to songs–poetry plus music, right? I’ve gone through photos hoping that something might inspire a topic, an idea, a story, a memory… something. I’ve gone to my favorite YouTube channels for visually inspiring things. I’ve been watching a lot of videos created by a YouTuber in Svalbard, Norway where I look at stunning vistas, a cute dog and occasionally polar bears. And of course, I read. A lot.
I read essays and novels and articles. I read short stories and poems… lots of poems. I talk about what I’m reading, sharing about it on Facebook, sometimes Tweeting about it. Sometimes I find myself laughing with Adam when our discussions come to conclusions like “women need more orgasms to get rid of demons,” and making fun of my own stream-of-consciousness style, pointing out that I am no James Joyce (and how glad I am for that). I share embarrassing anecdotes about my own reading, like the way I used to confuse the stories “The Girl with the Green Ribbon” with William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
The changing weather, the changing time, we all know how that can throw us out of sync. It left me with a few days of more-pain-than-normal. (even a good-day rates about a three or a four out of ten). I felt like things were collapsing… the physical pain plus the stress I’d been feeling about writing all came crashing down, and I went through a lot of anger and a lot of tears and I threw myself a little pity party. That’s not my usual way of doing things. Living with the pain and the chronic illness and disability stuff is part of what makes me into the writer that I am… and maybe I’d still be writing if it weren’t for that, or maybe not. I don’t know. I’m not being visited by Dickensian ghosts, nor is my life a game of Chrononauts where I can go change the timeline for different outcomes.
The thing is, bad days are easier to deal with than good ones. Bad days are predictable. I may not always know when they’re going to happen, but I do know how I might feel, what to expect and how to take care of myself. I’ve got things prepared for bad days. It’s the good days that are hard. They’re scary and unpredictable. I never know how long good days are going to last, or how much energy I might have. Worst of all though is not knowing how long feeling good might last. I end up feeling stressed and anxious over the good days more than the typical-bad ones. It’s Sunday night. I’m staring at my screen, filled with words that I’m feeling kind of lukewarm about. I’m feeling hopeless, and sad and frustrated. I’m thinking about giving up, at least for the moment. Not all together. I can’t imagine giving up on writing again, at least not right now.
And then it occurs to me. It’s not writer’s block. It’s fear. I’m giving in to fear again. Fear, which has controlled so much of my life, and I’m letting it happen again. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of disappointing the people around me who are investing their time and energy in my work and in my success as a writer. And there’s even a little bit of fear of my own words and the power they have. The more my words are out there, the more people read them. The more people who read them the more room there is for criticism (which I expect,) and the more room for people to dissect them and try and tell me I’m wrong about my lived experience (you may think that’s a reach but that’s life as a queer person and as a disabled person). Fear of the unknown. I don’t know what comes next for me as a writer… as I seek new mentoring experiences, search out opportunities for publication, look for ways to grow. I’m afraid.
I’ve spent a lot of time learning to trust myself…when trust is shaken as mine has been, sometimes the questions become overwhelming. Finding the comfortable space between giving too much and closing myself off. When I started writing last year, I was closed off. There was so much I didn’t want to write about. The holes were poked in that rather quickly, and when I was willing to let go, writing got easier. It may have also gotten better. It definitely felt better. Part of growing, though, is reaching new barriers, and I’m there right now. I need to figure out how to get over, under, around and through this next set of obstacles.
I know there are all sorts of memes and quotes and things about what’s more powerful than fear–hope, love, faith. That fear though is the same as the fear of my good days. I need to learn to appreciate and not fear the days when my body feels good, and to learn to do things on those days that I am avoiding or that I enjoy but sometimes deny myself because I’m frantically trying to get through the things I have to do. And as a writer, I need to learn to embrace that fear as part of the process. Sometimes it will hurt. Not everyone will edit compassionately, thoughtfully and with the eyes of an educator so that I keep growing. Not every landing is going to be soft, and even the ones that are mostly soft may still involve a few thorns. I keep coming back to how transformative this year has been for me though. My only goal was to become a better writer, and I’ve done that, but I’m not finished. I have more growing to do. I’ve got people who believe in me when I don’t. I’ve got people helping me find the tools and the skills to continue to meet that goal of better writing. I’ve spent two weeks writing about writer’s block because I was in my own way, but also because I can. Because now that I’m a writer, everything becomes raw wool for the writing. Even writer’s block. Now that I know that I was in my own way–and why, I think it’s time for me to pack my first aid kit, figure out how to listen to the more important voice, and prepare for the bruises while I learn how to get out of my own way.