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 Bane of the Personal

One of the worst pieces of advice a writer can ever receive is the age-old adage, “Write what you know.”

Frequently uttered as an exhortation to help a young writer make her work more “interesting” and “real” to her writing teacher or workshop colleagues, this MFA chestnut has, in my opinion, been more successful in debilitating scores of writers than it has in actually helping them.

Why?  Because it suggests that “real writing” must be based in something that is already known and, therefore, safe to the reader—not in something new, interesting, or potentially annoying that accidentally emanates forth from the writer.

Indeed, it suggests that the writer, to be successful, must not create something new but, rather, re-create something old from within the narcissistic aperture of his own self—which is, of course, limited by time, place, means, talent, lack of discipline, and bad DNA.

So, rather than getting the “go ahead” to keep writing about a grueling, but entirely imaginary, escape attempt from an old Soviet prison with an East European hottie who wears boobylicious turtlenecks, the writer is more often encouraged—usually by another writer of middling talent who has yet to sell more than 500 copies of his own indie press book—to plumb his “real” roots in Iowa and reflect upon a particularly poignant moment where his mother fed him a piece of apple pie that flashed him back to a time when his estranged stepsister got whipped for stealing pie by their father (who is, incidentally, lying dead in a field somewhere in Texas right this very minute).

And while I have no doubt that apple pie epiphanies like this happen all the time, I am not at all certain that I ever need to read another one.

In fact, I am quite certain that I could die very happily never having to read another Oprahified tale of the modern dysfunctional family. I mean, we all grew up scarred for life and lacking the love we really needed to be successful.  Get the fuck over it.

In all honesty, I’d rather read deliciously fictionalized accounts of pederasts like Humbert Humbert, king killers like Macbeth, or over-caffeinated chicks with razors for nails who help artificially intelligent entities discover that they are the “stuff” of the universe (1).  And I’m pretty sure none of those writers were writing from what they knew.   At least, I sure as hell hope they weren’t . . .

Really, it makes me shudder to think what the history of literature would have looked like if Bill Shakespeare, MFA, had been writing instead of that lecherous old ass working the curtain at the Avon Theatre.

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,
what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
–Joan Didion

You see, I think the real problem with this type of apple pie advice to “write what you know” is that it turns the writing process—which used to be viewed as a creative art form—into a claustrophobic kind of navel-gazing where the only avenues of innovation left for writers are greater and greater levels of intra-familial perversion or personal narcissism.  That is, it turns creation—an open-ended, exogenous process—into masturbation—an endogenous, closed loop.

And the subtle effect this has across the course of a writer’s lifetime can be soul-killing.  Rather than allowing the writer to tap into that free-flowing, wide universe outside herself, this advice forces her to mine just the limited stretch of her own psyche—often a small, stinky sort of place (2).  And this keeps the writing hobbled or constrained because, in effect, it keeps the writer feeding on herself while, simultaneously, realizing she is pulling from a limited stock of material and having no where else to turn for “inspiration.”

So, while this chestnut might be seem like good advice to give to the young junior who repeatedly turns in orgiastic poems of delight where nymph-like women come, repeatedly, in lustrous waves of ecstasy but never once fart, run out of lube, or get their hair caught in the handcuffs, it can actually create a lot more damage for the writer of talent who, at age 42, has stopped imbibing near-lethal quantities of Almaden Mountain Burgundy from the box and sucking face with other suicidal English majors the night before the big poetry unit is due, but who is still repeating it verbatim in her head every time she sits down to write.
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(1) If you don’t know these, I am going to smack you!  Lolita, Macbeth (duh!), and Neuromancer.

(2) Yes, I am totally contradicting my earlier post espousing that you listen to your Inner Hippie and suggesting that she derives her great power by taking up residence in your same psyche and digging up all kinds of interesting shit.  But, as anyone well-versed in Freud ought to know, the most interesting part of the psyche has always been the Unconscious—a place of massive contradiction.  So, in short, get over it.

The Real Problem with Writing

As a writer, I’ve found that one of the biggest problems I’ve faced is that it’s necessary to actually write. This sounds obvious, but I’ve seen lots of writers–not just me–take a nose-dive in this area.

While we like to talk a lot about writing–the brilliant piece we once wrote, the piece we know we are about to write, or someone else’s not-so-brilliant piece that could only have been vanity published–there seem to be very few of us who can produce pages on a daily basis without killing ourselves in Mocha Latte increments waiting for that evanescent moment of inspiration to hit (1).

