Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Cage of Myself

Pretty homemade bars
There was a time, not too long ago, when I loved to write. All I wanted to do was write. I preferred writing to socializing, cooking, and even eating. Which is saying something, because I really love eating.

Then something happened, and I still don’t know what. About a year ago, it became harder to write, and about six months ago, the writing machine in my head began shutting down almost entirely.

I am now at a complete standstill. I am locked in a cage of my own making, of my own mind. Somewhere in the depths of me, there might be a key — there must be — but that sucker is well hidden.

This is distressing, to say the least. I’ve tried various tricks to free my inner writer: reading excellent fiction, reading how-to-write books, trying out writing prompts, reviewing my works-in-progress, joining NaNoWriMo, and finally, simply forcing myself to sit down and pound out words. “Even if it’s terrible,” I said to myself, “do it anyway.” I granted permission to write crap, to write a string of nonsense words, anything. I figured if I faked it for a bit, my little prison might open. At least, the gap between the bars might widen a tiny bit.

I figured wrong.

This is not writer’s block. At least, not the way I understand it. Writer’s block is when you can’t think of what to say next, isn’t it? When you lack inspiration. I know what needs writing. I write in my head every night as I drift off to sleep. I already have a first draft of one novel mostly written. I’ve got an outline, solid characters, and a trajectory of scenes. It really should be quite straightforward. 

No, this is not writer’s block: it’s more like writer’s phobia. When I sit at the computer and open up Word, I feel nauseous. Literally sick to my stomach. Even the icon for Word, that little blue W, makes me break out into a cold sweat.

The stuff of nightmares

White Page of Doom
It’s not just with fiction, either: I got it writing my last non-fiction piece — and normally that’s work I can knock out practically in my sleep. I got the shivery-jivvers today, too, when I readied myself to write this blog post. I moped around the house for fifteen minutes, moaning to my family, clutching a cup of tea in my chilly hands, before I worked up the courage to face The White Page of Doom.

I never thought this would happen to me. I used to zone out at parties or school functions, daydreaming of my characters, desperate to get back to my computer so I could write more, more, more. I was so smitten with the act of creation; it felt like falling in love. It was blissful. It was maddening.

I miss it.

I’m not sure what to do next. Faced with a lack of alternatives, I’ve accepted that there’s nothing I can do. As I’ve watched the end of NaNoWriMo ticking by, I’ve hit a point of fatalistic ennui. A sad kind of acceptance.

But! There is a silver lining to my little cloud of writerly doom. I have a feeling, for no good reason whatsoever, that this phobia (or whatever it is) will pass. I have a feeling that not only will the ability to face the white screen come back to me, someday, but the joy of writing, the obsession of it, will come back, too.

I just hope it doesn’t take too long. I don’t want this cage getting too comfortable.


  1. Kind of sounds like the honeymoon's over, Sister Stephanie. I wouldn't worry too much about it. Most writers go through a season of drought when it comes to writing. I think our minds get exhausted when it comes to the characters we keep fixing, chasing down, and sculpting to fit the world we've created. I've struggled a lot when it comes to my third novel, but it's like you said. It's not because I don't know the storyline, because I do! I now know where I want it to go, but it's finding the energy sometimes to just sit down and do the work. I know this book will exhaust me like the last, and even like the one before that one (only that one really took a lot out of me). It's a matter of timing. When the time is right, you'll put on the page what needs to be there.

  2. I’ll go along with Sister Mary, Mary, and say that is this is a passing phase, and you seem to be taking it rather well. After my second rejection, I didn’t write fiction for almost two years. But I continued with my freelance work. It worries me that you say that even nonfiction writing has become a difficult task because that is what you do for a living.

  3. I go through periods like this, Sister Steph (the three of you are witnesses of HOW LONG it's taken me to finish these #$%^&@#$ revision). What seems to work for me the best is to get out of my house and go somewhere without internet access. (This measure rules out any Starbucks or the like). Either that or use older computer without wireless capabilities (at a cafe). I know it sounds kind of silly, but honestly, distraction is one of my worst enemies. It's easier to socialize, catch up on the news, look at pictures, etc, than have to face that BLANK PAGE.

    Another idea: enter a fiction contest or (this is drastic) query an agent (or attend a conference and talk to one). I know, I know. You're "supposed" to wait until your ms. is polished, but I have found in my own experience that the adrenaline of having an agent/editor waiting to read my work propels me to work more efficiently.

    Last idea, start a fresh new project, a novel that doesn't require a lot of research or one that isn't personal to you. (Maybe use a male protagonist?)

    Hope these tips help!

