How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Writer’s Block

It was an honor to be asked to write something academic once again, but I’ve been out of that game for a few years and felt a little…rusty.

This year I’ve been focusing on my fiction and my upcoming fantasy anthology (stay tuned–title and cover reveal coming soon!) and haven’t written an academic paper in years, so I figured the research would be tough. But that turned out to be the easy part.

I took to the library stacks like a monkey on a tree. I disappeared down dimly lit corridors and emerged clutching dusty tomes filled with lost stories and forgotten essays. I neatly arranged them in an elegant line in the copy room where I (very carefully) scanned their old pages in a blur. Some of the pages threatened to crack and the spines could scarcely hold on, but I handle old books with more care than any mother with her newborn, and each old book was treated with delicacy and dignity as I loosed them from their shelves and resurrected them from obscurity. I was a one-man army in that library, fueled by the knowledge that my research would soon be published in a collection of essays from my fellow scholars.

But something finally went wrong as I began to put words to my thoughts. Right away, the opening paragraphs didn’t “click.” I ignored it and moved on, hoping they weren’t really that bad. Sometimes your writing feels lame at first, but when you look it a few days later you realize it’s fine. That happens. Right?

But that didn’t happen this time. I looked at it a week later and, as I feared, the words that kicked off my essay really were face-palmingly terrible.

After a week with zero progress it started to get embarrassing. I emailed my editor to say I was only a paragraph away from finishing, and they replied saying they didn’t mind. I was still on schedule, after all, but I pride myself on finishing my work early. Early! And here I was frustrated by three sentences! (And, folks, they were really, really bad.)

I started to wonder if I should pull out of the gig and turn my back on academia forever. My thesis about the role of science in the medieval worldview was exciting, but it wouldn’t excite anyone if I wrote about it like someone who let their cat type it up. Maybe, I thought, I’m not cut out for academic work after all. There’s a reason, despite my graduate work, that my first name isn’t “doctor.” I’m not a real academic. I’m just a faker. Maybe it was time I admitted that to myself.

But those familiar pangs of creative frustration reminded me that I’d been there before, and that writer’s block had always yielded to me. Every time. And I suddenly felt confident that I would, once again, triumph over it.

I think those difficult moments are not some kind of barrier from the universe, designed to keep us from making progress, but are really just our instincts holding us back, saying, This part isn’t good enough. