Photo by Rennett stowe

The Walls We Build Around Us

On writer’s block, obsession, and the Egyptian revolution

Nick Rowlands
Jul 18, 2013 · 13 min read

Some time back in 2011, amidst the chaos and confusion of the Egyptian revolution, I forgot how to write — constructed a barrier in my mind and hammered home the instruction, “WRITER’S BLOCK, DO NOT PASS!” Two years later, and I’m only just learning to peek over to the other side and see there is life beyond.

The hows and the whys form a story I’ve been needing to tell for a long time.

From 2006 to 2010 I lived in Egypt, working as a tour leader and then a travel writer. Mine was the Egypt of felucca captains and donkey boys, boisterous games of backgammon and cafes thick with scented tobacco and laughter, old magic locked in stones and the echoing solitude of the desert.

But by 2010 it was time to move on. The exotic had finally become mundane, and the delicious chaos of life in Cairo was taking its toll; my writing felt lifeless and formulaic; I missed my family. I needed to quit while ahead, before I morphed into that species of resentful and twisted expat who forgets how privileged he is, who allows his fear of leaving the familiarity of the foreign to poison his relationship with the host country.

So in November 2010 I said a bitter-sweet goodbye to friends that had become family, and who refused to believe I was really leaving. I traveled to the US, and spent my first Christmas in years at home with my actual family in England. Along the way, having received a job offer too good to refuse, I decided to prove my friends correct by returning to Egypt “for one last year”. I was set to fly back some time in February 2011, after giving a talk at a travel writing workshop in London.

Which is why I was stuck in England at the end of January 2011, watching the beginnings of the Egyptian revolution through the flat glare of my computer screen. Like many people following along from afar — especially all those with a deep and personal connection to Egypt — I was overcome with conflicting emotions: exhilaration, admiration, fear, impotence, guilt. Frustration, too, because I felt I was meant to be there. I knew I had to go back.

I consider myself fortunate that I’ve always found it easy to express myself, although I’m more comfortable doing so verbally than through writing. It’s only recently that I have come to understand why.

There’s a flexibility and a fluidity to the spoken word — thoughts don’t need to be complete, and the ebb and flow of conversation means there is a participatory shape to the expression of ideas. By contrast, writing is a more deliberate, more linear, and more solitary act; there is a sense of something solid, something permanent, in the act of committing our thoughts to paper. To write necessitates standing beside our words, owning them. But to speak — to speak requires conviction only at the point of utterance, as our sounds dissipate into the ether to live on as memory alone.

Egyptians are fond of saying that if you drink from the Nile, you are fated to return to their country. But the Nile is as fickle as it is timeless, and the Egypt to which I returned in March 2011 was not the country I had left four months earlier.

This was around the time that the euphoria following Mubarak’s ouster was decaying into the disillusionment, fragmentation, paranoia, and confusion of an epic, country-wide comedown. While it is true that the street was invigorated and there was an almost tangible excitement and hope for the future, there were also palpable and thickening tendrils of tension; the atmosphere in Cairo was both explosive and brittle. The cycle of broken promises, demonstrations, violence, and politicking that has subsequently come to define Egypt’s ongoing revolution was just beginning.

I had hoped being in Egypt would illuminate the realities on the ground, offer some much-needed clarity on an undeniably complex situation. But I found that proximity to the unfurling revolution made events seem even more opaque and confusing than they had been from the comfortable tumult of Twitter, back in England. To appropriate a common expression — it was impossible to see the desert for all the swirling grains of sand.

And I could never get over my concerns with a different sort of appropriation — the sense that perhaps, having missed the initial “Eighteen Days”, I had returned to Egypt to stake a claim over something I did not really own. I became obsessed with the idea that there was an invisible but unbreachable crevasse between me and all my friends who had been present for, and participated in, Mubarak’s downfall. A dark and insecure part of me felt like an uninvited guest at someone else’s party. I realize now that I never spoke to anyone about these fears — and I know that my friends would have laughed me out of my hauntings — but I was unable to let these feelings go.

Where some people saw opportunity (and indeed, many careers were launched off the back of the “Arab Spring”), I saw opportunism, and what I came to think of as revolutionary voyeurism. I felt that many people, conditioned by a lifetime of news-as-entertainment, were treating the revolution as their chance for interactive ring-side seats at the hottest new drama in town. I knew these thoughts were beneath me, and my sentiments were by no means set in stone; but by opening myself to the shadows of my own motivations, I tainted my perceptions of others’.

