Hello. I’m getting over a bout of writer’s block. I can tell you exactly when it started, down to the day and the hour. On August 15th I visited Horniman Museum, to reward myself because I’d been working hard all summer on fiction submissions. That morning I had written a short story, in a cafe, about a woman who shoplifts a red umbrella.
At the museum, I sat on a bench in the gardens with my notebook, on a hill overlooking a magnificent view of the city skyline, and wrote the first few paragraphs of a story I’d been thinking about. At this point there was a huge ripping, roaring noise and a World War II bomber flew overhead, leaving a trail of smoke. The three drunk men sitting on the next bench over cheered and pointed excitedly; the polite Thai student sitting next to me asked if I knew what it was about. We figured out the plane must be part of the VE Day celebrations. The Thai student remarked that a few days ago it had been the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. He indicated the sushi he was eating for lunch and said that this was why he was eating Japanese food today.
I remember this vividly, and I also remember walking back home in the sunshine, stopping in at Forest Hill library, (by this time it was four in the afternoon and the library was empty) and inhaling Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories. Once I’d read it – cover to cover, right there on the library floor – I was pretty sure I needed to change the umbrella story dramatically. I almost wished there was a way to unwrite it, and to write something more surreal, bold, playful instead. More like an Ali Smith story.
I took an antidepressant for the first time in over two months, went home, and didn’t write anything. For ages.
I didn’t understand why. It felt like all the small processes that go into writing – daydreaming up stories, closely observing situations, making up things about people around me, the willpower to sit down and write – had abruptly ground to a halt: like when you have too many tabs open on your laptop and it overheats. Whenever I sat down to write, I could feel some kind of deep processing happening in me. It sucked dry all my energy and left me feeling like a monkey sitting at a computer.
Writer’s block is always distressing for me. Sometimes I ring my dad and wail, “I can’t write, I don’t know what to write,” and his soothing response is, “Why don’t you just write something down and see if that helps?” Which is quite like telling someone with a broken leg that they’ll feel much better after playing hopscotch. I look up writing prompts and think, “Stupid”, I look through old notebooks and think “Ridiculous.” Then I read the news and wonder what the point of writing is: when you are such a small part of the whole, and so many people are suffering. How can you hope to make sense of such an overwhelming world?
Writing is my usual way to put my perceptions into perspective. It’s like when I lost my glasses; suddenly I couldn’t see very well, I was cranky, and I got a lot of headaches.
Writing is magic in two ways. (For me.) One, it is an escape from the world; two, it’s a way to map out my surroundings in a way that I can understand. If I don’t write things down to process them, I quickly fall into two bad thought patterns. One of the thought patterns is hyperfocusing – zooming in fretfully on small, irrelevant details of your life, which your brain gets stuck on. You end up stuck on thinking about the song “Have you ever loved and lost somebody” which you haven’t heard since you were on your way to the Fort, Erdington, in a friend’s car sometime in late 2001. Or you remember the exact wording and tone of a mild criticism someone gave you in autumn 2013 and become very fretful because what if everyone secretly thinks that and this is the most important thing anyone’s ever said and what if it sums up my whole personality oh my God…
What sums it up best is this quote from Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:
“What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.”
The other bad pattern is the opposite, actually: it’s zooming out. When I’m stuck in this thought pattern, I feel detached from the details of everyday life – as though my life is a map, spread out in front of me. I keep mentally scanning this map of my life, the patterns within it, and its socioeconomic, psychological, historical influences; trying to get it all in a broader perspective, to see myself in terms of history and power structures. I guess you could call this contextualising. I end up ruminating about the amount of trouble that my generation is in, the amount of debt that we’ve all run up, how slim our chances are of living in prosperity, and our damaged global environment. And then I worry about what the future might hold for us.
But the thing about a bird’s eye view is that you can see everything, but at the same time you can’t really see anything. Nothing is detailed; everything is a sort of blocked-in approximation. I don’t believe I could live happily if I was constantly zooming out to this bird’s eye view. I envy people who can command this broad historical/theoretical/sociological perspective, but I find it all exhausting to think about. The world around me, with its proliferation of details and stories and people, is engaging and overwhelming enough.
Between the hyperfocusing and the bird’s eye view, I felt completely lost and detached from myself. Every insecurity came sneaking up on me on rubber-soled shoes; everything I’ve done is bad. I ended up reading other people’s blogs, and wondering enviously how everyone seems to have a better life than me. When I am able to write, I never worry about being replaceable; when I can’t write, I worry that everything I am and everything I do could be easily replaced.
I’ve only lost two or three weeks and it was probably a much needed break after working all summer, but it’s felt like a terrible, everlasting dry spell. I felt as though if I picked up a pen and wrote, my hand would turn to sand, the pen would dissolve into water, I would fall through myself into a pile of grainy sand.
I beat it in a simple way, anyway: I woke up this morning, grabbed my laptop and sleepily decided to write something, anything. I caught myself unawares, I think, because I went on to write three pages and feel much happier.
It was only after writing them down that it struck me I had taken antidepressants and got writer’s block on the same day. So I’ve been wondering – what if the antidepressants are connected to writer’s block? Is the medicine somehow blocking the creative processes in my brain? And if so, how come I can write now?
The thing is, I don’t want to have to choose between writing and antidepressants, especially as both are very much needed. My hope is that both my writing and mental health will settle down soon, after this period of adjustment and change. Fingers crossed.