“I’ve experienced it before, but never like this, when even the ideas don’t come. Usually, I still get the ideas and can jot them down, but this time I have nothing to jot down, no notes to make. I knew it would happen, but not to this extent…” (From my Writing Journal, July 13, 2002)
The “it” in my journal entry was a long-winded bout with what most writers refer to as writer’s block, but which I prefer to call, in this instance at least, writer’s fatigue, although I didn’t realize the difference between the two at the time. Only by working my way through it and past it did I determine that it was much more serious and far-reaching than the typical writer’s block, and that, as such, needed to be handled a little differently.
I acknowledge and accept writer’s block as a brief stalling period in which I can catch my writing breath, but in which I also want desperately to write something—anything—yet my mind and, consequently, my pen, stalls.
As a parent, I am familiar with stalling. Before we put our son in school, my husband took both of us with him when he went out of town to work on boiler controls. And always, when we ran out of things to do in a “strange” town, we ended up going to the zoo—until our son himself complained, “Not the zoo again!” Then came his school years, and sports. In high school, he anxiously signed up for summer wrestling camp at a college some forty miles from home. But on the day we delivered him to the college campus, and were about to leave him there, he pleaded, “Can’t we go to the zoo?” While he really wanted to go to the camp, he was willing to do anything to keep from being left alone, so far from home, with perfect strangers.
The writing process can be a lonely and sometimes scary one because no one else knows exactly what you have in mind or what you want to see on paper; and you have no way of knowing if a finished piece will be accepted by readers or publishers. Since I already have many publications to my credit, I consider the stalling tactic to be somewhat of a copout, or safety net, i.e., what I don’t write can’t get criticized or rejected. Or maybe it’s just that I know how much work it’s going to be, the revising and rewriting, and that I can’t call on anyone else to help me (or to take me to the zoo). At any rate, it usually doesn’t last long because it can be thwarted by pulling out some of the stops suggested by other writers on the subject: buying a fabulous new journal or a smooth-writing pen, reading books and articles about writing, leisurely walks—anything that will get me back into the swing of writing.
During the period referred to in my journal, however, I knew that I was not dealing with typical writer’s block but with a more deliberate and complete stoppage of work that kicked in immediately after I’d finished an enormous writing project. As an amateur genealogist, I had just put together and published a branch of my family tree that I had been researching, off and on, for some twenty years. I had balked at the idea of getting the family history finished up (as much as any family history can be “finished up”) because I knew that, even though I had already gathered most of the needed information, putting it into book form was going to be a gigantic task. And past history had already shown that when I get deeply involved in genealogy, all else suffers—especially my “everyday” writing. Nevertheless, I set my children’s stories and poems aside and started laying out a hundred pages of historical family facts. At the same time, I mailed out over fifty form letters with return envelopes, in an attempt to gather the latest birth and death dates; scanned hundreds of photos; and set up, printed out, and proofread the final draft of an additional five hundred pages containing the names, dates and places tied to those photos.
By the time the book was printed and distributed to family members, and for weeks afterward, I was physically and emotionally drained, to the point that I couldn’t bring myself to write so much as a personal letter, much less work on a story or a poem. Nor could I face re-reading any of the books and articles on writer’s block that had helped me so many times before, simply because it wasn’t like any writer’s block I had experienced before. Though it had the earmarks of a stall, it more resembled the “let down” feeling I get after a great vacation. I’m home; everything is unpacked and put away; and my mind is still reeling with anxiety as I anticipate sharing the details and photos of my trip with family and friends. At the same time, as I begin to unwind, I find myself rebelling at the thought of starting any new project.
I knew there was work to be done and ideas to be developed, but the words and lines waiting to be written were as elusive as underground water waiting to be coaxed to the surface by an old hand pump—a pump that is just as apt to produce dry squeaks as it is to actually draw water. Still, I know that, when a pump produces squeaks instead of water, it isn’t because there is no water in the well but because the leathers inside the pump have dried out from non-use. The squeaks are merely a signal that the pump needs to be primed with a little bit of water before it can raise a single drop more, and that whoever wants to drink from the well had better have two things in reserve: a little water for the priming plus the determination, or will, to keep raising and lowering the pump handle until water begins to flow.