As the months passed, and the counter-revolutionary rhetoric about invisible hands and foreign interference clamped ever tighter around the national psyche, I began to worry that foreigners attending demonstrations might even be harmful to the cause. Yet many of us were deeply invested in the country, and strongly believed in the goals of the revolution. And besides, wasn’t this a universal struggle? I discovered I was no longer sure of anything, and a sense of unease and disorientation permeated my existence throughout the year. Everywhere I looked, everything I considered, was swathed in shades of violent gray.

All of which is a rather long-winded way of explaining how and why I forgot how to write. More accurately, of course, I simply lost my ability to do so — lost my confidence, my inky mojo. My day job as a video news producer still involved writing, but with the exception of one piece published soon after my arrival, I was unable to sort through my personal thoughts and emotions effectively enough to nail them to paper. Being unsure of what I felt, I lost confidence in my ability to express myself in writing.

There was certainly no lack of material. This may, in fact, have been part of the problem: there was just so much going on, and it was so overwhelming, so complicated, so nuanced; where to begin? Every time I grabbed hold of my fleeting impressions long enough to begin the process of solidifying them in writing, I froze up. Even attempting a straightforward account of what I had seen and done left me paralyzed. I was terrified, either that I would write something which I could not later stand behind — that I would be judged and found wanting — or that in trying to describe my personal relationship to the revolution I would come off as self-centered.

Eventually, unable to do justice — in my mind, at least — to the complexity of events or to what I was feeling, I clammed up and started to withdraw. I began looking for excuses to avoid my more engaged friends, and I took solace in drink and in poker. I let my thoughts and emotions run wild, but I allowed my words to shrivel and die inside of me.

I came to writing relatively late in life, at the age of thirty. It was 2008, and after two years on the road in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia as a tour leader, I was ready to settle in one spot and attempt to assemble the trappings of “normality” — a bed, real friends that didn’t disappear after two weeks, a space to make my own tea. Yet I wasn’t ready to leave Egypt, a country that somehow felt more like “home” than England ever had.

I was lucky to find work writing and maintaining an online travel guide to Cairo, and freelancing for a local print city guide. I soon took over as managing editor of the city guide, started a blog about daily life in Egypt, found additional work as editor at an online travel media network, and picked up an extra freelance gig here and there.

Writing, for me, was therefore a public act, and the words came into existence only so they could be released into the wild. I knew my mum kept a diary, but the idea of writing solely for myself had never crossed my mind. I had no real concept of the transformative power that the process of writing itself holds. Looking back now, this seems laughable: I have always been an avid reader, and if reading the words of others can be so moving as to elicit a strong emotional and intellectual response, it stands to reason that producing such words yourself could have a similar effect.

But I viewed writing as something you threw out there, for money or for approbation, or ideally for both. If I had truly understood that you should write first and foremost for yourself — if I knew how cathartic and illuminating and liberating an act it can be to abandon yourself to the act of writing, with no thought to potential publication — then perhaps this whole issue of a revolution-inspired writer’s block could have been avoided.

Moreover, this does all suggest another question: How could I have “forgotten” how to write, if, as it seems, I never really knew how to write in the first place?

My first glimpse of salvation came in the latter half of 2012. I had left Egypt in May and was now living in San Francisco, happily married to the woman who’d stolen my heart when I visited the US in 2010. I had hoped that the novelty of pastures new and the excitement of beginning the rest of my life would unlock my creativity; that the words would begin to flow again. But not writing had become a habit, and I still believed that writing = publishing.

I was complaining to my wife, who is also a writer, about my continued inability to put pen to paper. She pointed out that I had, in fact, written almost continually during my time in Egypt.

We had remained in nearly constant contact since the day we first met, before we even realized that our futures lay together. While we had used a bunch of communication tools — SMS, chat, Twitter, Facebook, Skype — email was our primary and preferred means of staying in touch. Multiple emails every day — the mundane, the epic, and the intimate. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of words; a digital archive of our shared blossoming, the trajectory of convergence.

Many of these emails stretched to over 1,000 words. Many of mine were, by definition, about my life in Egypt — about what was happening, and how I felt about it. I had never before thought of these emails as “writing”. It helped, a little.

Yet still I remained fixated on Egypt, convinced I needed to write the proverbial line under that chapter of my life. I felt that if I could only write something, anything, about my time there, my writer’s block would be banished and I would be free to move forward. That without some form of written closure, my words would be left forever hanging over the abyss between past and future.

