writer’s block

The Price of Writing, My Broken Myths, and Jay

jay at the beachI’ve had writers block for seven years. What I consider writers block. I realize others have different definitions. But. Largely, the joy had gone out of it. Writing was like pulling teeth. I was still good enough at it to make a living, but… My relationship with my writing had become adversarial. And I figured out why a few months ago.

Writing = Death

Oh, it doesn’t, really. It’s not a logical belief. And, when I go back and examine the events that lead me to this belief, I can even see that it doesn’t make sense. But. My internal mythology is that Carolyn’s death is what gave me my writing.

The first play I wrote was about Carolyn. It got produced. It won me awards. And all the plays that followed after–they got me the scholarship that let me go to Scripps. Hell, my career as a video game writer came out of my playwriting.

But the myth was that the price of my writing was Carolyn’s life. That I never would have written otherwise. Which isn’t true. And I can go back and look at my writing from before then. It mostly sucks, but what do you expect from an 11 year old? The play I wrote about Carolyn, yes, that may well have been my first *good* writing. Because I cared. Because I bled on the page. For the first time I was writing about something gut wrenching and emotional.

But you know what question I used to ask myself? If I would give up my writing to have her back. Because kids ask themselves stupid questions like that. Because they assume it’s their fault.

At first the answer was yes, but as time went on it began to change. And I was ashamed that I didn’t know. The more my writing became central to my life, the more ashamed I felt. And two decades after her death… there was a day when I finally realized that no, I wouldn’t give it up. I was no longer capable of giving it up…. and I stopped writing.

I never gave up on writing. I just stopped being able to do it. Self defense. If me writing means people I love dying, well. It isn’t logical. No one person has that kind of effect on the world around them. But logic has little to do with fear.

I went on a writing retreat years ago with Jay and his then girlfriend, Shannon. I remember an evening talking with them about my block. And Jay telling me it was a matter of getting out of my own way. I was holding onto something, and he didn’t know what, but it was keeping me from writing. I just had to figure out what it was and let it go. And I remember, also, that night crying while they lay on either side of me, holding me.

10383767_10100267848221944_2772895858771528119_oThe last few weeks, I asked myself that stupid, awful question again as Jay was dying. Would I give up my writing if it meant keeping him alive? Yes.

But he died anyway.

I think he would take a certain satisfaction in knowing he’d been right all along, that I was holding onto something and getting in my own way. And I think he’d  be delighted he’d helped demolish that myth of mine. But, oh, I wish he hadn’t.


Avoiding Success

I have this pattern. If you’ve known me long enough, you’ve seen it. I’ll religiously submit stories and collect rejection slips, until I get an acceptance. At which point, I stop submitting stories. For a year.

I’ll get an exciting project I really want to do (develop the history of a dark fantasy video game world) and freeze. I’ll have a gig I love, and not be able to focus and get my writing done until the very last minute. I’ll be writing a bi-monthly serial that gets strong responses and an excited fan base, and I’ll come down with writer’s block. I’ll blog about health tracking (years before it hits mainstream), until I start getting 100+ hits a day, and I’ll suddenly have nothing more to say.

This sucks.

Therapy also sucks, in that painful oh-god-I-don’t-want-to-think-about-this-shit kind of way. But it’s useful.

Imagine you’re me. You grow up the child of a pediatrician and a stay-at-home mom. Both of whom have their own baggage. Your main model of professional success is your dad. Let’s look at his life, shall we?

He spends long days at the office, often 12 hours, and comes home exhausted. He has no free time. He’s a perfectionist and insists he has to get everything right and do it all on his own (by the way, you’re going to grow up to be a lot like him). But the business side of it escapes him. He loves the patients and being a good doctor. But he’s not so good at figuring out money. He has no free time to spend with his family or to even develop friendships with people who aren’t either colleagues or related to him. And he’s angry all the time. Who wouldn’t be, living like that?

This, you think, is success.

You look around for other adults who’ve been successful. There’s your mom. Stay-at-home mom isn’t quite what you were looking for, and honestly you’re kinda terrified at the thought of being someone’s parent, but on the whole, she seems a lot happier. She plays with you. She has friends she goes to Dim Sum with. She reads science fiction books, which she then lends you. She does have to put up with dad’s anger outbursts, and those suck. But her life seems richer. Of course, she also tells you never to be like her and be dependent on a man for your living.

