Even though I have been writing and journaling consistently since I was eight years old, I still have problems with writer’s block. Take today, for example. I want to write this post but have been staring at my computer screen for almost an hour, trying to figure out what to write next.
Writer’s block never really goes away, for me anyway, and it can happen for any number of reasons. Typically, I find that writer’s block results from allowing external opinions or circumstances interfere with our writing practice.
This is a lesson I have had to learn over and over again, starting most memorably fifteen years ago when I decided to put writing first after finding inspiration and my voice while completing Julia Cameron’s creative unblocking course The Artist’s Way. The course was a revelation to me, and I got serious about my craft as a fiction writer and poet and applied to MFA programs in creative writing. I didn’t get accepted. I was devastated. I stopped writing for awhile but eventually took a creative writing course at my local community college and found the will to continue.
After working consistently on my craft for another three years, I got accepted to the MFA program at Columbia College in Chicago. I was ecstatic! FINALLY, I was going to earn the terminal degree that told the world I was a writer. The only problem? It didn’t work out.
Life Gets in the Way
My job at the time went from a normal nine-to-five gig to working nearly 60 hours each week. The company I worked for had just been bought out, and the creative team was on the chopping block. My boss went into overdrive and drummed up all sorts of work for our department to demonstrate the need for our services to executive management. Since my ex-husband was a full-time student himself, I felt I had no choice to leave the MFA program. In hindsight, I probably could have gotten another job with more sane hours. Knowing how much effort it takes to update resumes and interview for new positions, I decided to keep my job and get my ex-husband through school.
Devastation is Replaced with Depression
In a word, though, I was devastated. I had worked so hard and gave up my dream to support my ex, which could be a whole other a blog topic in and of itself for another day. At the time, I felt I needed to stay the course we had set out as a couple, but that decision drained me. The reality of giving up my dream overtook my emotions, and I barely had enough energy to go to work let alone write. I sank deeper and deeper into a pit of anxiety and depression that felt like it would never lift.
The Sun Breaks through the Clouds
Eventually, though, my depression lifted once I decided that my dream was merely postponed rather than over. I sprang into action and made a plan to re-apply to graduate school. I sat down with my ex-husband and had a serious talk with him. I said, I supported your goal, so when you’re done earning your degree, I expect you to support my decision to return to graduate school. He agreed. I got busy researching programs.
This time, with his support, I opened myself up to a national search and applied to schools extending from the East Coast to the West and Southwest. I spent the next year refining my portfolio, sending my work out for publication, working on applications and statements of purpose, and gathering recommendations from former college professors who were all too happy to help.
One MFA program director told me I had a 10% chance of getting accepted, so I thought, okay, great, I’ll apply to ten programs. Eventually, I got accepted to three schools and chose to attend Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
I Uproot My Life and Move to a New Town
At this point, I had an important decision to make: should I quit my job and teach or keep working? Around the time I enrolled in graduate school, I had a raging anxiety disorder, and I allowed the anxiety to win. Even though that time in my life has passed, at the time, I knew that I would not be able to take charge of a classroom. I hoped that maybe things would change once I was in school, but they did not. I continued to struggle with anxiety attacks. Luckily, I had a great relationship with my supervisor at my full-time job, and she asked me to stay on and work remotely. I was delighted to and remember feeling like I had struck a great balance between my professional life and pursuing my dream of earning an MFA.
I Suffer from Severe Writer’s Block in Graduate School
The one place I never expected to encounter writer’s block was while enrolled in my graduate program, but it happened. I had a professor who did not like my work. To be fair, she did not like most people’s work. Looking back on this experience, I realize that she was right to criticize my writing; even so, it was difficult to write anything fresh or original knowing it would get torn to shreds during workshop. The panic attacks resumed, and to make matters worse, my father, who had been fighting cancer for seven years, started to succumb to his disease. I started spending many weekends in Chicago, regularly making the six-hour drive from Carbondale.
Even though I was struggling from writer’s block and exhausted from continuous road travel, I still managed to churn out work every week and turn it in for workshop. It didn’t feel good to write, though, and for one of the first times, I struggled with the fact that the one activity that brought me so much pleasure was now a source of pain. Instead of seeing myself on a journey to improve as a writer, I was obsessively focused on the end results. It became about the need to write finished stories and poems rather than making small solid steps to improve.
My Father’s Passing
In October 2008, my father succumbed to his disease and died from complications related to multiple myeloma. After taking a week to grieve with my family, I returned to graduate school, not knowing what to write. For the past few weeks, I spent the majority of my waking hours in the ICU with my dad, checking on the size of his hands and feet that swelled to inhuman proportions during the last weeks of his life. I had also obsessed over his vital signs because in that tiny, windowless room, there was nowhere else to look. These were the images that kept playing through my mind, and they went right into my poems and stories.
I Stick to My Guns in the Face of Criticism
The other graduate school students in my cohort were surprised to say the least. Some of them even refused to workshop the poems that focused on his passing. I read the comments, “I don’t think you should be writing about this right now.” “You just lost your dad — I can’t bring myself to pick on this poem.” And on it went. But I persisted because my mind could focus on little else.
Within just a few short months, I had gone from allowing one professor to intimidate me to sticking to what my gut was telling me, and I continued to write the stories and poems that were aching to come into existence. Until I wrote this blog post, I hadn’t realized the gift my father’s passing had given to me. After he died, it just didn’t seem to matter what other people thought, and his death started a period of re-birth in me. I just had to write about him. I couldn’t have stopped myself even if I had wanted to write about something else.
Writer’s block can occur for any number of reasons. In my case, these extended blocks were about giving away my power. I allowed the outer criticism, which in some ways I needed, to completely take over. This kept me stuck and struggling. It was like trying to write with a ten-pound weight on my hand, except that it came from inside myself. All writer’s block, no matter how we define it, comes from within ourselves. My former professor is not to blame. She shared her opinions, but ultimately, I am the one who allowed those opinions to work against me.
How about you? If you are a writer or a blogger, have you allowed the criticism of others to impede your writing plans? If so, I’d love to hear about your story in the comments below.