But along with the same conceptual insecurities I had struggled with in Egypt, I now had what I considered to be an additional problem. I felt so far away from Egypt, both in time and in space, that my desire to write about it seemed entirely decontextualized, almost a non-sequitur. Not to mention that in an enthusiasm of “new beginnings” I had long since killed my personal, Egypt-focused blog (which had in any case been chronically neglected for years). I needed to begin again with a new platform… but what form would that take and would I design it myself and what was I going to write and how would I attract readers and what could I write and how was I going to ensure everything I wrote was just perfect and besides what did I want to write…?

I knew I was digging myself a deep hole, and using the excavated debris to fortify the wall of a writer’s block built from nothing but shadows which only I could see. I eventually began to admit that I might just be making excuses, and to consider that perhaps I didn’t really want to write anyway — to wonder if that stage of my life was truly over, and if the only line I needed beneath it was a mental one.

I find it interesting how the choice to view writing as a public act comes with such a weight of associated baggage. The concept of the individual as brand is both aggrandizing and dehumanizing.

I have always been the toughest critic of my own writing, willing to share only that of which I am proud and can stand beside. But for me, at least, this issue of quality was only one facet of the larger and more complex problem of presentation. How, exactly, do you organize your online presence? Where does your writing live; how is it compartmentalized; to what extent should you strive for an overarching coherence?

I have started, and deleted, numerous blogs on Tumblr. I insisted on building my latest self-hosted WordPress blog from scratch; I already dislike the design, as well as most of the (still sparse) content. If not careful, I can spend all my time tinkering with the triviality of cosmetics, the design equivalent of the Oscar Wilde comment on commas. Seduced by the honeyed promises of “personal branding”, disoriented by the range and sophistication of all those publishing tools available to us, it’s easy to lose focus on what actually matters.

I see now that my problems with writing were more akin to being lost in a maze, or perhaps a hall of mirrors, than to being stuck behind a wall. The confluence of confusion, indecision, fear, stubbornness, arrogance, and egotism manifested a situation in which every direction became a dead end before I could even start down it.

Like most mazes, the way out was deceptively simple once I finally recognized it. You already know what it is. I already knew it too.

Towards the start of this year I discovered in my wife’s library the book Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. The subtitle, “Freeing the Writer Within”, tells you all you need to know. My main takeaway was this: We all have a boundless and energizing wellspring of creativity within us. One of the ways to tap into and release this energy is to get out of the way, and to write. That’s it — you just write.

By removing ourselves from the writing process — removing all our hopes and fears, our desires, any thoughts of topic or appropriateness or purpose, the entirety of our ego and all the accumulated sludge of the self — we create a space for the words within us to pour out.

The mechanics of the practice, and it is a practice, could not be easier: you sit down at your desk with pen and paper or your computer, and you start writing the first thing that comes into your head. You do not plan or edit, you do not correct typos or misspellings, you keep your hand or fingers continuously moving and allow that which is within you to manifest without, and you do not stop. You are done only once your predetermined number of minutes or pages has been reached, or once you have (temporarily) bled yourself dry.

It seems stupid to admit it, but the purity of this approach to writing came as a revelation to me. I already knew that the sole thing I actually needed to do was to write; the first piece of advice given to anybody who wants to write is that you sit on your ass and you write. And yet somehow along the way I had got tangled up and trapped in the maze, fallen for the deceit — magnified by our hyper-connected and increasingly digital lives — that writing is primarily for public consumption, for sharing, and that it must therefore possess a certain quality.

This is not true — it is blindingly obvious that this is not true — but it seems I had to hear it from someone else. My wife had been telling me so all along, but I didn’t listen. I needed it laid out in the solidity of black and white.

The reason Goldberg got through to me where all others, myself included, had failed, is that she showed how the act of writing can be an end in and of itself; she elucidated its purpose. By writing without ego, without thought, without intention, you are skimming off the quotidian froth from your brain and setting it aside; this allows you to access a self that is deeper and more authentic than the one you present to the world, and to yourself, on a daily basis. There is a sense that it’s you who is being written.

Coming to understand that my writing does not have to be “about” anything, that it does not have to be published or judged, that it does not even have to be “good”, was the liberation I was searching for and that I so desperately needed. The shadows remained, but I was no longer in thrall to them. I was at last able to give myself permission to write again.

One of the greatest benefits of this free-writing practice is that you deposit and nurture and explore a kind of creative mulch of thoughts and feelings, all expressed without passing through the potentially limiting filter of your brain. And from this fecund inner space a more considered and sculpted and polished piece of writing can begin to emerge at any time; something still written primarily for yourself, but with which you may be comfortable enough to share in the world.

A story, perhaps, that needs to be told.

Note: The feature photo was taken from Flickr Creative Commons, and is by Rennett Stowe.

    Nick Rowlands

    Written by

    just wondering around