The Addiction of Writer’s Block

As a formerly blocked writer, my real breakthrough came only when I realized that I was addicted to my own mentally-constipated state.

Prone to a rather problematic strain of perfectionism that became pathological during graduate school–think Adrienne Monk crossed with a Soviet-era ladies’ swim coach–I used to pride myself on my ability to spend an entire evening polishing and honing the contours of an opening paragraph.

Even one-page essays–the kind I used to be able to shit out in my undergraduate sleep or dictate over the phone for my brother (who refused to read any novel beyond The Indian in The Cupboard)–became massive, week-long celebrations of their tortured opening sentences.  “Nabokov’s persistent reference to the affective effect on the reader . . . ”  That one once took me four days to create.

As time wore on, I became mired in an increasingly adamantine and esoteric wordscape.  I took longer and longer to write even the most basic of papers. I lost touch with what I was actually trying to do–namely, write something that other people could read–and, instead, became fixated on creating a perfect, luminous document.

Within a matter of months, I retreated into a wordsmithing rapture and became problematically addicted to my own writing process and the vexed mental masturbation that accompanied it.  I would spend days writing in my journal about how much I loved the Uni-Ball Roller Elite Series of gel-filled pens and my Bomber Jacket leather portfolio from The Levenger Catalogue, but I began to fail at actually producing a piece of usable text in “the real world.”

The first time it happened, I was able to beg off and get an extension.  After all, my mom had just had a heart attack and my father had just been diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer.  You’d have to be a heartless bastard not to excuse that double-whammy!

The second time it happened, I was scheduled to lead a three-hour graduate seminar based on a ten-page paper and a set of pre-circulated readings.  At 2 a.m. the night before, I had exactly one page.

Eventually, I got to the point where I could produce no pages at all.  I would just sit, paralyzed in a vast expanse of nothingness, listening to my own interior monologue:  “How could you write this piece of crap you super-fucking idiot!  Try that last sentence again.  You can do a lot better than that.”

“OK,” my wise reader rightly asserts, “I get that you were blocked.  But was it really an addiction?  I mean, people get addicted to coke–not stuff that makes them feel like shit!  Nobody gets addicted to writer’s block; it just happens!”

Mais, au contraire, mon fraire. Just as that embarrassing crush I once had on Shaun Cassidy demonstrates, addictions to negative things are always possible and, given the right cirumstances, can become culturally endemic.

Why do I know this?  I know this because I am certain that if I polled 95% of the population right now, chances are they would not say, “I’m doing great!  Fabulous.  Never better.  I’m 42, working 60 hours a week, and loving my life!”

No, most of us, I think, would admit to feeling like a version of shit–even if we couch it in politer language.  And if we were really honest, we would admit that we are driving cars we don’t like, working at jobs we loathe, and buying the $14.95 chocolate fountain we don’t need at 3 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving on the small remainder left on the VISA card.

No, I think if we were really feeling good about ourselves, we might manage to do something more interesting with our lives–like solve the hunger crisis, build a vertical farm, or take the time to walk the dog without talking on the cell phone the whole time.

But instead, I think that most of us–myself fully included in this diatribe–are far more inclined to tap into our inner Angelina Jolie and, you know, cut ourselves just for the fuck of it.  But, the problem with this cultural self-cutting, this negative addiction to feeling like shit, is that, over time, it creates a numbing situation where we unconsciously start to seek out shit-amplifying scenarios in a perverse attempt to feel more and more alive.

So, even though American Express already has our nuts in a vise with its rapidly escalating interest rate on the Blue Card, we begin to experiment with even higher levels of debt.  Even though we know our coworker likes to explode about any trivial breakdown of the copier, we fail to alert the admin staff when the toner runs out and wait to see what happens.  And, even though we know we shouldn’t flirt with our under-aged creative writing student and violate the “moral turpitude” clause in our teaching contract, we do it anyway just for the thrills, chills, and excitement.

In my view, we, as a human culture, have become a quieter version of Tyler Durden–the glycerin-manufacturing terrorist of Fight Club.  We are mostly rubber-neckers who get our rocks off by setting train wrecks in motion and then watching everything blow up.

