This post was originally shared on Medium.
On the rare occasions that I log into my blog, that number greets me from the dashboard. My Drafts folder is littered with nearly two dozen abandoned posts. Some are one round of polish away from publishing; “long multi-part thing about election, prolly too long idk” is a full 3,500 words. Others, like “writing long arguments = not caring,” exist only as note-to-self titles. There’s enough to post twice a month for the next year, if only I could motivate myself to write.
The cogs of my brain, it seems, have locked up. In August 2014, I challenged myself to a “Blogathon” and published 19 posts in 31 days; in the past year, I published two. Drafts (23) makes it clear that it’s not for lack of ideas. Something else must be jamming my motivation.
I’m not alone. Back in November, Alex Gabriel acknowledged his struggles with writer’s block and launched a daily writing challenge to pull himself out. In December, Miri started something similar. This month, it’s Greta. My blogging game is a league or two below these three, but their openness about their challenges with writer’s block nevertheless inspired me.
I have a basket full of lemons right now labeled “inability to publish.” In the interest of making lemonade, here’s what’s holding me back — good excuses and bad.
Since September 2015, grad school has staked a claim on the vast majority of my time. I averaged five courses a semester in my first three semesters. Classes only met Tuesday through Thursday, but the other four days were spent feverishly reading and writing in preparation for the week to come.
This year, my course load is much lighter; classes only meet one day a week. The other weekdays, however, are still packed: from morning ‘til night I’m practicing counseling at my internship.
The result of a school schedule stuffed brim-to-brim with responsibility is that my time no longer feels like my own. Every minute feels on loan, and if I don’t spend it “productively” — a word which here means “on homework” — I feel guilty.
But of course, it is impossible to spend every waking moment on homework, so this has led to boom-bust cycles. Feeling guilty for not working, I drag my feet and distract myself until I can no longer ignore an impending deadline, then scramble to do the work. I insist to myself that I must be productive and don’t make time for creative personal projects like writing. The personal time I do take is unstructured and unintentional, lacking the deliberate focus I realize I need to do good writing.
Nearly all my friends share a paradoxical interpretation of 2016. For so many of us, the year yielded a bounty of personal fortune. Friends graduated and got jobs, found antidepressants that worked, excelled in their sports. I formed a board gaming group and dove headlong into the joyous world of tabletop gaming. When you pull the camera back, however, these same friends unanimously agree that on the whole, 2016 was hot garbage.
You need only look at Example A, the horrorshow that was the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It came like hammer blows, regular strikes to my faith in my fellow citizens that left me buzzing with anxiety. No wonder that several of my drafts tried to capture this:
My breathing gets shallow. Discomfort shoots down my spine — not pain, not an itch, but the sense that no matter how I hold myself, it will not be right. Then the alarm bells start sounding, crowding out any other thought with an endless cycle of three words:
This isn’t right. This isn’t right. This isn’t right this isn’t right this isn’t right
I want to cry, except my eyes aren’t ready for the sting. I’d scream, but everything is already too loud. I’d curl up and hide myself away, but my body demands action.
My panic is a black hole — the only possible way forward leads deeper in, and the singularity at the heart of this infinite pit is…
…well, you know.
The day after the election:
I sit in traffic behind snarling pickups and feel afraid of the Americans around me. On I-90, the radio says “President-Elect Trump” and I scream. The highway blurs. I pound on the steering wheel.
A third draft:
Writing feels impossible.
I sit down and open a new draft. I’ll get it this time, I tell myself, fingers perched alert on the keys. This time, I’ll capture my outrage, my shock, my pain, my terror. This time, I’ll find a way to express the emptiness. This time, the words will come.
But my palms slicken with sweat and the wave of unnameable emotion crashes down on me. When I stop moving, I am crushed. Without distractions, my thoughts race like the frantic eyes of a trapped animal. Everything is wrong. Nothing is okay.
I close the tab. Another aborted draft to clutter my database.
I’ll get it next time.
It’s not quite depression, this feeling gumming the gears of my brain. It’s despair. It’s a year of watching my country veer closer to fascism than I ever thought possible. It’s studying totalitarianism not for curiosity but reference. It’s feeling alone at home.
Writing feels like inviting in the despair for tea and conversation. It’s easier to slam the door and distract myself.
Perfectionism is no stranger to me. My brain loves to scrutinize my work and identify every slight flaw. If I do it beforehand, the thinking goes, I’ll beat everyone else to it. Their criticisms won’t sting because I’ll have already thought them a thousand times.
Since the election, I’ve unwittingly imposed a half-dozen more restrictions on my writing, many of which come in the form of paradoxical pairs. My prose is too florid to publish, I tell myself, and when it’s not, it’s dull and dry. There’s no point in writing about politics or current events because a hundred other writers have already made better points more eloquently, and if I write about them after the fact, then I’m out of touch. Posts about my mundane life are boring but I don’t have the chops to do justice to more significant topics.
Each of these beliefs will readily flip to its opposite with the slightest breeze. They can’t be rooted in fact. Instead, they’re the mercurial rationalizations of a mind that doesn’t think my writing is good enough to exist.
Back in October 2015, I did something I thought was clever: I started a Patreon. I enjoyed blogging, and I figured that if even a few of my readers chipped in, I could make a bit of spending money off of doing what I was already going to do anyway.
It backfired. Instead of encouraging me to write more, my Patreon saddled my writing with extra commitments. I promised my backers weekly dispatches from my life. I pledged to take and share at least six photographs a month. I vowed to write certain backers a handwritten letter once a month. Any month I published a blog post also meant another several hours of work.
And then there were my own burdens. If I was going to make money off of my blog, it only made sense to (a) have a “support me” page and (b) a fancy footer on every post. Naturally. The “support me” page subsequently required an Amazon wishlist, a PayPal donation button, and several custom icons. The custom footer required learning how to code a WordPress plugin and several hours of web design tinkering.
Patreon, which was supposed to reward me for writing, instead burdened me. But changing the terms of my campaign required too much thought — and the prospect of letting people down — for me to do anything about it.
Losing touch with my story
We’ll end with a hopeful one.
A week ago, feeling gloomy and in need of my own advice, I went back and reread an old post about moving beyond intense crushes. Then I read a half-dozen other old posts for kicks. Soon, I had my old journal in hand and was reading it cover to cover.
I hadn’t touched the book, let alone read its entirety, in a year and a half. The latest entry was from May 2015; the first from February 2013. This book contained some of the most recent strands of my story, and yet, I’d neglected it on the shelf.
Since last summer ended, I have fought a daily battle to motivate myself. Schoolwork has seemed pointless. My personal growth has appeared halted. I’ve been frozen in place, my visibility constrained to the immediate present.
It’s hard to see through blowing snow. It’s hard to write with icy hands.
As I read, I felt something warming up inside me. Words in black ink outlined my footprints in the snow. I watched with affection as Past Me fell into gooshy, sugar-cookie love — not once but four times over. I winced as the growing pains of a new lifestyle left jagged angry marks on the page. Here and there, my old writing even left me dazed and breathless:
I want to play in this crush like you run through the sprinkler — dancing in it, leaping through it, riding the wave of sensation as the cool, refreshing jets of water splash your skin.
For lack of a less corny term, rereading my journal helped me reconnect with my story. Context reminded me where I’d come from and thawed the icy, isolating grip of ennui. Lines like the above stood in stark contrast against my whispering self-criticism. I think it’s no coincidence that now, a week later, I’m finally finding the confidence to publish again.
Desert, lemon, and rain photos are public domain via Unsplash. Other images property of the author.