On Writer’s Block

For Christmas, someone gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. It was a sweet gift and very well-meaning, but I tend to avoid books like that because, if anything, I have too many ideas to manage already. The thought of 642 more is, quite frankly, terrifying, so I set the book aside and forgot that I owned it for close to three weeks because I rarely get writer’s block. Which is when the universe decided to smirk at me.

Note: For the record, I don’t actually think the universe gives a damn about my writing. My atheistic self just can’t imply, even in passing, that a god exists to give that damn so “the universe” got the job instead.

Now, getting back to it. I’ve been ironically stymied for nearly a week. Aside from a piece of flash that wrote itself for me, I haven’t produced anything that I wanted anyone to read. I felt so blocked yesterday that I even asked Twitter for suggestions, which is something I never do. I deleted the tweet less than five minutes later because, as much as I love Twitter, I’m not going to hand it editorial control of my blog, (sorry Twitter – no offense). Before I deleted it though, I got a DM from the lovely F. Dot Leonora, asking me if I was all right. We chatted a bit and I told her how blocked I felt. She suggested I write about that.

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The zoological incarnation of my magpie metaphor

I thought about her suggestion and realized that what comprises my writer’s block is an odd little cocktail of different but related issues. The first is what I’m going to call the magpie problem – one that goes directly back to 642 Ideas to Write About.

Magpie’s love shiny things. They collect and hoard and collect some more. In my case, ideas are the shiny things and my magpie brain hoards them like winter is coming. I have a running list of post topics three pages deep, another for articles and essays, a folder stuffed with short story ideas, another with outlines for eventual collections, and that doesn’t even count the novel I’m five chapters into drafting. Eventually, there are so many ideas stored up that I get paralyzed beneath the weight of their possibility.

Usually, my focus is fairly good and I compartmentalize my shiny ideas so that the flood doesn’t distract me from the tasks at hand. But every so often, they spill and it takes my brain a day or two to sweep the ideas back into their compartments. It’s like watching glitter spill. Despite the massive mess, it’s hard not to stare at the lovely, shiny jumble because it’s beautiful and oddly thrilling to see all those little pieces scattered on the floor.

And then there’s the second issue – also related to writer’s block, but separate to the magpie problem. This is one I have to watch carefully. It’s the tendency to want perfection in every thing I do. I take great care with my prose. I try to say exactly what I mean in the most effective way possible. Very often, this means trying to tap into a universal experience – one that stretches beyond my own life and opinions to encompass a wider, more resonant truth.

I love this this kind of writing. This is the kind of writing that I’ve worked towards for years, and am still working towards now. Some of the posts and stories that I’m happiest with are pieces in which I feel like I’ve managed to come close. But not every piece requires that level of diligent crafting. Sometimes, like now, there is just something that needs to be said, and the most effective way of saying it is simply to do so. I may want every story to be brilliant; I may want every post to resonate with truth and meaning, and yet, neither is realistic – not every time. That desire is a product of my ego. When I start to hesitate and assess and think rather than write, I know it’s time to check my ego because it very likely needs to get turned down a notch.

This week, the “writer” in me quelled at that idea of simply writing – no agenda, no higher purpose, just words on the page. It was a sure sign that I was too wrapped up in my tools – metaphor, language, imagery, allusion – to properly write with  the purpose and intention I value and work to cultivate…. The anxiety this produced made my magpie mind go into overdrive looking for shiny new ideas and distractions, anything to keep me from focusing on the fact that I was getting in my own way.

It’s an uncomfortable thing. My usual impulse would be to shield those insecurities and flaws – they are nothing that I’m proud of and nothing that I particularly want to discuss. And yet…this is the idea that finally stuck. So here I am, uncomfortably coaxing my ego back down to size and quieting my magpie mind in the hopes that the next time I sit down at my desk, I will well and truly write.

4 Comments

  1. Magpie mind…that’s me! I also fear I suffer from the 2nd aliment as well…trying to hone every little blog post into a polished gem, when most blog followers seem to want just raw diary-like, unedited confessions.

    • It’s so easy to get caught up in the crafting that you forget what you wanted to say! And it’s true – I think readers do appreciate a sort of raw authenticity. I’ve got to remind myself to relax sometimes and I very often forget 🙂

  2. Gosh, I know these struggles all too well, especially the magpie problem. A list of ideas 500 items long is great. An actual story or article consisting of 500 words or more, is much, much better. Great post. Tweeting this.

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