Although it’s easy to categorize Stephen King’s output or John Updike’s famous “three pages a day” as miraculous, I don’t think it is. In my own personal experience, I know that I routinely spend more than three pages’ worth of time each day carving out elaborate scenarios about why I can’t write, about why I can’t write right now, and about why I cannot structure the rest of my life in a sane, healthy manner so that I actually would have time to write (2). So the time’s there, I just choose not to use it wisely. But I don’t think I am the only one who does this. Every writer I know has a litany of excuses queued up to explain why she wasn’t on the Booker shortlist this year or why he hasn’t won that first PEN award yet.

And, as a writer, I have to ask, “Why?” Why, instead of hunkering down each morning to work on our beloved prose, are so many of us jet-setting off to the next college destination to read essays written by Forrest Gump and teach adjunct classes at a rate significantly lower than minimum wage (3)? I mean, I know lots of writers like to brag about how they flunked math, but we can’t really be that stupid, can we?

The answer is: yes. We can be that stupid. But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it because we have lots of company in the stupid department. You see, nearly everyone I know is heavily invested in the “let’s not do what we want” way of thinking. The non-writers just do it in the suburbs with a minivan, a rack of man tits, and Bunko parties. In fact, all you need to do is walk outside your average domicile to see a million different examples of people depriving themselves of what they love to do and refusing to be the person they really are inside. Have you witnessed the once-professional woman who loved her job but is now an organic-eco-yuppie supermom who makes all her baby’s food by hand, goes to yoga three days a week, and can barely talk to her husband without baring her teeth? What about the contract postal carrier who purposely bends your Shutterfly envelopes because he can? What about the McDonald’s cashier who can’t be bothered to look you in the face? What about the white-collar dad who has to go into the office on Saturday to “review the figures” rather than sit with his fat wife at the soccer game that their son intentionally tries to lose. Are you seeing a pattern here (4)?

All it takes is one short trip down your own block, and you’ll soon see that your problem with “writing” has nothing whatsoever to do with writing–though it’s immensely popular to think of it as a torture peculiar to those of us afflicted with the bane of literary genius. Really, it has a lot more to do with being human and experiencing our most primal emotion: fear. Fear of what, you ask? Fear of failing at the most important thing: being yourself. It’s a really simple but twisted kind of logic: if you don’t ever let yourself be yourself or do the things you want to do, you can’t be embarrassed or held accountable if you fail (5). But the irony is that, by trying not to fail, you inadvertently end up guaranteeing a total and irrevocable failure that is way worse than, say, the potential embarrassment from the failure of your Polka Dot Emporium or your middling career as a juicy lingerie designer.

So what’s the remedy? You just have to plunge in and be yourself. For writers, that means that you have to write even though society tries to tell you that you’ll never amount to anything more than a cab driver. And, if you are a suburban mom, you take that French class so that you can become an airline attendant on AirFrance and have a romantic interlude with a be-spectacled composer in a black cashmere turtleneck who makes you forget that you previously married a man your mother loved and you only mildly disliked. And if you are a powerful CEO, you realize that it’s OK to build model trains in your basement and go to The Dark Arts Sex Camp every summer for a little pony play.

In short, you let yourself be who you are regardless of what everyone else thinks because life is too short to drink yourself into a margarita-induced coma at a Pampered Chef party or to keep putting that racy sci-fi novel about alien transvestite sex back into the filing cabinet. The brutal reality of the situation is this: whether you enjoy this life or not, you are still going to end up an incontinent old biddy in the Alzheimer’s ward. It’s not like anyone’s getting off this dying train anytime soon. So, you may as well enjoy it while you’ve still got time. And the more you allow yourself to do what you want and the more you can be who you are, the more you’ll realize that you can let other people be who they are and do what they want. And, once you start letting things be, you’ll notice that everything becomes a whole lot more fun–even writing.

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(1) Usually, my moment of inspiration also involves Johnny Depp, a spicy Zinfandel, a ripped set of undies, and a deserted wing of the New York Public Library, but that’s another entry altogether . . .

(2) To be frank, I also spend a lot of time wondering how my walls would look if they were painted a nice celadon color, what I would like to eat for dinner, and how I would respond to Johnny’s invitation to “get to know me in a deeper way.”

(3) I once did the math on my 4/4 teaching gig and discovered that my hourly wage–once you added in prepping, grading, consulting with students, advising, serving on committees, answering emails, and commuting–was approximately $3.35/hour. This was in 2006–not 1976–mind you.

(4) In Utah, where I grew up, it may have been more painfully obvious than in other parts of the country because it grew in multiples of 14 (which means 28 years of dirty diapers), but I have also seen it rampant out here on the East Coast where not being yourself is second in popularity only to pickling your liver with gin and poking an under-age page boy on Capitol Hill.

