Let me begin by saying that this blog post is difficult for me to write. It’s something that I should have written many weeks ago, but every time I opened the document, my mind would shy away. It would tell me there’s no point in admitting a problem that is going to resolve itself any day now. Perhaps tomorrow I will be back to my usual self, it would say. In which case there is no need to show my cards, no sense in bleeding onto the internet in such a way. But enough is enough. I’m having a hard time, and it’s long past time that I admit it.
I don’t quite know how to word my problem. The term I’ve used with friends and family is ‘writer’s block,’ but that’s not really it. I read over and over again that writer’s bock isn’t a real thing. You just need to write through it. Make yourself type one word and then another. Wash, rinse, repeat. Problem solved.
Whether writer’s block is real or not, that is not what I’m suffering from—it’s too narrow a term. It is true that I cannot write. My book has been more or less stalled at the 60k word mark for the past two months. (I admit this with the utmost difficulty, as I am so ashamed to have wasted this much time). But it’s not just my book. I can’t seem to write anything, nor can I read (an utterly unheard of phenomenon for me) or sleep or…do much of anything, really. I suddenly have weird jaw pain and stomach problems. I’m tired all the time. I’m broken. I’m useless.
Let me back up a bit and explain my situation. When I wrote Division, I was living and teaching in South Korea. I loved it there. I had a marvelous time, made wonderful friends, had so many wild experiences. When I wasn’t teaching or traveling, I was sitting in a cafe pounding away a book that was, in its heart if not its content, inspired by the joys and struggles of my day to day life.
My husband and I returned to the U.S. in September so that he can complete his Teaching Certification. He will be finished in May and we intend to return to Korea then.
I can remember thinking how nice it would be, to have to large chunk of time to focus only on writing. At first, I was right. In the months of October and November I was productive, though not significantly more so than when I had been teaching (I had pretty limited hours at my job in Korea, which was a blessing). But as winter closed in, I started to suffer from some serious homesickness for Korea. I got used to the lifestyle I led there. I am accustomed to city life—being able to walk to a wide variety of interesting places. I am used to taking crazy trips on a whim, to eating strange foods and meeting people from all around the world. My life was wild and varied and I loved it (though I suspect my liver did not).
Now, I’m living (temporarily) with my parents in my childhood home. I’m stuck, carless in the suburbs, with snow piled so high that, even if there were anywhere to walk, I couldn’t get very far. I sometimes go a whole week without leaving the house or speaking with a human being other than my parents and husband. It sounds like I should be writing a ton. I feel like I should be writing—I mean, what else is there to do?
When the slump began, I though I’d hit a small road bump. For a while I lied to myself. This is just a bit of a sticky scene. I can write through it. Or, ok, my word count is low, but I’ll make it up next week. After a few weeks of this, I realized I was in trouble but I could not admit it to others. My husband or mother would ask how my writing session went that day and I would evade: “Oh, I didn’t get as much done as I’d like [read: I didn’t do shit].”
I remained in this phase for a long time. Perhaps I thought that saying it aloud, confessing, would make it true. And because I felt (and feel) guilty, especially to my husband. He’s been working so hard so that I can be a full-time writer, and yet I’m not writing. (The mere act of typing that sentence made me feel ill with shame and self-loathing.) And the more I hated myself, the harder it became for me to sit before that blank white screen.
Once this weighed on me heavily enough, I finally admitted it to the people I am closest with. In some ways this was a relief, but in another way it made the problem worse. I was right to think that saying it aloud would make it real. I became far less inclined to even try to write once my problem was out in the open, once the question changed from “how’s the book?” to “how’s the writer’s block?”
I haven’t been able to write for my blog, or interact with my online writer friends, or keep up my twitter presence, because I felt like a fraud. I could not pretend to be a real writer when I believed I was not one. I didn’t feel at all qualified to talk about writing techniques or practices. When readers leave reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or Wattpad saying how excited they are for book two, my heart drops. Those people deserve to have that book by now, yet it is so far from done. I owe my fans, few though they be, to work diligently. They want to know what happens next, they are supporting me in my dream, and I am betraying them by being indolent—this is what I’ve said to myself every day, every night as I stare at my bedroom ceiling.
And then there’s the small voice that has recently begun whispering in my ear, telling me that I’m not a writer. That I’m not meant for this after all. That my dream of being an author was only ever a dream. This is the worst part, because it’s not a thought I’ve ever had before. My goal to be a writer has been the guiding light that I have followed my whole life. All of my choices have been based on that vision of my future. If I’m not a writer…then what am I?
Today, however, something happened. It’s the something that made me feel finally able to write this post. I found an old bag in my closet, buried amidst childhood things. I thought my husband might use it to carry his computer to school with him. When he opened it he found a folder of old papers.
I stared at this file for a while, puzzled. I recognized the handwriting as my own, but not my adult handwriting. It was how I wrote when I was in middle school, in fat girly letters. It was the first chapter of a book I wrote when I was eleven, along with maps of a fantasy world, drawings of all the characters, and a host of notes that I no longer understand. It was all dross, of course—a collection of stolen ideas written in an awkward style full of info dumps and tense changes. But I can remember writing it—I remember looking forward to sitting in front of my old computer and imagining strange new world. I was in love, then, not necessarily with the book, but with the process of writing. In fact, it was that terrible book that set me on this coarse in the first place—my first crack at writing a novel.
I had forgotten that any of this existed in physical form. I thought that it had been only on my old desktop, long since gone. If I had stumbled upon this trove of childish fantasy writing back in November, I probably would have chuckled at it and thought nothing more. But, today, for me, it was like a message from my past self. A reminder of what and who I am—a reminder I was desperately in need of.
I’ve been asking myself over and over lately: am I really a writer? How stupid. Yes, of course I am a writer! I’m just a writer that is having a hard time right now. I’m a human being who is having a hard time. I haven’t been able to write this blog post out of fear—fear that in revealing my recent slump, I would be revealing my true-self as a non-writer—but today I’m not afraid any longer. I’m having a hard time right now, but this is just a moment in time. I’m having a hard time, but I will push through it. I’m done self-flagellating. I’m done hating myself. I’m having a hard time, and that’s OK.
So, now you know. Now, I’ve said it. I’m having difficulty, but I’m not admitting defeat. Only today have I fully realized that the problem isn’t the book, it’s me. I’m in a funk, but it’s temporary. I’m done hiding from the internet, because right now the internet is pretty much all I’ve got.
Tomorrow, I am going to sit in front of my computer and I am going to try and write. I am going to write one word and then another. If I fail, well then the day after tomorrow I till try again. I will do this because I am a writer, and that is what writers do. I’m not going to hate myself if the words come slowly, or awkwardly, or even if they don’t come at all for a time. Hating myself, clearly, is not doing the trick.
It is taking longer than I’d like, but the book is coming. I am most genuinely sorry for the delay, but a delay is all that it is. The book exists in my mind, and when my mind is in better order, I will get it all out on the page. That is a promise. It’s a promise I’m making to my readers and to myself.Steve Johnson