And for those of us who are writers, this trainwrecking often takes a very socially acceptable form and quite personal form called “writer’s block.”

For some, it starts out slowly and morphs into nothing more than inability to write except on deadline.   For others, it gets over-engineered into a massive literary constipation that threatens to tank graduate careers, eliminate jobs, produce personal humiliation, and sever our connection to the one and only thing we truly love to do:  write.

Looking back at my life, it is easy to see the unconscious need that created my own trainwreck of a blockage:  I was bored to tears with everything.  I was bored with my marriage.  I was bored with my cats.  I was bored with my muffin-top mid-section.   And I was certainly bored with my graduate program that had totally failed to live up to my impossibly idealistic notions of what an Ivy League education ought to be:  a kind of great mind sex where great ideas got discussed by great thinkers who drank copious amounts of espresso in wood-paneled rooms with paisley chairs.

It never once occurred to me that English graduate school was a rigorous and competitive job training program with a lot of other smart people who were willing to work way harder than I was at a field where no one, outside of its 2000 specialist-insiders, can understand it.  And, rather than acting like an adult and modifying my massively stupid expectations that didn’t match reality, what did I decide to do to rectify the situation?  I decided to create a little train wreck of writer’s block and watch what happened.

And when that minor blockage wasn’t enough of a fix for me, I upped the dose and became totally, massively, and awesomely blocked.  And the intensely-negative, emotional rewards were rich:  fear, anxiety, depression, panic, anger, disgust, guilt, and every other dark emotion you can dream up.  They kept me dosed-up for years.

It was a gothic delight, and it was far easier than eliminating the cause of my boredom and dealing with the consequences of my addiction–a long path to recovery which has required getting a divorce, finding a new career, and reinventing myself as a lover while my ovaries approach the end of their shelf-life.  But it’s been worth it.

However, lest I create panic in any of my loyal readers who see a shred of themselves in my story and fear that they, too, will need to do a massive life-overhaul–something like leaving their breadwinners to go forth into the STD-ridden world of Match.com–in order to cure their blockage, I want to assure them that there are plenty of less-drastic steps they can take to begin working with their negative addiction and regain some sense of release with respect to their writing.

Step #1:  Notice when you feel bored but keep writing. This is not as easy as it might appear and is frequently undermined by trips to the refrigerator, object fetishization, errant surfing on the Internet, or begging your partner for sex.

Step #2:  Realize when you are trying to set up a train wreck but don’t do it. Often, the easiest way to do this is to begin noticing other peoples’ train-wreck-inducing behavior–which is frequently appalling and much easier to detect than your own.  Once you have become adept at spotting train-wrecks-at-large, turn your phenomenological gaze back home and notice when you are tempted to “spice” or “juice” things up. This often comes in the form of working too hard, starting new and useless projects, advising your children or friends about the ever-efficient ways in which they could be organizing their lives, or purchasing yet-another black cashmere sweater.  At this point, become a total Reaganite and “Just say no!”

Step #3:  Commit to stopping a runaway train in its tracks. While it’s easiest and best to stymie train wrecks before they begin, much of your rehabilitation will necessitate working with the train wrecks you already have in progress.  These can be a bitch to stop, but it’s important to do so as they have the potential to derail both your life and the lives of those around you.  Therefore, it’s important to commit yourself to detecting the potential for train wreck as early as possible and doing the unthinkable:  throwing yourself in front of the train, refusing to budge, and accepting the fact that you may end up with major tracks on your backside.  If you find yourself on a runaway express, deploy template statements such as these:  “I really do hate to do this, but I am not able to make 500 tea sandwiches by Saturday” or “You know how much I love your mother and have supported her Children’s Project in the past, but my bipolar sister probably would not make a great addition to its board of directors.”

Step #4:  Tap into a support group. After you have begun noticing your own train-wreck-making ability and ferret out the invasiveness of its fractal-like growth throughout most of your adult life, you might be tempted to spiral off the deep end.  Because these revelations can be overwhelming, I encourage you to create a support group of other writers who are willing to do their own train-wrecking observations and provide support to you throughout this process.  This often requires food, wine, and a group gathering at a writer’s home.  (Make sure you DO NOT include any literary critics who have been tenured as they have, in effect, committed themselves to the biggest train wreck of all:  a job in the Humanities.)

