A Writer Who Isn’t Writing
What do you call a writer who isn’t writing?
It’s a funny old thing, this writing business. The surest way to fail is to stop. But—“There’s no such thing as writers’ block,” we tell each other. It’s something else.
Fear. Perfectionism. Lack of discipline. Failing nerves. Poor health.
To be honest, I never really thought about it that much. It had never really happened to me.
I started writing “for real” ten years ago and never looked back. Steady, consistent, quick. There was always something, some project. As I went through the Stonecoast MFA, I watched people graduate and just…stop.
I sympathized and supported, of course. But in my marrow, I didn’t quite understand.
How do you just…stop?
It happened slowly. I suspect it usually does.
As you may recall, last year was a lot of theatre and life changes. I spent the summer navigating two plays, various short fiction pieces, and a 177,000-word interactive fiction novel, launched into another indie production in October, and then found myself thoroughly burned out. A lot of personal stuff was happening too, and I just…couldn’t.
So I rested. Refill the well, you know. Until Christmas. Then in early January, I signed on with my agent and I hummed contentedly through rewrites on the Beer Magic novel. The Smoky Writers’ retreat followed in February and I had no issues churning out stories.
(Granted, most still need a gutting, but…)
But under all this Doing Stuff lurked a tendril of unease.
I sold one of my Smoky stories very quickly. But I didn’t really have a lot else on submission.
I’ll write a few more, I told myself. No big deal.
Okay, whatever. Maybe it’s time to write this novella.
I’ve got a rough plot outline for the novella. A decent handle on the characters. I think it’ll be neat.
But my fingers lay wooden.
“I’ve spent the last hour rewriting the same two hundred words,” I told my author-friend Aly.
“Shake that off, my dude. Get out of your head somehow.”
It’s an elementary mistake, of course. Obsessing over the same few paragraphs. You’re supposed to just write and circle back later. Shitty first drafts, fix it in post, you can’t edit a blank page. Things we’ve all heard a million times.
I knew that.
I knew better than that.
Loathing myself, I went to bed. I’d try again. In the morning. When I was well-rested.
It came up in therapy.
“It’s an identity crisis thing, and it’s a business thing, and it’s…”
It was the most emotional I’ve ever gotten in front of my therapist. My dead father? Leaving Black Creek? Closing an important chapter? All fine, all delivered in measured tones, all with witty asides.
Talking about my inability to write had me on the verge of tears.
“Have you talked to any of your writer friends about this?” my therapist asked gently.
“Isn’t your partner an editor? Wouldn’t she be a good support?”
“I mean, yes, but—”
But if I told people, it was real.
“The level of emotion here suggests that it’s important to you,” my therapist said. “Consider talking to someone.”
When I feel shitty about my writing, I withdraw from my community. It’s not great (understatement), but it’s an imposter syndrome response. I don’t deserve to be there; I’m not a real writer; I’m choked with shame.
I talked to Aly again. By “talked,” I mean, “I vented a lot of angst, snapped at her, and then virtually fled into the bushes.”
I stewed for a few more days, stories sparking and dying. Probably Jen would be a good support.
“I’m scared,” I said.
Talking about it with her helped. So did imagining what my Stonecoast mentors would tell me. Chill and keep trying, probably. Even if I had to throw the words out.
Another friend runs a daily flash prompt. I started doing it. Just to keep the fingers moving. Just to massage some of the stiffness from my brain.
Words. Not good words. But words nonetheless.
Like someone recovering from illness, I altered my “diet.” Setting aside Hugo ballots and recommended reading lists, I returned to fairy tales—the Andrew Lang books, Kay Nielsen’s illustrations, Yeats’ collection of Irish folktales, the Mabinogion.
Angela Carter. Lord Dunsany. Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays. A few more recent things: Charles de Lint and Kat Howard.
For the first time in five years, I had nothing on submission. My closed laptop mocked me.
I kept reading.
“Why haven’t you talked to anyone?” my therapist asked.
Shame. Fear. A certain self-protective instinct.
But mostly shame.
Amidst all this, I was doing a research project for Black Creek Pioneer Village. Sourcing newspaper articles, letters, diaries, illustrations, and ephemera…
…and writing three very short plays.
I left the plays until last, of course. In some reptilian part of my brain, the old instinct persisted. “It’s fine, I can bang out six pages super quickly.”
That’s what I had always done. Always.
…and I did?
It took a while to register.
I sat down. I wrote the scripts. I finished them. Like old times. Like this was something I’ve trained for; something I’ve done for ten years.
And yes, of course—these were characters I knew inside out, for a very specific purpose and a client I lived and breathed for ages.
But the muscles still worked.
Once bitten, twice shy. I’m still scared. I’m scared to write this. Nervous about not being seen as professional, I guess. Deathly frightened of showing real vulnerability.
But the scripts helped. Writing those proved that the machine still works. I can still write. Everyone’s right: the words haven’t turned to ash in my skull.
Ideally, this is where the eighties montage comes in. I’d blast a playlist of motivational music, burn the midnight oil in creative frenzy, and turn that novella in by next Tuesday.
Only it doesn’t quite work that way. I still haven’t figured this out. I can still write, but something else is going on. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s lingering burnout. Maybe it’s simply that everything changed very suddenly and I haven’t caught up with myself yet.
What do you call a writer who isn’t writing?
You call them, “trying.” You call them, “recovering.”
You call them a “writer.”
Because they still are. The words will come back. I have to believe that.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Johnny Cash somehow found his way into my listening this week. And with him, a song for the novella:
I can see more of it, now. Fingers crossed.