Writer’s block: friend? Or foe?
Instead of getting frustrated by our periodic inability to write, maybe we should be getting inspired?
I suffer, periodically, from writer’s block. There I said it.
Now I feel like a true writer. Where’s my badge?
But how do I deal with writer’s block you may ask?
Did you know that you can fit about two cups of coffee into a tiny pill the size of a breath mint?
Cram one of those down your throat and you’ll be writing — and dancing with the stars for good measure — in no time.
There’s one thing they never tell you about becoming a writer in journalism school. You have a lot to write about. (I joke).
Remember that time in college when you had a big term paper to write but left it hang for a week because you were sitting on the sofa watching television? Imagine that being your everyday life. And you need to write a long list of those term papers in order to pay rent and have food to eat. Welcome to my life, dear reader.
The problem about using stimulants to override writer’s block is that it works really fricking well.
The precise blunt force cognitive weapon that you choose isn’t really important. You ingest a substance that affects your central nervous system (CNS) in some way that increases focus.
Caffeine works, although its affect in ADHD patients can be paradoxical (yes, there are people who can fall asleep immediately after a double espresso). So does Ritalin. Adderall if that’s your thing and you have a script. I could go on. You don’t need me to.
Before you accuse me of making light of ADHD and ADHD meds you should know that my use of these substances is not illicit and the above should not be construed as encouraging buying Ritalin off the street.
I was diagnosed last summer. I have a script. I’ve signed for it at a pharmacy like some kind of desperate fugitive getting their legally mandated fix and scribbled my identity number on a piece of paper. So there. You should feel bad now for pre-judging me.
I was also diagnosed with mild depression — the old term is dysthymia and I actually prefer it a lot to the newfangled persistent depressive disorder (PDD). (Also because I’m curmudgeonly and dysthymia sounds like something from a period novel that you medicate with some concretion which you buy in an apothecary. Pharmacy … how you have nothing on that term).
The depression aspect, for me, is quite mild. Part of me suspects that it’s all just ADHD (or the byproduct of horrible cognitive distortions) because when I’m having a great run with the focus — and getting stuff done — I feel like I’m on cloud nine.
Or just that I’ve had some unfortunate life experiences along the way and feel a little bleak about the world at times and the fact that we live in a generation in which owning property feels kind of impossible (didya hear that, Medium — impossible I say?). These questions, unfortunately, aren’t the kind of thing you can figure out overnight. So my process goes on. But progress is definitely being made.
In any event.
Observing my mood and my ability to write on any given day, the curious thing that has struck me is how wildly my personal pendulum of productivity swings. I can go from hardly being able to finish a sentence to typing up 1,000 words in about the time it takes to prepare lunch.
Some days just writing 1,000 words takes me a few hours of tedious procrastination in mental “preparation work”. I Reddit (I love Reddit). Lift some dumbbells. Reach for the caffeine pills.
On others, the only “substance” required is my sheer enthusiasm for what I’m writing about. I’ve gone through crazy elated bursts of writing productivity during which I’ve barely slept or eaten for three days. Writing hangovers, if you’ve ever experienced them, are definitely a thing. You’re mentally wrung out. (Before you worry more about me — or wonder if I need to add another condition to my list — I should make clear that this has happened maybe once in my life. I’ve written a few books here and there. And when I had enough enthusiasm and passion they basically wrote themselves. No focus required. One cup of coffee was perfectly sufficient.)
The point I’m building to is this.
Writer’s block can be a sign that you’re depressed.
It can also mean that you’re really anxious about something.
You don’t need to be a CBT-trained therapist to make sense of why this is so. You’re so distracted by something that’s on your mind that you don’t have cognitive space with which to write.
However, it can also be a sign that you’re not really writing about what you want to be writing about.
On most days — especially recently — I’m pretty content. But I still have the odd day in which I couldn’t write something if you paid me a million dollars to do so.
And the more I think about it, that’s a massively valuable clue — like a big, red flag toting one — that what you’re writing about isn’t aligned with what you really want to be doing in life.
Maybe you’re writing content marketing and just don’t really care about what your client does (or believe in their mission statement)?
Perhaps you’ve realized that writing brand journalism just isn’t what you want to be doing with your life?
These are the kind of thoughts that — if you hold off on the caffeine for just a moment — I contend many writers will find lurking.
Drowning writers’s block in caffeine (or other stimulants) works extraordinarily well. I can tell you that because I’ve been doing that on and off for the best part of ten years.
But rather than stopping to medicate (or self-medicate), perhaps it’s worth also pausing and using it for a period of reevaluation.
Is this what I really want to be writing about?
Where am I going with this writing? Where am I going in general?
What would I rather be doing?
I won’t get all armchair therapist on this but I have no doubt that a qualified one would tell you to throw that feeling some compassion — hello ACT — and then see where that conversation with that frustration, and inertia leads you.
Writer’s block is a very real force.
For hobbyist writers, It can be rocket fuel for frustration.
For professional writers, it can mean the difference between a record month’s work and ….. financial failure.
The more I experience it — my recent track record has been relatively decent of late — the more I believe that writer’s block is actually a signal that we writers need to leverage ad nurture. To help us find our direction.
It can be bludgeoned into non-existence by cups of coffee (at least for me).
But rather than take the blunt force approach, it might be worth sitting with it and asking what clues it might hold as to whether what you’re writing about is really aligned with what you want to be doing in your life.
Taking a moment to sit with it, accept it, and listen to it can yield some fascinating insights.