Tag Archives: writer’s block

Wordsmithery and Feelings of Inadequacy


Why are writers so insecure? Today I’m going to tell you!

Many, many years ago, back before I even considered myself a writer, when I was just working on a play kind of as a lark, when I was just scribbling odd little nothings to myself in notebooks (which would become the blog posts and morning pages of today), I had an interaction with my sister. I couldn’t tell you what the substance of the interaction was, or what we were talking about, or what I said, exactly, or really any details of the interaction — except for one.

Image result for tree bicycle

And this detail, well, it stuck in my consciousness like the rusted-out bicycle that a tree grows around. I shaped myself around this comment, almost certainly to my detriment, in the intervening time. It ate me up from the inside, turning me into a neurotic mess of a writer, shaking my confidence the way earthquakes used to shake buildings before they started putting buildings on wheels.

Here’s the situation. I was home from college — or maybe just visiting my folks after college — or, hell, maybe it was before college, who can tell, that’s how bad my memory is but it’s not the point — and talking to my sister about something. Who knows what. And I said something.

What I said, I could not tell you today under pain of torture, except to say that it was an attempted witticism, a stab at something snarky, a foray into wordplay that went wrong. I felt it going wrong in the moment of saying it, the way a major league batter just feels the home run when it leaves his bat, or more precisely, the way he feels that he hasn’t just missed the pitch, he’s tipped it, at dangerous speed, probably past the protective netting, probably into the face of an unsuspecting fan, or worse, a kid, where it will knock out teeth or shatter cheekbones and necessitate a carefully-worded statement from the front office and probably an apology tour in the media. The words felt like that, coming out of my mouth. (Whatever they were.)

Image result for batter loses bat
(Crap.)

I knew, to put it bluntly, that I had botched my attempt at making good words, and botched it badly.

And my sister said to me, in that hurtful way that only your little sister who’s taken a lifetime of your crap can say, “wow, you’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

You know that scene in every action movie where the building (or the car or the villain’s fortress or whatever) is exploding — just going entirely to pieces, irreparable damage, nothing but fire and pain and devastation filling the frame — and the hero (or heroine, this is the 21st century after all) is totally cool, walking away from it without a care? Or the end of Star Wars (episode IV or VI, reader’s choice) where the fateful shot is away, the heroes are flying off into the dark of deep space, and the villains keep flipping switches and coolly saying things like “fire on my mark” but they don’t know that they’re dead already?

This was like that.

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you,” would stick in my brain and shape me more than I’d like, and certainly more than I’d care to admit, for years and years and years.

Every now and then, sometimes while writing, sometimes not, I’d hear it again, playing on a loop in my brain, and it would never fail to demoralize.

Wrote a sentence in my novel I’m not too sure about?

You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Used a totally inadequate word because I couldn’t think of the perfect one?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?

Said something totally idiotic in a everyday conversation?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Just sitting there watching TV, not even thinking about writing at that particular moment?

“YOU’RE A REAL WORDSMITH, AREN’T YOU?”

Everything I write, I have to contend with that voice in my head: it’s good, sure, but is it wordsmith good? So I second-guess myself to death. Is this creative enough? Is it clever enough? Smart enough? Or could any schlub with a pencil and half a brain come up with something better?

Then, once second-guessed, it’s only natural to third-guess the problem. I could make it better by throwing in MORE words. Better words. ALL THE WORDS. Or maybe get rid of the sentence entirely — the words can’t be dumb if there are NO WORDS AT ALL.

This thinking leads, like a boulder down a mountain path, to overthinking, until the boulder turns into a self-doubt and self-loathing black hole, population: me and everything I have ever written.

Absolute poison.

And while I internalized that comment, like an ingrown toenail, or like the point of that Morghul blade working its way inexorably toward Frodo’s heart, my sister got to walk away and never think about it again for the rest of her life. Probably the most she ever thought about it was in the very next second after she said it, to say to herself “good burn,” and then forget about it forever.

I tell you all this not to shame her, but to shame myself. To purge the poison by first acknowledging the fact that I’ve been poisoned. The fault in this tale is not hers for saying the thing, but mine for taking the thing and wrapping it in silk and tucking it away in the secret place in my mind to take out and fetishize and fixate upon.