Step #5:  Learn to live within a culture of train wrecking and keep writing. As you become sensitive to the train-wrecking way of life, you’ll soon see that the entire history of English literature–and, indeed, every other literature on the planet–is filled with nothing more train-wreck-inducing behavior.  Humbert Humbert, Emma, Romeo & Juliet, the Wife of Bath–they are all train-wreckers par excellence!  And we love them for it!  As far back as you can go, all you’ll ever be able to see again are Adults Behaving Badly and Then Acting Surprised at the Consequences!  As you will have surmised by this point, train wrecks are everywhere and, therefore, not really escapable.  In fact, train wrecks are all around us and, therefore, need to be leveraged if they are to be survived.  The best way to do this is to understand that train wrecks can be a great gift–often in the form of fresh, new material for your latest novel–provided you are not the one handcuffed behind the wheel and begging for Keanu Reeves to come to your rescue.

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The Positive Side of Writer's Block

Although this feels somewhat blasphemous to say, I think writer’s block was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me as a writer.  I shit you not.

As a former “victim” of writer’s block for nearly a decade, I can now look back, albeit entirely unfondly, at my moment in the trenches–when I spent a disproportionate number of hours each day contemplating hari kari with my university’s dissertation guidelines framed artistically in the crime scene–and see that it was one of the most helpful moments of my life. Seriously.

Hindsight–that hoary, loathsome beast–has coughed up a nugget of insight so unfortunately true that even I, the naughty and unrepentant scrivener, cannot disregard or make light of it.

And what was this precious ejecta?

It was the deeply unpleasant realization that my bout of writer’s block, painful though it was, was really the smallest tip of a much bigger psychological iceberg that threatened to fubar my whole life: the really crippling notion that I wasn’t good enough and that everybody else seemed to intuit this at first glance.   Thus, had I never endured that period of blockage nor learned how to overcome it, I fear that I might still be living for free in my brother’s basement, dating an anorexic bicyclist, and earning my keep as an online instructor for The University of Phoenix.

You see, where other, saner folks seemed to coast through things like menstruation, dating, and graduate school by using their Jimmy Choos and Ray-Bans to compensate, I could never muster enough internal fortitude to ignore my defective genetic packaging and go full-speed ahead in complete denial or ignorance of my true nature.

Unlike my friend Amanda who could look in the mirror, do a small dance step, and pronounce herself, “Hot shit.”  I, the negative narcissist, would look in the same mirror in the same Banana Republic stall and wonder how in the hell I could have gone out of the house that morning with a blackhead so prominently displayed underneath my bangs.

While this level of personal scrutiny and lack of self-esteem could have been written off as “quirky” and “emo” in high school, it became downright awkward and annoying when it later interfered with my ability to say “no” to things like credit card offers, sex with Mormon boys who were “exploring their sexuality,” or wedding proposals.  And it became totally debilitating when I tried to sit down and write a dissertation for one of the world’s most prestigious English Department–knowing, as I did, that every word I penned would inevitably produce hard-and-fast evidence that I was Dagwood Bumstead incarnate.

So, if I were really that fucked up, you’re thinking, how did I ever manage to become unblocked and hack up that great loogey of transformative insight?  Or, at the least, how did I manage to start writing without spending years in a cave in the Himalayas or listening to a small, bespectacled Jewish man talk to me about my father and his effect on my bowel movements? (1)

It was very simple:  I received a  letter from my department informing me that its patience with me had run out and that I had, essentially, two options:  shit or get off the pot.

So, being the deep pragmatist that I am, I decided to shit.  Like Pascal, I made a wager.  I reckoned that it would be way less embarrassing to write a bad dissertation than to, say, write no dissertation whatsoever.  So, I became very stern to my Inner Self-Flagellant and suggested that it didn’t matter how bad, stupid, or otherwise mentally retarded I might be, I still had to finish the dissertation or things would get even worse for the two of us.  I told her she could block me on anything she wished after I had finished the dissertation, but that she had to let me finish that fucking beast no matter what.  If she didn’t, I told her I would stop writing altogether and force her to listen to old recordings of Menudo at gun point.

