16 February 2016

Creative Drought

I don’t usually talk about writer’s block because I’m more like a machine. Working in the emergency room? I’ll do 500 words before or after my shift. Not working? Bump it up to 1000. More if possible, but set the bar low so you can always hit the target. That was my recipe for years.

Usually, if the creative juices aren’t flowing, I can switch to non-fiction or poetry and get the job done. I can write about a patient I saw or the cuteness of my kids without batting an eye.

But recently, I’m not feeling it.

Only once before did I take a break from writing, after a death in the family. I’d been forcing myself to keep going, keep marching, soldier, at 2000 words/day, until I mentioned it to Kris Rusch/Nelscott, and she said something like, “I’m surprised you’re still writing. You could make yourself hate it that way.” Slowly, I let myself recuperate.

I found myself trying a few creative things like sketching or baking. The funniest example was that I made a zucchini chocolate chip cake with treats baked inside. My friend forgot to tell one of the construction workers who ate it and ended up chewing on a ring. And eventually, I started writing again.
Author Allie Larkin talks about balance here.
This time, it’s much more insidious. After burning myself out in December, and now starting a new job as a hospitalist, where I have to work every day, looking after admitted patients, instead of working erratic hours as an emergency doctor, I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing this week. I was working on a back pain book in January, so it’s not like I was overflowing with outlandish ideas before that.
This is not going to be a cheery list of ten ways to break writer’s block. Just a note that I’ve been here before. I had to refill the well, and then I carried on.

I recently picked up a book by David Whyte called The Three Marriages. His theory is that during your lifetime, you will generally marry another person, a career, and yourself.

By marrying yourself, you listen to your heart and what you want, not the external demands of money, prestige, or your partner’s demands. That can be hard to do. When I was sick but still dragged myself to the Cornwall Public Library’s annual party to celebrate volunteers, one of the coordinators asked me how I was doing as a person. Not as a doctor, not as a writer, but as myself. And I was silenced, because it feels like people approve of my accomplishments, but most of them don’t know the human being underneath.

After burning out, I decided not to flagellate myself anymore. I will do my best. But if the words don’t get written every single day or night, I won’t fret. I’ll just write again the next day.

The flip side is that during this week as a hospitalist, I haven’t made the time. But that’s okay. I wanted to spend my energy on medicine this week, and I did. My time is up on Tuesday, and then I have 24 hours before I start up as an emergency doctor again.

Buddhism talks about not getting fixed on ideas and labels about ourselves. “I am a writer.” “I am a doctor.” Labels change. Life is long. Things are fluid.

What about you? Have you ever encountered writer’s block? What did you do?


  1. I try to write every day when I am working on a novel or a short story, but I find that I need quite a lot of time off in between projects to refill the psychic tank. I find it is as great a mistake to force myself to write before a story is quite ready as it is to write erratically once a project is started.

  2. Hi, Melissa -- I love this post. This taps into so many of the struggles I've been feeling lately myself. Thank you so much for this, and best wishes your way always. :-)

  3. Thanks, Melissa. I'd say that any writer who tells you that they haven't experienced writers' block is lying. (Or Edna Ferber, but then she never bothered with relationships of any kind.) I generally take long walks. And I do something else. Get my files organized. Bake some more bread. Mutter to myself. I'm great company in those times. But at least, by now, I know that there's a good chance that it will pass. Hang in there, and it's good that you're taking care of yourself.

  4. I think the lesson is that you have to take care of yourself. I quit running for a long, long time. I resented taking the time out of my day to throw on shorts and running shoes, run in the awful Florida heat, return to a cold shower (and an ice bath on the hottest days), redress, etc. But then someone pointed out if I spend the time now to exercise, I'll have more time on the other end.

  5. I don't know if it will prove helpful to you, but I have been encouraged and inspired recently by a CD I was listening to about writing by Thich Naht Hanh. (Yes, the Zen Buddhist monk.) His poetry and fiction are frequently not known by people, but they are wonderful. He said that when he is planting lettuce or arranging flowers mindfully, people say to him: "You should spend your time writing stories or poems instead." His response is that the story grows while he is doing these things, that they are a necessary and essential part of the process. He says it is like a woman giving birth: people might see the baby being born and think that is the "meaningful part" of things, but this happens only because of the 9 months of slow and steady growing of her pregnancy before that. He says putting pen to paper is like giving birth, and that planting lettuce and arranging flowers and walking the country mindfully are the pregnancy that produces the words.

  6. Wow. Okay. I haven't been checking my Sleuthsayers comments because I don't want to get depressed if I don't have any, but Leigh pointed out that I should read them, especially the one from @Anonymous. And is that ever beautiful and worthy of a comment on its own! It's true that people are most interested in the baby rather than the nine months of gestation, and yet both are necessary and integrated.

    I find Buddhism especially helpful when life knocks me down. Thanks, @Anonymous.

  7. @Janice, that makes sense. Steady work followed by refiling the well. Thank you.

  8. @Art, thanks for stepping forward and letting me know I'm not alone. Perpetual best wishes to you also, both in creativity and your life in general. :) Melissa

  9. @Eve, I love picturing you muttering and baking bread. I only wish I were there to eat it. ;)
    I'm sure there are endless writing machines, like Anthony Trollope, but I bet their enthusiasm ebbs and flows as well, except they force themselves to write.

  10. @Leigh, good point. I told one of the new emergency doctors that a medical career is a marathon, not a sprint. I guess a writing career is, too. Thank you.
    It takes guts to run in Florida's heat, which I admire, even though I was just reading today about common post-marathon problems like vomiting and GI bleeding (because the body shunts blood away from the guts while running). An appetizing image to close out this column!


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