It’s hard — nigh impossible, I’d almost say — not to do this. When we identify so closely with what we create (as authors and artists of all stripes must, by necessity), then an assault on that thing becomes an assault on us, in much the same way that, oh, I don’t know, a high-profile sports star saying disparaging things about certain people in positions of power makes people that like the disparaged person come to hate said high-profile sports star, even though they have no personal stake in what was said at all.

AHEM AHEM I DIGRESS.

Our work is a part of ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing — but we also have to be able to see our work as not a part of ourselves. To see that the words we write aren’t themselves who we are, but instead just a reflection of who we are in the moment. And, most importantly, those reflections can always be improved and changed — and we don’t have to beat ourselves up over them.

Go forth and wordsmith.

Imperfectly.


The Dawdle


She wanted to write a story, so she sat down at her desk to do just that.

“I can’t possibly write without the right tools,” she thought, although she had an entire desk full of pens and pencils. (Just not the right ones.)

So she loaded up her car and her cash and went to the store to buy pens and pencils and new-and-improved ink that were just right for this story and special paper made in the tradition of ancient Egyptian papyrus which wasn’t particularly relevant to her story but the thought of which appealed to her mightily. These things she took home and, just to test them out, wrote her grocery list upon them, and they were as lovely as she had hoped. So she sat down to write.

But the temperature in the room was a little bit stuffy.

“I can’t possibly write in these conditions,” she said. “What if I begin to sweat? And the sweat drips upon the paper and the ink, so carefully picked out and perfect for my purpose, smears, leaving what I’ve written unreadable?”

So she got up to adjust the thermostat. As she did, she happened to glance out the window and see the weather. Delightful! Sunny and breezy and oh-so-inviting.

“Actually,” she said, “It would be such a treat to sit outside, surrounded by nature, to feel the breeze upon my skin and the sun upon my face. Such things would surely bring me even greater inspiration and make my story that much more perfect.”

So she gathered her belongings, her new pens and perfect paper, went to the front porch, and there sat down to write her story. But as she sat, she found that the outside was not at all like the comforts of her writing desk, and was perhaps not suited to the task at all. There was no place to rest her special paper except for her lap, which she felt was not the most conducive position for writing, and her pens, when they were not in use (which was often), tended to roll off her leg and clatter upon the woodwork with a noise not at all restive to her ears.

For that matter, come to think of it, while the sun did feel nice at first, it made her uncomfortable after a time, and she found herself wishing for shade. The breeze, when it blew, alleviated this, but also whisked her pages away, so that she had to chase them into the yard and down the street.

Also, there were bugs, which were not especially helpful to her practice. So she went back inside.

As she sat back down at her comfy, perfect desk, though, she made another unhappy discovery: the thermostat, previously adjusted, had cooled the room rather too much. She adjusted it again, and was again distracted by the lovely weather outside, even though she knew it hadn’t worked out well previously.

The temperature fully suited to her creative needs, she sat down, finally, to write. But there was something else.

“What if I get thirsty?” she wondered. Truly, it would be a shame to begin her task only to be interrupted by a minor physiological annoyance. Luckily, she had an entire assortment of heated caffeinated beverages to alleviate this problem. She spent the next twenty minutes brewing the perfect cup and waiting for it to reach the perfect temperature.

At long last, it was well and truly time to write. She sat down, sipped her heated beverage.

Unfortunately, she could think of nothing to write.

“What I need,” she said to herself, “is some inspiration.”

So she set aside the story she had not yet begun to write and went in search of other stories. She started with a book she hadn’t yet finished, working her way through a few chapters. She then moved on to an old favorite film whose concepts and themes had always intrigued her. True, she’d seen it before, but a fresh viewing was sure to send up some creative sparks. Then, finally, to a TV show which she didn’t have a particular personal interest in, but she had heard good things.

Fully saturated with inspirational material, she returned to her chair. But by now, the sun had gone down.

