Every few months or so, I give up writing.
It goes this way:
I sit in front of a computer and try to type. Then, my body revolts. Nausea, weird random pains in the body with no apparent cause. Everything feels heavy, impossible. The minimal effort to tap a finger against a key becomes epic, beyond the capacity of my feeble strength. So I stare for awhile, change the music I’m listening to, smoke a few cigarettes, drink several cups of tea, light incense, go for a walk and try again.
Nothing comes. I tap a few words, delete them, try again. Hours pass before I give up, because I don’t like giving up and time to write isn’t easy to carve out from a day, let alone another day besides the day I’ve already set aside.
It’s called writer’s block. But every writer who writes long enough knows that “writer’s block” isn’t the problem in itself, but a symptom of something else. Just like depression, or constipation, or sexual dysfunction, writer’s block is a sign that something else is wrong, that there’s something that you’re not giving attention to. If you can’t shit, it’s because you’re dehydrated and have been eating poorly; can’t fuck, it’s because something about you doesn’t actually want to fuck or even be touched at the moment; can’t find the energy or desire to do anything with your time, because there’s some big sorrow or frustration or pain you’re refusing to look at so your body and soul go on strike against you.
Did you know the Greek word catharsis generally means “to shit?” A catharsis was a “release of tension” in a Greek play, a cleansing and purifying resolution of all the built-up pressure accumulated from the conflict, drama, suspense, and duplicity of the events the characters experienced. The moment writer’s block ends is exactly like that, like shitting out everything keeping you from writing. And just like depression and constipation both end by doing the one thing that both keep you from doing, writer’s block ends by writing.
So you’re reading my catharsis, which I think for some of you is also going to be part of your own catharsis. Because I’m writing to all the other people I know unable to write right now, the ones who write me panicked and tormented emails every few months about how they’ve given up, the ones I’ve seen go silent and whose voices I deeply miss.
I never got writer’s block for the first few years I started writing publicly. Words came easily, fluidly, perfectly carrying the ideas they were meant to convey. Writing felt like I was weaving, pulling threads of meaning from stars and earth and spinning them into poetry and essays.
Earlier this year, I re-read all my writing from those years and shook my head, wondering where the fuck all that had gone. That’s also when the writer’s block started.
Now? Now, writing usually terrifies me. Even when I have an idea that screams to be born into the world, I can’t even sit down to try to write before the dull terror sets in, the despair and fear. The few essays I’ve managed to write this year only happened at all because I literally felt like I would explode if I didn’t write them. But even then, it never really felt as good to write them as it once was, and it was quite difficult to take any sort of joy in the praise they’d garner.
Mostly, I found myself wanting to hide, being terrified of checking my email or logging into any sort of social media after it was published for fear of the inevitable backlash.
I told you this was my catharsis, my unblocking. And I know what actually has caused my writer’s block, and it’s probably what’s caused many of yours. But I need to tell you a story about another block first so you really understand it.
When I was ten years old, I stopped shitting for awhile. For several years, actually. Obviously, I still shat, because you can’t actually stop without dying. But I became so terrified that I wouldn’t sit on a toilet until the pain became so unbearable that I thought I was going to die.
Like writer’s block, not shitting doesn’t “just happen.” And there was a reason that I stopped, one that I managed to bury into my psyche long enough that I couldn’t actually explain to the doctor why I had stopped. I had forgotten, or caused myself to forget, and was even really perplexed myself as to why I just didn’t want to shit.
I had gone to a kid’s summer camp for two weeks that year. One day I was in one of the bathrooms sitting on a toilet, and several kids (boys and girls) came in and started screaming at me. They climbed up the walls of the stall and threw things down, one pissed on me, they took all the toilet paper and covered me in it, and then they opened the door from the inside so I was stuck sitting on the toilet with the door open, covered in piss and toilet paper while they all laughed.
Afterwards, I begged my parents to come get me and take me home. They didn’t, so I had to be there for another week.
That’s when that other “block” started. It lasted several years, and even after I finally got over that, I couldn’t use public toilets until my early twenties.
I was a kid far away from home terrorized by a bunch of other kids for doing something really human, bullied for doing something they themselves also did. But looking back at all that some thirty years later, and understanding a lot more about the way the psyche works, it wasn’t any of the actions themselves that created that complex. It was the spectacle, the public humiliation, the opened stall door exposing their handiwork to the rest of the camp–that’s what actually broke me.
You, my friends, fellow writers–you know this feeling, even if you were never attacked by strangers in a stall as a kid.
You know this feeling because you’ve written something that later got smeared with someone’s shit, something that got pissed on by strangers in a way designed to ensure the public became participants in your humiliation. Maybe it wasn’t an essay or poetry at all–maybe it was just a question asked in a public space, a sentence written on a social media post, or maybe it was just a fucking picture you took of yourself doing something; regardless, you were mobbed, “called out,” shamed, humiliated, attacked, and called whatever names the crowd decided would best hang around your neck like a weight or a noose.
And so the next time you tried to write something, anywhere, you found you couldn’t and didn’t really know why. Anxiety, despair, fear, depression, or all kinds of other emotions you couldn’t quite name all arose each time you tried to craft a sentence, and so you decided to restrain yourself, hold whatever it was inside you, not release it into the world.
I’m sorry you were shamed into silence.
I’m not writing for the inevitable critics who, as with anything I write, will find something in this essay to weaponize in their quixotic crusades. Regardless though, some of them will suggest that shame is a good thing, a useful tool to change behavior. Maybe you even think this, or have been convinced by enough people that maybe shame is deserved.
But here’s the thing. You’re a writer, which means you actually care about things, and people, and ideas, and feelings. And shaming only works on people who care. Assholes, psychopaths, world leaders, capitalists, and all the sorts of people who are actually fucking up things for others can’t be shamed into changing their behavior. In fact, they’re the ones doing the shaming. Even the online activists leading “call outs” or doxxing or other public crusades against people are assholes; scratch behind any one of them and you’ll always find a hot mess who’s hoping to feel a little better by dominating a stranger and hiding it behind a political cause.
Only people who care about being understood, those who haven’t deadened the sensitive parts of their soul, respond to shame. And that’s why you, dear writer, will always be an easy target for people who get off on dominating others. It’s exactly the most vulnerable, sensitive, and responsive parts of you that make you a good writer, which are also unfortunately the parts miserable people will always try to kill off with their criticisms.
You have to write, just like you have to shit. And the only way to get over writer’s block is to write.
Don’t let them shame you into silence. I need you to write. Other writers need you to write. This world is being run by bullies, and even the people supposedly on “our side” are rarely much better. They win when we go silent, when we despair, when we walk away from our craft and the vulnerability that powers it. Only by writing our truth into the world can another world be born from our dreamings.
Next time you want to stop writing, remember the story I told you. And if that doesn’t help, remember something even more important: that criticism you just read on social media was probably written while your critic was on the toilet.