My husband was the youngest of six children when, at the age of four, he became responsible for keeping a bucket of water in the family house at all times. That meant priming the pump, on his part, and a household of consideration on the family’s part, because every family member knew that there always had to be a little water left in the bucket for priming the pump. So too, serious writers know the importance of the “reserves” they need when it comes to drawing on the “well of ideas” from which stories and books and poems eventually flow—ideas that help avoid, or disrupt, dry spells known as writer’s block. That well can hold anything from a few words, lines, or titles tossed into an ideas file, to a binder or folder that holds beginnings, middles, and endings of works ready to be finished. Yet, no matter how shallow or deep the well, it can’t be drawn on without at least a small amount of inspiration, and definitely not without the will to summon up, or draw on, that inspiration.
I knew that my well was full of ideas just waiting to be raised, however deep they lay, yet I had no inspiration, no enthusiasm, no desire for priming the pump, and my will to raise and lower the handle, to get the ideas to a spot where I could actually use them, had totally gone awry. It was as if all of those reserves were buried at the bottom of the well, under the ideas that couldn’t be raised without them, and there was simply no way to get to them—not immediately, anyway. My only solution was to let go of the handle, walk away from the pump, and leave my “well of ideas” right where they were while I searched for a way to seek out and stir up my “will of inspiration” instead.
Fatigue of any kind, at any level, calls for rest, or at least for taking a break—a vacation, of sorts—from whatever is causing it, and until there is relief from it. Of course, the best way to handle it is to ward it off before it ever gets a foothold. But I had already let it get the best of me, and now I had to find a way to get through it and past it.
My solution included patting myself on the back for the completion of the family history and, in my next mind’s breath, releasing myself from the pressure of thinking that I had to be writing all the time. In fact, I made one hard and fast rule for myself, that under no circumstances would I force myself to write. Then I distanced myself as much as was logical and possible, mentally and physically, from everything that spelled writing to me, namely, my desk, my computer, and the shelf overloaded with binders that hold stories and poems and articles still waiting to be written or finished.
The only writing privilege I did not set aside was that of carrying my writing journal with me wherever I went, and of recording the day-by-day struggle with the fatigue I was experiencing and my progression through it, even though I had no name for it at the time. Most of those journal writings were done in our local mall, or in the public park, after taking a long walk and then just sitting and observing the people and hearing children talking and playing—things that I realized I had not been doing but which had, in the past, helped me fend off or put an end to writer’s block. In the meantime, I waited and watched for any indication of an urge to pick up my pen on a more regular basis, or to look for a book that might spark the muse I knew was hiding somewhere in the offing.
It was several days before I found and purchased a book of haiku. While haiku had always fascinated me, I had not written much of it. But that book prompted me to pick up my pen, and when I did, it was to write pages and pages of haiku—many of which have since been published. In turn, writing haiku led me back to my well of ideas with enough inspiration to prime the pump and enough determination to pump the handle until the words began to flow again.
I only need to thumb through my writing journal to find other, more recent instances of tedious writing projects that have steered me directly into writer’s fatigue. One was the winter I spent retyping and adding photos and documents to the diary I had kept as a teenager (during a two-and-a-half year stint in Australia, with my parents); another was the several weeks I spent editing and typesetting an anthology of poems for the poetry club to which I belong. On the flip side, when I edited and typeset a collection of poetry by an individual member of that club, I was so inspired that, once the book went to print, I sat down and wrote twenty poems of my own, start to finish, in seven days.
Since I will probably never change my habit of jumping headlong into big writing projects that draw me away from my everyday writing, I’ve learned to accept writer’s fatigue as graciously as I learned to accept writer’s block simply because I know that it is not a lasting condition; that it just takes a little more determination to work through it and past it; and that once I’ve done that, I will write again.
For a glimpse into my books, Snaps, Scraps & Snippets of the Past and Present, and Light for the Burning Soul, please visit my website as http://loisjfunk.com. I’d love to hear from you!