“This will never do, the light is not quite right,” she moaned. She adjusted the lamp so that the light fell, not so much directly upon her and her work, but rather against the wall, sort of splashing down almost by accident across her desk, and this, she felt, set the right ambient mood, and she was pleased.

“Well, the light is right,” she thought, sitting down once more, “but the silence is positively unnerving.”

She turned on the radio, but the music and the lyrics soon distracted her; what she needed was the right music, so she began to search and search, curating just the right playlist to suit the ups and downs and dramatic swells for the story she was now sure to write.

The playlist was 78 hours long, which she felt might be a bit excessive, but she could always audit it later.

Everything was, now, finally, and without exception, perfect.

She sat at her desk. She drew back her sleeves. She grasped her pen. She checked her watch.

Good heavens.

Well, it had been a good effort, but it was simply too late to write tonight.

“I’ll try again tomorrow,” she said, laying her pen down on her blank pages and turning off the lamp.

Image by Voltamax at Pixabay.com.


A Spring Thaw (Okay it’s not Spring yet but it feels like it shut up)


I have devised a method for a budding author to stop himself cold, lose all momentum, and give up the thing he loves over the course of just a few months. To freeze his writer’s soul in ice like a caveman out for his morning wee, caught in a blizzard and entombed until the 90s.

Actual image of me

Evidence? Not only have I ground to a halt on the novel(s), but I’ve run out of steam on the blarg too. For that matter, I’ve barely given a thought to myself as a storyteller in that time. And it’s all — probably — or at least partially — well, fine, there may be many reasons, but a not-insignificant one is — that over the last year or so, I went and did a dumb thing.

I learned too much.

It started when I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing and a lovely little tome called Wonderbook. Enjoying those, and thinking I was really doing myself some favors, I added a bunch of other reads about character arcs and storytelling generally and characters and motivations and basically anything else you could think of. Great stuff, really. Hard to over-recommend On Writing and Wonderbook especially.

Add to that a heavy dose of writing podcasts, chock full of helpful tidbits and discussions about all the hidden gems tucked away in the dark crevices of the literary caves. (Writing Excuses is my perennial favorite.)

Sprinkle with a series of savvy, snarky and OTHERWISE youtube channels dedicated to dissecting masterworks of film and literature and illuminating how they get it right and wrong.

Then, top with a really crushing sense of inadequacy.

This step is crucial, and it can’t be overlooked. It helps that I had a natural tendency to doubt myself to begin with, but I imagine it would work for anybody. All you have to do is read a lot of excellent books by excellent authors and allow it to sink in that the odds are you will never be as prolific or successful as them. It’s simple math, really. It can’t work for everybody who tries it — it can’t even work for most people who try it — it probably won’t even work for a quarter of the people who try it. (“Work”, here, is subjective, but let’s be broad and say that it means writing books — or for that matter, creating any sort of art — that’s well received and financially worthwhile.)

This is the feeling, that “how is it even possible” sense one gets from standing at the foot of a gargantuan skyscraper, looking up toward where its apex stretches into the seemingly endless sky. Or the mind-shattering smallness you come by while staring up at the multitude of stars in the heavens on a clear night.

Too much looking up, too much contemplation, too much analysis.

Yoda always knows.

The end result of all this is that I’ve felt like writing — creating — is something I just can’t do, or at least can’t do well. And because I can’t do it, I shouldn’t do it. And because I shouldn’t do it, I don’t do it. (I’m nothing if not a follower of rules, after all, even — if not especially — when the rules in question come from the authorial seat of dubious legitimacy, i.e., my own particular brand of non-expertise.)

Which has meant a creative drought quickly turning to desert. Even the cacti are withering up or folding in the doldrums. (Okay, yes, doldrums are a sea phenomenon while cacti are decidedly not, but whatever, it rhymed.)

And, then, it’s comforting not trying to write everyday. Certainly it’s easy. Leaves more time in the day for other things that aren’t as taxing, aren’t as stressful. Like disappearing down a video game hole for a month or two. Or endlessly hate-watching the news.

