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On Writer’s Block, Breakdowns, and Recovery

November 19, 2013

“If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way—especially shame, fear, and vulnerability.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), 36.

It’s November. The leaves are falling in my backyard, the sun is (occasionally) shining, and all is well with my universe as Thanksgiving approaches.

November is also National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words in a month…the ultimate Write Till You Drop.

I’ve “done” NaNoWriMo for the last five years. I have yet to finish a novel, however. I have yet to even come close.

This, however, is certainly not the fault of NaNoWriMo, which is a fabulous idea and has made great strides in encouraging people to fire up their laptops and write.

So here’s my big confession, although I know I’m probably certifiable for posting this given that I have a link to my CV is up above and this blog serves as my professional home base on the Internet. But I’ve decided that I’d rather write about Brown’s “things that get in the way,” and write as the person I am, problems and all, and not as the glossy professional facade that I think I “should” present to the world.

NaNoWriMo, or in my case, the lack of NaNoWriMo-ing, has forced me to confront my writing process. And writer’s block, I’ve discovered, isn’t just about the inability to put out a novel or a dissertation chapter. Writer’s block is about how writers conceive of themselves as writers and as artists. This is about how graduate students conceive of themselves as graduate students. How a historian calls herself a historian. How a mother reconciles motherhood with her “other selves.”

I’ve fought long periods of writer’s block for years, with my most recent bout starting around six years ago, right as my coursework ended and I started reading for my comprehensive exams.

Admittedly, this most recent block had its causes. My life over the past decade has seen its share of difficulty and childbirth and caregiving and illness and anxiety, which resulted in, if I’m honest with myself, a breakdown about two years ago.

Usually in the blogosphere, this entry would now segue into a discussion where I would blame or justify myself for my career and parenting choices, while ignoring the fact that there is a serious problem within American culture and society (and the very structure of the academy), that forces people to make impossible choices in order to work and raise their families. Katrina Alcorn, in Maxing Out: American Moms on the Brink (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2013), has the best capsule description of this that I’ve seen yet:

“We are devastatingly overworked and simultaneously lack the government, workplace, and familial supports that exist in most other developed countries. The American Dream tells us that if we just work hard enough, we’ll get what we want. But the research shows that for working moms, hard work is not enough. The problem boils down to this: Most jobs do not accommodate people who have children.

Instead, we have this unwritten, unacknowledged, and unyielding expectation that working parents will make the accommodations necessary to do their jobs just as if they don’t have children. If you don’t like it, hire someone else to raise your children. And if you don’t like that, then quit. Except, of course, you can’t quit, because you can’t get by on one income.

Well, then, if it’s too much work, don’t have babies!

And there you have it. America’s delusion of rugged individualism, taken to its absurd conclusion: the end of the human race.”

(Alcorn, 347-348)

Workplace, or graduate school. In my experience they are about the same. No matter what you do, someone is going to tell you that you’re doing it wrong.

In my case, the return to writing has been a matter of faith. How I lost my faith. How much I started to deny who I was because too many others required my time and my help, and how I had to learn how to start over. I’ve had to finally accept that writing has a spiritual component. And that all of the agonies that we put ourselves through regarding careers and parenting and choices are actually sound and fury—the ways that we as a society make ourselves insane.

Sometimes you have to just stop, and start listening. Sometimes you have to just stop, and let yourself feel all of the things that you don’t want to feel, even if you think it’s going to kill you.

And then you start writing again. Even if it’s crap. Especially if it’s crap.

(Julia Cameron’s The Writer’s Way has become an essential tool, in particular, her “morning pages,” where you get up in the morning and write in a notebook for at least three pages. About anything. What I’ve found is that by doing so, you clear your own mental detritus and are then able to move on to other projects.)

I consider myself as being in recovery, in many ways, if recovery is the act of choosing who you are today and in this moment. It’s about being honest with yourself and with others about who you are and the ability to freely admit, that hey, maybe I’m not okay today. And feeling free to say that on other days, I’m doing just fine.

The rest, and the most critical component, I think, centers on how you surrender to God, or to the Divine, or to whatever spirituality you hold—the connections between ourselves, the universe, and other people. (See Brown’s book for more on this, especially her definition of “spirituality” on p. 64.)

I won’t lie to you. I still have bad days. The difference is that I believe now that I will find my way. Or, more likely, the way will find me.

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