Writing on Writer's Block

Since I've graduated from college, I've been suffering from horrible writer's block. The kind that makes you lose complete faith in yourself and in your trade. Writer's block as a term hardly says enough about the phenomenon. More aptly put, it's an existential dread or an unrequited love: The thing you love to do will not love you back.

Like all grief and devastation, writer's block has its stages. First, the frustration. You know so many words, but none of them will come. Or you can't seem to arrange them the way you want. You type, you write; you backspace, you cross out. In a fit of futility, one day the only think I managed to scrawl into my notebook was, "Everything I write is trash. I'm trash." This was more pathetic than writing nothing at all.

If anything, it brought me to the next stage of my acute ailment, which is whining about it endlessly. The fact of the matter is, no one cares if I'm not writing. My friends, parents, acquaintances don't know I'm writing until I admit to them that I can't. Still, I feel like it's something I have to explain to everyone, whether they ask about it or not. I see their eyes glaze over as I detail the problems--the transitions are weak, the structure feels aimless, the lede is all wrong. Writing isn't made of mysticism, but sometimes it feels like I'm speaking another language. I emailed a former professor of mine--who I thought was sure to understand--telling him I was struggling. He, well-meaning as he is, told me he had just finished another book.

Next comes impostor syndrome and denial, one right after the other. You feel like you can't call yourself a writer because writers write. The broadness of the term gets to you, too. Toni Morrison is a writer. Virginia Woolf. William Faulkner. You're just a young woman with a Microsoft Word document open.

The denial comes when you pretend you have no writing to do. You do anything but write. Over the summer months, I've tanned by the pool, become a regular at three different coffee shops, made blueberry-honey popsicles and joined the gym. I painted my room a different color, watched the first season of "The X Files" and started to teach myself how to draw comics. Of course, I did write some things: to-do lists, scraps of overheard conversation and meticulously crafted tweets. But the sentences I so needed to materialize remained buried somewhere deep.

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard is merciless when it comes to her appraisal of fellow writers and their various afflictions. Her every observation and diagnosis is so exact it brings a writer both tremendous relief and tremendous fear. "You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won," she writes. "You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now. (Are you a woman, or a mouse?)" Dillard is no-nonsense. Though I had heard of her work before, it was by chance I came across it the other day. I was in the essay section of Barnes & Noble hunting for Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem when Dillard's book caught my eye. I bought them both with the purpose of a sick person filling their prescription at the pharmacy.

As I read The Writing Life I found an explanation for every stage of my writer's block. Dillard says not to worry about pace. Writing is almost always slow. You feel like your work is meaningless? You're right: "Everyone needs shoes more." Yes, Dillard agrees, writing sentences is hard, but aim high. She says, "It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick."

Lately, writing a decent sentence has been my white whale. This has been a commendable attempt to conquer it. But, if Dillard is right, it all must go anyway.