But it also feels empty. Like I should be doing something and I’m just stubbornly not doing it, like a kindergartner refusing to eat her vegetables. Except that analogy doesn’t work, because the kid doesn’t innately want to eat vegetables; the kid wants to eat grilled cheese and pizza and french fries at every meal. So it’s more like a kid refusing to eat pizza because she’s not the best pizza eater in the world, as if pizza eating were a thing that could be done well or poorly (the only way to eat pizza wrong, and this is scientific, is to NOT eat it until you’re sick). A dereliction of duty, if only to myself. A failure of the natural order.

I feel better when I write. It cleans out the mental pathways like running a Neti-Pot through your sinuses. It gives that sense of accomplishment, like waking up early and doing the dishes before your wife is awake so she doesn’t have to worry about Tuesday’s lasagna turning to red, craggy concrete in the pan.

And then, also additionally too, I look back at the catalog of this site and the stories I’ve written and the novels I’ve finished and partially finished, and dammit, I did those things. However inexpertly and imperfectly, I did them, and surely I was less expert when I did them than I am now while I’m not doing them because I’ve read and learned so much. And, if I may say so myself, I don’t think it was all that bad. So who am I to tell myself I can’t or shouldn’t spend my time doing these things,that I don’t deserve them, that they are a waste of my time?

I reached for a pen this morning while sitting in my classroom waiting for my students to arrive and all this came pouring out. Like the evil flowing out your other nostril as you inhale the witches’ brew in your Neti-Pot.


(Who’s creepily obsessed with Neti-Pots? Not me. Nope. Thanks for that horrific image, The Onion.)

Which means, at the very least, that there’s still something like a drive to create stowed down in the depths of my whatever, somewhere.

I mean, it’s February after all, and we’re already getting seventy-degree days here outside Atlanta. Maybe a spring thaw is on order.


It’s Like This


It’s like this.

I have this jacket.

It’s a lovely jacket. Feels good on me, looks good on. Dapper, sharp, all the good things. I feel comfortable in it. More myself, maybe. I try it on and I like it so much I start wearing it all the time.

Til it happens; I get this spot on the jacket. Not sure what the spot is. It’s orangish, brownish, reddish, blackish. Just a spot, but one I can’t ignore. Given all the things I’m into, it could be poop. Or dirt. Or blood. Or just a slimy speck of something that may once have been, but is definitely no longer, food.

And well, it’s in this really conspicuous spot. Very, very obvious to anybody looking in my general direction. Like a tiny martian on my sleeve singing Glory Hallelujah at the top of its little green lungs.And I don’t have a way to clean it. I first try to fold up my arms just so, which works to cover it, but I can’t keep my arms crossed forever, not to mention I look like a standoffish SOB. And I assure myself (because it’s true, and this I know inwardly even if I have to convince my lizard brain) that nobody will actually notice it if I do uncross my arms, it being tiny and inconsequential and all.

So I uncross, and nope, it’s there, and there’s absolutely no denying it’s there. I rub and pick at it in a futile attempt to clean it, but it’s well and truly sunk into the fiber like blood into a shag carpet. Also I’m drawing even more attention to it with all the rubbing and picking, so it’s time to take it off. Into the corner it goes, fhthump.

Except now, see, there’s a new problem, because the whole outfit I created? This entire look, entire ensemble? It doesn’t work without the jacket. I mean, shirt, pants, shoes, belt — it’s all doing a job, but the jacket was central. And now it’s not only stained, it’s also crumpled up and hoovering dust off the floor. And worse than that, now I feel like a heel because what was a simple stain is compounding thanks to my neglect and frustration. And worse than that, this is all just ridiculous. This is all because of a stain. A tiny one. A pinprick of an imperfection. A rounding error compared to the jacket as a whole. Honestly, it’s probably not even visible if you didn’t already know it was there.

But there’s the rub, innit? I see the speck. And the wrinkles. And now, the dust. And how long has that speck been there, anyway? For that matter, is the color of this jacket really as bright as I thought it was to begin with? Does it even tie the outfit together like I thought? Maybe the thing looked terrible all around and I didn’t know it. Chroist, probably it’s just as well the jacket got ruined. Now it looks outwardly like crap, to go with the fact that it was always crap from the get-go.

