I was working on a project. I really was. After publishing my thesis and a book on writing last year, I finally had time to dedicate to new work. And I was going to get to it in earnest just as soon as the post-publication blues passed. Whenever that was.
We’ve all been there, staring at the blank page. Or worse, wishing we even had it in us to sit down and think about staring at a blank page or screen. Our reasons for feeling stuck are as different as we are, but the feeling of dread and anxiety is remarkably similar.
In my case, I decided to take myself even farther away from my writing comfort zone and head to India to see if that would spur anything creative. It was a risky venture, but traveling has often inspired my writing in the past. I thought exploring new horizons would be the perfect answer. In one way I was right: touring India was an amazing experience and I will someday write about it. But it also flipped me so far on my head that (although I had a new wealth of material) I was less ready to write than ever before.
Then, within a month of coming home, I got pregnant. Talk about world changing. Not only could I not distill those travel experiences into words, I no longer cared about anything I’d written before in quite the same way. I was so far away from writing that I didn’t even care that I wasn’t writing. Except I did care. But I still couldn’t write.
Welcome to the Danger Zone (AKA the Blank Page)
So (for whatever reason) you’re not writing, and you might even be wondering if you’ll ever write again. You’ve entered the danger zone. The place where you’ve probably freaked yourself out to the point that the anxiety itself is your newest, biggest hurdle.
My problem is that I’m a writer. Which, for me, means that the only way I really, really process big life events is by writing about them. So I was facing the biggest change in my life so far… without my go-to tool for coping with it. And my mindset had so changed that I no longer wanted to write fiction anymore. I felt the only way I could express myself was through poetry (which I hadn’t written since high school and completely intimidated me).
Secret Writing (or How to Trick Yourself into Writing)
Here’s how I got out of my writing rut:
Publicly confess (every chance I got) that I was not writing.
Feel deep shame every time I told anyone (because it was only me I was hurting).
Randomly scribble words on paper and squirrel them all away in one place (sometimes this was 5 minutes on the bus or first thing on a Saturday morning).
Remember, I wasn’t “writing.” I certainly wasn’t writing anything “serious” that I would share with anyone. That breather let me focus on all the other big things that were happening in my life the past nine months (while actually getting a few words on the page).
The trick is that after all these months, I went back to the hidey hole where I’d stuffed all those random pieces of paper and started pulling them together. I had 58 poems. None of them are finished and/or good (yet), but I have an excellent starting point when I have three seconds of head space to actually edit something.
I still don’t think I really know how to write poetry, but I now have a large collection of drafts to experiment with. And because I was writing so immediately from my experiences, what these drafts lack in technique they make up for in emotional honesty (so I can work on them for a good long time before exposing the public to them).
I also found that by typing up all these drafts (yes, I still write my initial drafts longhand), I gained insight into the topics that are obsessing me right now. It’s not just impending parenthood; I’m also seeing how much I’m processing my childhood and some feelings of abandonment. If I hadn’t typed these all up over a short period, I might have missed out on that through line.
I feel safe admitting that I’m writing again. At least for now. The baby’s due in a week and, well, I’m going to give myself a pass for a couple of months before freaking out that I’m “not writing.”
Do you ever keep your writing secret (even from yourself)? I’d love to hear about how you overcome writer’s block in the comments.
Isla McKetta earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Port Townsend in the summer of 2010. She’s the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide to Transforming Artifacts into Art. Isla reviews books at A Geography of Reading, and by the time you read this, she might just be a mom.