Surprisingly, this was all the mental laxative my Inner Flagellant needed!  Once I rendered the velvet glove treatment and gave myself permission to write what Anne Lamott calls “a shitty first draft,” my dissertation flowed out of me in nine months (2).

In retrospect, then, it’s easy to see what I hadn’t been able to for nearly a decade:  my writer’s “block” was never really a block about writing.  That is, I wasn’t poised with pen above paper suffering from some invidious neurological virus that manifested as an inability to transmogrify thought into linguistic signification (3).  On the contrary, I could write up a storm about anything and everything–just not the 150-page document that held the very nads of my professional life in its Gollum-like fingers (4).No, my writer’s block was about me blocking myself–nothing more.  And I succeeded in blocking myself by becoming a victim to my own mind and its belligerent mental states.  While I could have just sat down and written the damn thing, I chose, instead, to listen and, ultimately, become addicted to the scenarios–apocalyptic, sexual, or otherwise–that my mind would repeatedly play out for me over and over again (5)

And I think this may actually be quite common for those of us with a literary bent because, being the sensitive and intelligent children we were, we naturally had to turn inward to the more satisfying landscapes of our minds in order to drown out the cicada-like musings of our less interesting peers who, as I far as I could tell, learned mathematics only when it became necessary to further their interest in the lucrative booger trade in third grade or of our parental units who, inevitably, failed to understand why vacuuming the brown shag carpet in the basement wasn’t, necessarily, an edifying task.  And, as we turned older, this phenomenological tendency became even more greatly rewarded if we majored in English–the magical kingdom of mental perversion–or, perhaps, worked for an instructional design firm that housed us in a gray cubicle of death designed by Hermann Miller and asked us to write content for an e-learning program on sexual harassment.

Given the inanity of the post-postmodern world and the increasing difficulty of acquiring tablets of Oxycodone in a legal manner, the option of mentally tuning in, turning on, and dropping daydreams often can appear to be the only way to survive respectably.  However, with repeated use, this mental impulse can concretize over time and even get catalyzed into a greater level of addiction by certain unfortunate experiences involving short male bosses, Asperberger’s-like spouses, or certain unpleasant professors who shall remain nameless (6). Then, this once-nurturing tendency places brilliant and talented writers at risk because our minds–like those young, blonde devils urging the vulnerable children to jump off the bridge to find mummy–may not, ultimately, have our best interests at heart.

So, I think it important for the community of the blocked to begin to question the veracity of at least some of the mental states, notions, and ideas that creep in underneath our radar and, like a bad dose of Glenn Beck, keep speaking way past the time when they should have been institutionalized.  In the end, all it took for me to end my self-imposed writer’s block was to stand up to my own mind and call “bullshit” on it.   Once I looked past my own self-created “dead end” sign, I saw a much bigger horizon in which I could write and operate freely.

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(1) To be fair, my Zen teacher is both German and Jewish, but he is more Jungian in his approach and more rectangular in his choice of eyewear.

(2) This is true, and I am, somewhat comically, still working off the dissertation “bump” that came along with it.

(3)For the time being, I am leaving aside the question of both Wimsatt and Beardsley’s critique of intentionalism and the whole post-structuralist schtick on linguistic signification because, frankly, they’re annoying and probably responsible for at least half of my moronically constipating mental states.

(4) I was especially good at writing expletive-laced emails to my soon-to-be-ex husband detailing exactly how fucked-up we were and what I thought he needed to do about it.

(5) And let me assure I could concoct some doozies.  While I seemed to specialize in my own personal sado-masochism when it came to my academic life, I could transmute that nastiness into a luscious full-scale porn show involving certain bartenders whose physiognomy seemed delightful and now, sadly, seems rather skinny and unshaven.

(6) OK. If you must know, it begins with a “P” and ends with an “N.”