I should probably just chuck it. It’s ruined now anyway. Can’t believe I ever thought I looked good in it, to be honest.

All that?

That’s what my particular flavor of depression looks like … or anxiety or malaise or seasonal affective disorder or whatever the hell it is that’s going on with me. Except substitute for the jacket my job, my role within the family, my creativity, my entire sense of self.

So… um.

I’m taking Lexapro now, so there’s that. Have been for about two weeks.

And I know I’m being a little bit silly. Even a lot silly. And I know that the jacket can be cleaned. And even if it can’t, there are other jackets.

But that stain is still pretty large in my vision right now.


Normality Will Resume


Things I didn’t write about in the past several weeks:

Our vacation. Which was lovely, really, just what the doctor ordered, and not a moment too soon. Lots of ocean, lots of beaches, lots of pools, and hardly any sunburn. What more could you ask?

My daughter’s horrible Mondays. She can be a delight, she really can, but of late, every Monday is a nightmare. It’s like the weekend causes her to forget entirely the concept of school and that it’s a thing she has to do, so when we’re getting her ready to go on a Monday morning it’s like explaining death to her again and again and again. (We haven’t yet had to explain death to either of our children, but I’m sure it will not be fun.) Inconsolable.

Book Reviews. I’ve read some doozies. The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins — practically an atheist bible. Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss — a treatise on negotiation from the boardroom to your child’s bedroom. Fascinating stuff that I’ve already used in my work life. How I Killed Pluto (and why it had it coming) by Mike Brown — a surprisingly whimsical look at planetary astronomy and the practical realities of language. Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk — one of my top five movies, but a book I had not, until recently, read. I had heard that the movie was vastly different from the book, but that wasn’t my experience; in fact, I’ll go as far as to say this is one of those rare cases where the movie may in fact be better than the book. And the last chapter was just bizarre. And most recently, Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig — more on this later, as I actually do plan to write about that one.

My car, and how it’s slowly turning back into a pumpkin.

My novel, which — was I even working on a novel? I’d forgotten.

The weather, which is finally turning. My favorite season is upon me, and it seems I can hardly enjoy it.

Running, which is as good (and as good to me) as ever, but I can’t seem to make myself want to do it.

Podcasts, and how I can’t stop listening to them. (The new season of Serial is in progress, and it’s gold. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is always required listening and remains a source of inspiration and curiosity. Revisionist History always surprises me by forcing me to take a fierce interest in the strangest topics for the duration of the episode. And, ’bout freakin’ time, a new season of Limetown is coming down the pike.)

Our cat, and how he stalks me through the house every morning like he thinks I’m about to drop a bucket of treats on his head, even though I hate him the most at these times and would never present him with a single treat, let alone a bucket.

Work, and how it’s simultaneously very fulfilling and more stressful than ever.

And, I dunno, dozens of other topics, at least.

These are all things which it occurred to me to write about, which I thought I ought to write about, which I even wanted to write about. But which I did not write about.

At all. Not here, not on paper, not in my head. I didn’t write the first word about any of these things. What I did instead was stew, and hide, and think about other things, and, in some less dignified moments, panic. Because for all the bootstrapping and “just do it”ing I tend to advocate, I just haven’t been able to make myself do it. Like there’s a missed connection in my head, faulty wiring that — when the switch is thrown — fails to respond. And it’s not a catastrophic, movie-style failure with smoke and explosions and collapsing infrastructure; no, it’s just a quiet, dead click. Static on the airwaves. Snow on the screen.

Most frustrating is that I don’t know what to make of it, because — while this sensation has struck me before — usually I get this for a day or so at a time. But I’m going on several weeks, now, of this wrongness, this ennui, this feeling of inadequacy and dread. My wife keeps asking me what’s wrong, which troubles me as much as the feeling itself. I’m the tough one, the resilient one, the one who never needs help. But here I am, dragging myself through my days, plagued with a silent refrain of “not good enough” in my head.

I always end these posts with a chipper “normality will resume.” And I’m hoping that’s the case.

This can’t be the new normal.


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