For me, the phrase “writer’s bock” fails to capture the phenomenon. Block implies that there is inspiration idling somewhere in my brain; it just can’t run the proper channels to my fingertips. The term “writer’s block” gives my blank, Twitter-grazing mind far too much credit.
I have just finished a year of hospital chaplaincy work and education, a year in which sleep came at a premium and death came at regular intervals. Now, freshly married and in a new city, I am in between commitments. I walk the tension-wire between obligations. I sail on a sea of free time; I can write for days and never hit land.
The problem is, with a free place to stay and miles of leisure time, I tend to accomplish less than when I teetered on the edge of collapse, working sixty hours a week and planning a wedding. Having the entire day to myself, I shuffle around the house like a self-propelling Roomba vacuum cleaner: I never stop moving, bump into a lot of things, and fail to really get the job done.
In the absence of a full-time job, so many options present themselves. I make my own hummus. I sleep in. I spend the better part of the afternoon scavenging for discount piña colada ingredients. I sample half the classes at the YMCA, including one in which, for five solid minutes, we do nothing but bounce our bottoms on large, inflated exercise balls (“Keep going, ladies! This is great for your thyroid!”) I have become, in my two short weeks of unemployment, an excellent fritterer.
What I really want to do in my spare time is write, but writing feels like trying to squeeze a squirming fish. There are so many activities that are easier to get a hold of. Activities with prestige, activities that make money, activities that come with a helping of gravitas that sitting at my kitchen table in my pajamas and playing with words does not.
I used to believe that if I pampered my inner muse, she would produce. If I gave her quality espresso, the perfect soft lighting, and a soundtrack of ‘90s grunge gently reinterpreted in coffee shop acoustics, she would bestow on me unique and profound ideas. This approach has failed me every time.
Anne Patchett, a fellow Nashvillian and favorite author of mine, says that people constantly approach her saying they want to be write. Patchett responds that if this is you, you should sit at your computer for one hour a day—two if you are serious—and indulge no distraction. You don’t have to write, she says. You can stare into space or twiddle your thumbs, but you are not allowed to do anything else for that one hour. Sooner or later, she says, you will either get bored enough to write or you will give up. Most people, she says, never mention it again.
Now I try to treat my creative self like an indolent child, not a prima donna. Children need structure, routine, the occasional bribe, and boundaries. Every day, at the same time, I sit down at the table, amidst the unfolded laundry and stack of credit card offers, and I commit words to the page. I set a timer and do not stop until it rings. Again and again, I tug the reigns of my wandering attention back to the page. No, I tell myself, I can browse the clearance dress section tomorrow. No, the laundry will still be here when I finish this paragraph. No, my friend can wait ten minutes before I respond to that text. Because almost anything is shinier, louder, more fun than the taunting blink of the cursor, half of writing is saying no. When I’ve finished thirty minutes of writing, or at least thirty minutes sitting stationary in my chair, I allow myself a cookie. Or a stretch. Or another cup of coffee.
Annie Dillard says that, “A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.” I define my schedule with a free study app called Pomodoro, represented on my iPhone by a red tomato icon. Exactly what Dillard had in mind.
Maybe “writer’s block” does fit the bill. Maybe good ideas do occupy the hoarder’s nest of my distracted brain. Maybe the outside world inundates me with so many ideas, it is hard to hear my own creative stirrings.
I love self-help books. I have read more self-help books than any middle-class 28-year-old with no history of trauma has the right to. Currently I am reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in which a Japanese de-cluttering guru encourages readers to let go of material possessions that don’t make us happy. Instead of thinking, “When was the last time I wore this?” or “Would it hurt Aunt Janie’s feelings if I threw this away?” we ask ourselves if the object in question sparks joy. If not, we give it away.
We have plenty of space, she says. We just fill it up with the wrong things. When we get rid of belongings that no longer delight, we are lighter, free to pursue what we love. When we force ourselves to avoid the many-splendored bouquet of memes and Youtube videos, we raise our shield against chaos and whim. We act like locksmiths of our own spirit; we press a stethoscope to the safe of our hearts and we listen.