Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How do I beat writer's block? I imagine dying.

I received this in a Facebook message, and I asked the writer if I could answer it on my blog. She kindly said yes (thanks, Amanda!), so here it is.

"Jade--I am taking a class on creative nonfiction, my first creative writing class ever, and reading your writing has made me want to capture the kind of fragmented humanness that comes out, though I still have no idea what to write about, and the worst writers' block. I never write as consistently or as deeply as I plan to--always just spurts of stream-of-conscious narrative, dates, intersections, meals, addresses, recordings of snippets of my life. I'm sure you get this question all the time...but what do you do when you have writers' block? How do you write when you're depressed or scared or lazy or unmotivated? I guess that's a pretty big question. But I am curious." - Amanda H.

Hi Amanda.

I think everyone who writes can relate to the feeling of sitting at their computer and feeling depressed, scared, lazy, unmotivated, or scattered. I know I feel at least one of those for at least a little while every time I sit down at the computer. The key words, I guess, are, "for at least a little while." 

I practice a lot of yoga and meditation, and it reminds me that the experience of "me" is constantly in motion. I may feel like the most pathetic failure on a planet hurtling lamely toward its own annihilation, but sure enough, wait twenty minutes, and I'll feel like I control the movement of stars. 

Being kind to yourself when you can't write, or when it's appropriate to do something else for your mental well-being, is a good thing. I need a good amount of quality time with my friends and family, as well as exercise, theatre, good food, live music, schmoozy parties, microbrews, oceans, and performance art in order to feel okay. It's not always procrastination. Sometimes it's just living, and you need to live to have something to write about.

Then there's procrastination. I procrastinate all the time. Sometimes I stand in the kitchen and eat half the loaf of challah bread my roommate brought home from the good bakery in Brookline. Sometimes I sweep the whole apartment, or reorganize furniture, or go to a yoga class, or go grocery shopping to replace the loaf of challah bread I ate (SORRY, EMILY). Sometimes I spend hours article-jumping on Wikipedia, or engaging in witty banter on Facebook with other witty artists and writers. Sometimes I answer questions about writer's block on my blog. Sometimes I stand in my pajamas and stare at the floorboards and do absolutely nothing for like, twenty minutes. 

In meditation practice, I've learned to watch the way my mind travels away from the focus (i.e. breath) without assigning value to these travels. It doesn't make me a bad person or a failure because my mind wanders away from focusing on my breath, but noticing it does mean I can remind myself to bring the attention back. This can be more difficult than it sounds, but if you just sit with the discomfort for long enough, eventually, it changes. Some of the same techniques work with writer's block. If you just sit with your blank screen long enough, something will change. 

But sometimes, just the act of sitting, of carving out so much of my precious life to sit alone in a room arranging words (for what??? for whom???) seems tortuous. I think of what else I could be doing. Going to the movies? Getting a real job? Shopping for clothes? Taking up a new addiction? Quitting an old addiction? All of these seem like valid choices with a lot more immediate payoff than writing.

In the type of Buddhism I like, you're supposed to think about your own death a lot. That sounds morbid to a lot of Americans, who try to avoid thinking about death at all costs, but it only means you're supposed to live your life with the goal of a peaceful death. That is, you want to make choices you can feel good about on your deathbed. 

At these moments of wishing I were doing anything else, of wishing I weren't even born a fucking writer, I think of myself on my deathbed. It's an outwardly peaceful one. There are loved ones, family, and friends. There's not a great deal of pain or anger or grasping. Everyone, including me, has pretty much accepted that it's timely, even if sad, for me to go.

The only difference is, in one version, I've written. In another, I haven't. 

To a certain extent, we all get to choose our deaths. I choose a death having written over a death not having written every time.  


rebekahmatthews said...

I think this is the best advice re: overcoming writer's block I have ever read. I have been thinking a lot about it this past week. not sure what insightful thing to add, other than to just say it's been really inspirational and encouraging, and thank you for writing it. -Rebekah

Jade Sylvan said...

Thanks, Rebekah!

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