Recently, I watched the A&E miniseries Bag of Bones, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. The story is about a popular novelist who, following the death of his wife, escapes to a lake house to overcome a serious bout of writer’s block.
I don’t believe writer’s block exists in the way it is commonly misunderstood — that is, a writer can’t put words on the page because the muse hasn’t filled the well of inspiration. In actuality, the block is a psychological manifestation of one or more of the following factors: 1) the fear of failure, 2) laziness (because writing is a difficult task), 3) perfectionism (when you think you should be writing Shakespeare instead of a mediocre first draft), or 4) pure depression, which will result from any of the previous three.
Every creative person experiences some form of these psychological blocks throughout their life. In the case of Bones’ Mike Noonon, played by Pierce Brosnan, he embodies two of them: depression over his wife’s death and doubting his abilities (a form a fear), which leads him into to an even deeper depression. He explains that he no longer has “the energy or the talent to do what [he] thought [he] was born to do.”
As a writer stuck in my own rut at the time, this line perfectly explained my mindset. My current novel has taken way longer than anticipated to write, and I’ve struggled with properly flushing out a few important plot points. In the eight years since I wrote the story story version, I’ve built up this project so much in my head that I routinely battle the desire to make it perfect, fear that I won’t live up to the story’s potential, and too often slip into an unproductive depression that grinds my progress to a halt. For those of you keeping score, that covers all four manifestations of so-called “writer’s block,” even when I know each of the excuses are possible for me to solve.
The conflict between knowing your purpose in life and lacking the ability to fulfill that objective is one of the most frustrating states imaginable. While the details of our particular projects differ, we writers hit the same roadblocks along our respective journeys. Even Stephen King, author of over 50 books, has felt the sting of doubt and used it as the central problem in several of his narratives. Still, knowing that I am in good company rarely helps. That’s the head trying to reason with the heart. Each problem feels individual, not communal.
The writing process is like being dropped in the middle of a lake and forced to swim to shore. If you think you’re too tired, you have two options: give up or keep swimming. In the former, you drown; in the latter, you work toward salvation. So, if you want to quit, keep swimming. If there’s a shark/deadline, swim faster. The point is to keep progressing because the more you condition yourself, the stronger a swimmer you become.
Want to know how I escaped my latest rut? There were two moments that empowered me.
First, I am blessed with some great friends. When in dire straights, I call my war council (a.k.a. Meghan). She’s my no-nonsense voice of reason and among my first, trusted readers whenever I complete a project. I told her that my frustration was knowing I was meant to be a writer and fearing that, maybe, I had only one book in me. Now that I’d written that book, maybe I was creatively spent. Without hesitation, and with vigor, she replied, “I don’t believe that for a second.”
Next, I chose to verify the Bag of Bones quote and discovered that I had remembered it incorrectly. Mike Noonan said that he lacked “the energy or the talent to do what [he] thought [he] was born to do.” The way I recalled the line — that is, the words that spoke to me and the way I reported it to Meghan — is that I lacked “the energy or the talent to do what I was born to do.”
Notice the key deviation?
Writing is not the vocation “I thought I was born to do.” Writing is the vocation “I was born to do.” The confidence to carry on is always somewhere inside, even when you can’t see it, even when the lake wants you to quit so that it can consume you. However, you must keep swimming to overcome the block and reach the shore. Don’t listen to the voice that says you can’t make it. Beware the lake.