  4. I am sorry, Stephanie, to read of what is your temporary, I hope, suspension of drive to write. It doesn't help much to remind you that most composers and writers have these periods, but I will, anyway. Rachmaninoff, after an initial success, was trounced by the critics concerning ( I believe it was) his first symphony. He went into a 'funk' for several years, came out of it and- you know the rest. I have been listening to and watching interviews with fiction writers. The condition is common among them. One famous novelist said that he may take off for a year or so when such a condition affects him, and take notes on ideas that come to mind, without trying to conceive a novel.
    If the PC has become an ogre, perhaps you could write on yellow pads for a while, some say the ease of writing on a word processor lets their mind run away with itself—writing by hand makes them think about the story instead of the machine. My thoughts for what they're worth. Regis

  5. Wow. This must be really tough for you right now! I hope it passes quickly. One thing I will say is that sometimes I do take breaks from writing. During those times, I focus on other creative pursuits instead. I play guitar & write music. I do fine art. I read, as you said you have been.

    I don't think it's something that should be forced. It's something you should really be inspired by.

    Of course, that's funny coming from me when I feel mildly uninspired myself right now. I've done NaNo but can't wait for it to be over this year! Nearly there. Phew.

    I know for sure that, right now, *I* need a break from writing. Maybe you just need a break where you aren't under pressure to write?

  6. Thank you all for your supportive responses! It may seem like I'm taking it well now, but there has been much behind-the-scenes gnashing of teeth, believe me.

    Sister Lorena, you know me too well! Distraction is definitely an issue. Unfortunately, cafes are also very distracting: when I've tried writing in them before, I end up people-watching and eavesdropping on everyone's conversations. Kind of fun if you're in the "observe the universe" mode of writing, not so good if you're really trying to focus on a specific project. But maybe I should go back to "observe the universe" mode. :) You also pegged it when you said I should take a break from research-intensive (that's WIP 1) and overly-personal subject matter (WIP 2). When I do pick up the pen again, I'm thinking I'll try a short story. I love the idea of a male protagonist. I've done that before and it's so much fun.

    Sister Violante, I am lucky in that nobody is depending on my income. That would be a problem!

    Regis, your words did bring me comfort -- I didn't know that about Rachmaninoff. It's very nice to be reminded that I'm not alone, and that others have successfully recovered from creative drought.

    Trisha, I agree that pressure is an issue, and that's one reason I've decided to come clean about my problem: hopefully accepting that This Is Where I Am is Step 1 of releasing that pressure. The pressure is all coming from me. I am slightly worried that if I let the pressure off entirely, I'll stop writing for too long, though, and lose whatever progress I've made in my craft over the last few years. So I've got a deal with myself that I'll at least *try* again in a few weeks, after the holiday madness has passed.

  7. If it doesn't present a financial hazard, don´t see it as a tragedy. Relax, charge batteries, read good books, enjoy other activities. By the time the creativity bug bites you again, you´ll be refreshed, filled with new energies.

  8. A break often helps, or a change of scenery. Also what might help is filling a page with rubbish words just to reconnect with the flow. I hope this passes quickly for you.

  9. The positive energy in your post belies the seriousness of what you wrote. My first reaction was that it isn't you but that something scared you - and I can't shake that reaction. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn't mess around with this and would talk with someone who could calm the waters. Good luck! (and hugs)

  10. Steph, there are two solutions for distractions at cafes (yes, I've experienced this problem too, ha!)

    1. Earphones with classical/instrumental music.
    2. Go to a library. (People are quieter there.) Plus, libraries have desks which face walls, pictures, bookshelves, etc.

    I wouldn't recommend you to take any more time off. In my experience, taking long breaks makes me become even more detached to my WIP. (Not to say that "rest time" isn't important, because it is. But one thing is to let a ms rest and another one is getting out of the habit of writing, which, IMO can also be counterproductive.)

  11. Hi Steph, short and [hopefully] pertinent: I recommend the book 'Nerve' by Taylor Clark, in particular the sections on the 'clutch paradox' and 'choking.'

  12. Thanks, Suze! I put a hold on that at the library. I trust your instincts. Lorena, I feel I have no choice now but to take a break, as I can't force myself to write -- I've tried. :( I like your library idea. When I give it another whirl, I'll try that. Violante, that is my plan -- thank you for the validation. Just reading what you wrote makes my shoulders relax a bit. :)

    Kittie, thanks for the hugs! I'll think about what you said.

    Thanks again everyone, and we can hope by the time my next blog day rolls around, this will be past. Hey! I just realized that will be Christmas Day. Wouldn't that be a nice li'l gift from the universe?

  13. Another book recommendation that may help:

    "Art and Fear" by David Bayles & Ted Orland. It was required reading in art school (you'll see why!) ;-)

  14. Indeed, a marvelous gift, Sister Stephanie

  15. A lot of helpful ideas. Since most of the contributors appear to have backgrounds in art, i want to mention an internet site I visit every day, usually when I'm tired of typing or have had a slight mental block. I try to not let the net interfere with writing, but along with listening to one writer inter view (30 min)every day, I try to visit Try it you'll like it. Stay with it, Stephanie. Regis

  16. Thanks for the link, Regis! I once visited the museum featured there today (Museu Picasso de Barcelona) and loved it (fascinating to see his evolution as an artist.) Will bookmark the site.


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