(5) From the anthropological level, this behavior looks pretty kinky (6). It’s like most of us are content with getting our rocks off on auto-asphyxiating ourselves rather than going in for the actual fuck. But the reality of the situation is this: even though we’re not getting fucked, we’re still getting really fucked in the end.

(6) Which is not to say that there’s anything particularly wrong with kink–especially when it comes in the form of a 6′ 4″ red head sporting a pair of leopard-skin handcuffs . . .

The Myth of Genius

You are in the midst of writing an edgy, gripping blog about writer’s block that is sure to be a critical success—really, David Remnik is on the verge of calling you to pinch hit at any moment now.

But you start teaching a course about writer’s block at a prestigious university and paralysis sets in (1). Not the minor kind of procrastination that you can cover up with any number of real-sounding excuses like, “I got hit by a pile of grading” or “I’m feeling guilty because I binged on Murakami over the weekend.” But, rather, the kind that grinds your life down to a total fucking halt.

The kind where you suddenly know all the QVC hostesses by name because of your Starbuck’s-fueled insomnia.  Where you start sobbing in Staples because you can’t find the perfect shredder.  Where you research the largest possible dose of Prozac you can take without unintentionally committing suicide.

Even though this emo behavior was once acceptable—nay, fashionable even—when you were a grad student living on $500 a month and trying to cough up a boring dissertation that no one would ever read, it’s now deeply problematic because, as a self-proclaimed expert of unblockage, you realize that you have, once again, fallen for your own masturbatory fantasies of failure.

And, like the Biggest Fattest Loser falsely minted with a anorexic’s zeal, you never imagined that that 400 lb. block of performance anxiety could re-insert itself back into that same section of your duodenum.  But it just did.

And short of calling on a few deities you don’t believe in or, god forbid, reading a few writer’s magazines “for inspiration,” what do you do?  I mean, it’s one thing to offer condescending advice to the community of the blocked, but what do you actually do if you, the formerly unblocked, find yourself back in the community of the blocked and, it would appear, running for class president?

The one and only possible answer:  you write. (2)

Yes, that’s right:  you write.  You don’t think about writing.  You write.  And you never allow yourself to think about that famous prick who taught your intro to poetry class and felt your poems were merely “solid.”  Instead, you write.  And you especially never  think about your mother’s response to your first story which began “I’m not sure I would have . . .”

No, you don’t think about any of that.  You don’t think about anything at all.  Instead:  you just write.  That is, you somehow force, coax, persuade, cajole, beguile, or otherwise trick yourself into writing no matter how terrible, inadequate, depressed, demoralized, debilitated, or hung over you feel.  And, if need be, you do this by opening up a fresh word processing screen and sullying its clean e-page—replete with Nobel-winning potential if only someone else were writing—with the powerful invective, “I hate…” And then you see what fills itself in as you step aside.

In other words, you let the writing write itself.  Then the next day, you do the same thing.  You become merciless toward that Inner Editor, with his comma fetish, who has somehow managed to hijack the ship.  Day after day, you continue to take a big writing shit in his anal-retentive sandbox until the stink wears him down and he quits.

Then, magically, your Inner Writer—that patchouli-smelling hippie who likes to screw well-acned mathematicians rather than future CEOs and who likes to embarrass you by not wearing a bra—gets sprung from jail.  And then she tells you all about the fabulously messed-up shit that was going on in your psyche that she plans on using as the basis for her next book.

Just fuck the muse!

Your Inner Hippie will help you discover something liberating:  you do not need to be a genius to write.  You just need to be screwed up enough to have lots of juicy stuff rolling around your psyche.   And, as far as I can tell, that’s everyone’s birthright.  So, in fact, you can be a plain old dumb fuck and and your hippie will still be able to write.

This liberating fact also means that you don’t need to wait for the muse—that fickle little brown noser who only seems to drop in on real writers like William Blake or Emily Dickinson.   As your Inner Hippie will tell you, you can just fuck the muse!  You don’t need any ‘help’ or ‘inspiration’ from that stupid-ass little smurfette!  You’re plenty screwed up, so she has reams of material to work with already.  You just need to take a chill pill and let her sit down and write.  Really, she’ll tell you,  “It isn’t about you anymore. You are just along for the ride.” (4) And, if you start to get blocked again, she’ll remind you that you need to stop embracing that Inner Sade because, as much as she gets excited by that “Guilty Slut” paddle you bought last summer, she prefers you would use it on someone else’s ass besides your own.
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(1) Really, it’s the kind of place where even the kids who rode the short bus got Mellon Fellowships.

(2) Yes, as it turns out, those well-wishing philistines from my debut post—the ones who, with all the sensitivity of a fart ripped out loud during chapel, can’t possibly understand why you don’t know that the obvious solution to writer’s block is to “just write”—are, unfortunately, right.