So that’s not going to work.

The other examples you have are a professors (who is bitter about, well… everything) or a writer (who is also bitter and has retired at 40 to get away from Hollywood).

Looks like the only option is following in dad’s footsteps. Being miserable and lonely and angry. At which point you conclude you never want to be a grown up, because it clearly sucks.

So success… it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, you *want* to succeed. Your parents want you to succeed and are proud of you when you do. You like selling stories and making a living with your writing. But, but, but… The specter of your father is shaking his head at you. Then, just to put the icing on the cake, he tosses in his oft stated opinion that geniuses die young and are often poorly adjusted (and he tells you the story of a genius he knew who committed suicide).

To sum up: You are required to succeed, but don’t succeed too much because if you’re too good you’ll be miserable and die young, plus succeeding in general means you’re going to be lonely and miserable, so maybe succeeding isn’t such a good idea. But being dependent on someone else is a bad idea, and you’ve kinda been there, done that during a span of unemployment while you were with your ex, and yes, that sucked.

So, go. Figure out your life.


The Perception of Writer’s Block

Up until, oh, this week, I would have said I’ve had writer’s block for five years. And then I put together my portfolio and realized that I was actually writing a lot.

Somewhere I have a book on hypergraphia, the compulsion to write. Not the passion or the inspiration, but the compulsion. I never did finish reading it. The most memorable  idea from what I read was that writer’s block is a matter of perception.  Here I am, definitely suffering from writer’s block; I’ve got all the neurotic worry and self recrimination going at full bore, even though I was churning out thousands of words every week.

(Let’s pretend this is a bulleted list of everything I’d been writing during that time, which is of interest only to me. You should pretend to be suitably impressed.)

The satisfying and redemptive way to frame this would be by saying the block was all in my head. And all in your head, by extension, since the redemptive way to frame this would also attempt to generalize this to everyone. Writer’s block isn’t real and all you have to do is just believe in yourself, and another fairy gets it wings, clap-clap!

I’ve got this sneaking suspicion it doesn’t work that way.

Perception does not mean it’s all in your head. Perception is about context: how you understand the situation. The situation exists. I’m certain there was something I should have been writing that I wasn’t, and I knew it. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of words you churn out if they’re not the words you need.

There are more than two types of fiction writers, but I’m simplifying down to the extremes here for proof of concept.

1. Emotional

We’re not talking angst and mood swings. The fiction comes from an emotional place. Is driven and controlled by it. For most folks, it’s subconscious. These are the writers who will say, “I was trying to get my character to train with communist monks, but instead she decided she wanted to go wine tasting.” The stories are in charge. The subconscious is in charge.

Emotional writers don’t outline. Emotional writers have conversations with their characters in their heads. When they successfully tap into a vein, their stories have powerful emotional resonance with their readers.

In some ways, this is great. Writing can become this almost trance state. It can flow and feel good and when you’re done you’re surprised at all of the things you put in here, Hey, neat foreshadowing the wine tasting in Chapter 1! However, it’s really easy to write yourself into a corner when you haven’t planned ahead.


2. Deliberate

Deliberate writers plan. They know where they’re going. Their characters show up for work on time. They can write intricate concept driven stories. They know exactly why they mentioned the character prefers chardonnay to beer in Chapter 1, and she goes wine tasting because that was always the plan.

Deliberate writers still use emotion in their fiction, but it isn’t the driving force.


Most writers are not purely emotional nor purely deliberate. Most are combinations. I am primarily an emotional writer. I can be deliberate, but that’s not where my stories come from.

I can’t say what writer’s block is like for a deliberate writer; I have no idea. But for me, for an emotional writer, it means there’s something wrong. Inside. Maybe it’s a truth you can’t let yourself face, a hurt you’re not willing to tap into. Maybe those stories that you think of but then can’t write for years, until suddenly one day you can – maybe that’s because you hadn’t experienced what you needed to in order to write that story.

That’s why I’ve felt like I had writer’s block. Have writer’s block. Even though I’ve been writing. I haven’t been tapping into my subconscious. I’ve been trying to drown it out. Actually, no, I have it tied up in a closet with a sock stuffed in its mouth, and still I can’t get the damn thing to be quiet. And you know, when it eventually gets out, it’s totally going to kick my ass.