This is the sound of me not writing. There is no whisper of pen on paper, no click of computer keys, just me, alone in the house, trying to decide whether to go out and dig in the garden, or make oatmeal cookies, or read a book, or take a nap. Anything but write. Because I don’t do that anymore.
This might not seem like a big deal, but actually, it is. I was born into a family of writers. I wrote my first book when I was four or five, in purple crayon. It was called “The Adventures of Little Kitty,” and I’m still proud of the opening line: “One day, when Little Kitty woke up, adventure took him by the hand.” My father, Jon Remmerde, is a professional freelance writer who has published two books. One of his published essays is titled, “Who Has Time for Writer’s Block?” Not only has writer’s block never been allowed in my family, I have never quite understood it. Writer’s block, I always figured, was not having enough ideas, and instead, I’ve always had too many ideas and not enough time to write them all out. Words flowed out of me, and all my life, I’ve written a steady stream of fiction, poetry, songs, and, more recently, essays for this blog.
But now, here it is. The dreaded writer’s block. It has struck. It’s almost like hearing about some disease that runs in your community, that strikes people just like you, with similar lifestyles and genetics. “But not me,” you think. “It won’t get me. I’m just different enough.” Then one day, you wake up with all the symptoms, and while this disease is not fatal, there is no cure. You simply must wait it out.
Oh, I know there are all kinds of techniques for getting past writer’s block. Many years ago, I read and did The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The backbone of Cameron’s program for unblocking is the dreaded “morning pages.” As soon as you wake up, you write three pages, stream-of-consciousness, no stopping. It is effective, if what you want is to overcome your inner censor and produce lots and lots of absolute crap. It is also very conducive to whining, and if you are a whiney person, as I often am, your morning pages will be filled with lots and lots of whining. I would recommend the morning pages to others, but I have no more desire to do them again than I have to go back to high school. Both were educational and gave me fodder for a long time, but they were also forms of torture.
So I tried other ways to break up my writer’s block. Why do they call it that? “Writer’s drought” would be a better term. The glaciers have melted, and in this post-apocalyptic world, water no longer comes down the streams. There are no irrigation ditches. There might be water somewhere in the world, but it’s not getting to me.
I thought mixing it up might work. I tried writing about someone else’s characters. Maybe I just needed a break from my own. A Sherlock Holmes story would be fun. Holmes and Watson are definitely not under copyright (this was recently solidified in court), and everybody and their sister writes about them. That didn’t stop me from feeling I was doing something slightly dirty. I felt a hidden kind of shame, similar to when I flip through Fifty Shades of Grey at work to read the sex scenes. “Oh, no, I haven’t read that trash!” I had to give up, as I could not overcome the sense of impropriety in stealing someone else’s characters.
I took my own modern-day characters and stuck them back in World War I. It was great fun inventing new lives for them and playing with that time period, but the story flamed briefly and then died out.
I couldn’t even come up with a short article for this blog, and for two months in a row, I had to miss my deadlines and sheepishly explain it away in terms of health problems (which I did have) and out-of-town guests (which was also true). Neither of these things were the real story, though, and due to my excellent training in producing art even when one does not feel like it, I was too embarrassed to say, “I have writer’s drought.”
I’m not sure why this has happened. My inner critic has been particularly strong lately, picking apart every sentence I write and telling me how it could be better. “You need to show, not tell. You put too many adverbs in. This description is clunky. You used the word ‘felt’ too many times when describing how Terry felt.” This might be helpful in a second, third, or fourth draft, but as writers know, it is death on the first draft. I know this, but I can’t seem to make the darn thing shut up.
I assumed I’d never felt like this before, but as I talked with my mom, Laura Remmerde, also a published writer, I realized my feelings are very similar to a time in my childhood when I could see that what I wanted to write outstripped my skill level as a writer. I decided to stop writing for a while until I got better at it. This sounds contradictory and impossible. How can you get better at something without practicing? The weird thing is, it worked. I took a break, and once I started writing again, I had matured and gained more life experience and read more books, and my writing was better. Do I need to do this again? At 37, have I reached a sort of bottleneck where what I want to express is just beyond where my maturity as a person can reach? It is not inconceivable that instead of pushing myself to write and trying all kinds of techniques, plus New Age-y rituals and maybe writer’s yoga, I need to relax, do other things, and see where I end up in a few months or a year.
Meanwhile, I have been thinking a lot. I thought in my journal about my problems with writer’s drought. Then I decided to turn those musings into an article and send it off before my editor completely gives up on me. Having an article in the works was enough to get me to delay that by working on fiction, which is what usually happens, and although Terry might have “felt” too many things in the same sentence, I felt euphoric from writing just a few pages. First the whisper of pen across paper, then the click of the computer keys–this is the sound of me, not writing. Or, just maybe, writing.
Amanda MacNaughton is a front-line bookseller and the events manager at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond and a regular NWBL contributor. In addition to her Bookselling in the Desert column, MacNaughton has interviewed authors for this site, including Anjali Banerjee, Marcus J. Borg, Brian Doyle and Kirby Larson.