In the third installment of our video chats, Berthold, Audrey and I were joined by Susan Nicholls. This particular topic is near and dear to me as I’ve struggled with major writer’s block for the last five or six years. Below the video is a post I wrote on the topic, detailing all of the ways in which I struggled with that block — or more importantly, I discuss the causes of the block I experienced.
I think it’s really important for any writer who has a block, or really any creative person, and who wants to break through for that person to really try to figure out what the root causes are. There’s something going on. Figure it out. Address it and get writing and creating again. It took me years to get there.
Have you had writer’s block? What were the causes? How did you break out of it?
A Journey Through Writer’s Block (Mark Paxson)
I’ve written about writer’s block before on my blog, most frequently by venting my frustrations that I couldn’t seem to write. Occasionally, I would cite a reason for the block and then allude to there being about 85 other reasons as well. And just rant away about the fact that I wasn’t writing.
When I started my writing journey, I wrote a lot for about ten years. A lot. I think back to that time and don’t know how I did it. I was working full-time, spending a lot of time coaching my kids in two different sports which meant coaching just about year round, training and running in a handful of half marathons, cooking and baking and gardening and taking care of a lot of yard work, and doing all sorts of other things. And writing. A lot.
Then something happened. What I want to do here is describe what I think happened.
It may have started with publishing One Night in Bridgeport. I threw that book out into the universe “to see what would happen.” When I ran a few promotions on various websites, people started to download the book. Thousands did so. Some free, some for 99 cents. Eventually, I made a couple thousand bucks on that book — the one I wrote just to see if I could write a novel.
Back then, I was writing because I enjoyed it. I had found something creative, a talent I didn’t realize I had, and I liked to write different stories in different genres, and just wanted to keep writing. I enjoyed the experimentation and the testing, the challenge, of what I was trying to do. I got a few short stories published in various places, and then Bridgeport actually made me some money!!
That money meant something. I changed my objective. If I could make money off of my very first novel, it would only get better. I’d make more money on the next, and more on the next, as my audience grew. Right?
I published another novel a couple of years later. It didn’t attract much of an audience before I un-published it. And since then, even though I’ve had this massive writer’s block, I’ve managed to publish a few more things. A long short story. A novella. Neither of them have done much.
One of the things I’ve learned during this journey is that success in the indie market depends on a few things. One of those things is volume – a thing I haven’t been able to get to in the past because of all the other things going in my life and … well … you know … the block. Another thing that matters is writing and publishing in a genre that has broad appeal. This is why Bridgeport did well. It was a courtroom drama, a legal “thriller,” the kind of book that readers could pick up and now what to expect. As long as I followed the formula, all would be good.
But since Bridgeport, the vast majority of what I’ve written fits more readily into a “genre” that defies description and defies formula — literary fiction. Weed Therapy — the novel I unpublished — literary fiction. The Irrepairable Past — literary fiction. The novel I just finished writing, The Dime, might break this mold. It could be marketed as YA, but it is most definitely literary as well.
The point is that, after my initial success with Bridgeport, I changed my objective, but what I was writing and publishing in the indie world didn’t match up with that objective. The result was that … one of the reasons for my writer’s block was that I no longer knew why I was writing.
Was I writing for the enjoyment of it? Or to make money? Why couldn’t it be both? And if it wasn’t for both, was it really worth the effort.
Here’s the thing. Writing is difficult. It’s draining. It can be a huge challenge to sit down in front of the keyboard and screen and try to pound the words out. When you don’t know why you’re putting yourself through that punishment, it can be difficult to put the effort in.
That’s reason #1. A shifting objective that really didn’t make any sense and that has taken me years to adjust to. Only 84 or so more reasons to go! Kidding, I’ve got just a couple more.
The next reason relates to what was going on in my life. When I look back to that period of time when I was writing a lot, even though there was so much going on in my life, I think a lot of that stuff was very positive. I enjoyed coaching my kids and running and cooking and all of those other activities. But as my life evolved through my kids getting older, needing me less, and the inevitable conflicts of raising teenagers, it became less enjoyable.
Add to that an injury I incurred around the same time — an injury that exists to this day and which prevents me from the same level of physical activity — and a lot of the things I enjoyed during that time have either dried up or been a struggle.
Meanwhile, my work life got more and more and more stressful. I can’t understate the stress that developed in my work life over the last 6-8 years. What that stress did was leave me incapable of doing much writing during that time. Why? Go back to what I said above — writing is not easy. It’s difficult. It’s draining. It’s a challenge.
When I first started writing, I could come home, have dinner with the family, and then write for an hour or two. On weekends, I could write in the in-between moments of all of our other activities. But as the years went by, it became more and more difficult to do that. Once I got home from work, I didn’t want to do anything more than the minimum needed to get through the evening and go to bed.
Instead of filling the hour of free time that I had here and there with writing, I started to let the distractions win. When I first started writing, Twitter wasn’t a thing. Facebook was barely a thing. So much of what exists today on the internet was either not around or in such a nascent state that it barely registered in how I filled my day. That changed by the time I published Bridgeport and moved on from there.
My free time became an exercise in wasting time, taking the easy way out, surfing the internet, writing blog posts, reading other people’s blogs, arguing in the comments sections of political blogs, … just doing as little as possible, while not writing very much fiction. And when I sat down to write, the voice in my head, what some people refer to as my internal editor, was way too loud. I could barely write a sentence or two without that voice chiming in, “THIS IS CRAP!! WHY DO YOU BOTHER!!”
Add all of that up and it was way too easy to just not write, to conserve my emotional and mental energy for my job and for the act of raising two boys as they entered adulthood. The distractions won, day after day, week after week, for years.
Which leads to the last reason I want to address here. I knew this then, but I don’t know that I ever put the name on it. Looking back now, I can put the name on it. I was dealing with a pretty major case of depression. Between the work stress and unhappiness (I can’t understate how unhappy I was in my work life for the last ten years or so – maybe a topic for another post), the stress of family life, and then the uncertainty about my writing that grew around me like a mushroom cloud – I wasn’t handling it all very well. That all added up to me being so weak emotionally and mentally, that I just couldn’t climb my way out of the hole I had dug for myself. And with each interval of time that went by without me writing anything, the hole got deeper and deeper.
I retired at the end of February this year. It’s been a slow process of improvement since then. At least I hope it is. A few other things have helped potentially re-open the door to writing.
First, I started another creative outlet last year. Acrylic pour painting. It’s a thing I’m enjoying. It allows me to experiment with various techniques, designs, and outcomes. I believe doing this has helped refresh my creative mind and that is helping with writing.
Second, I was able to finish the second part of The Dime – a story I started way back in 2013, right at the beginning of my struggles with writer’s block. That second part had been sitting there, staring me in the face, for too many years. Finishing it was a breath of fresh air. And then when I shared it with a writer/editor friend, he encouraged me to finish the third part and then try to get an agent. In his words, the story has commercial appeal.
And you know what happened? Go back to the beginning of this post and my comments about having an unclear objective for writing. Suddenly, I had an objective — get the damn story done and start shopping it around. I wrote part three, 22,000 words, in just over a month. It’s been years since I was able to write like that.
So, what’s the lesson here? There are all types of writer’s block and reasons for it. When I first started writing, I wrote about 20,000 words in a couple of months before getting bogged down and not writing for a few months. Back then, it was an environmental issue — my kids were young and fun, and the only computer we had was in the office. Which meant isolating myself from my kids to write. I didn’t like doing that. When I bought a laptop and could have that wherever they were, I was able to write again.
But sometimes, as described here, there are much deeper issues at play. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, don’t be afraid to do the work to look at the root causes for it. And then, do what you can to address those causes. The reality for me is that, on some level, there was nothing I could do about some of the causes for my block. The job was necessary to provide for my family. Raising my kids was a responsibility I couldn’t shirk. It is only as those two stresses have either been eliminated or significantly reduced that I feel like I am able to breathe again, and re-consider the possibilities writing provides.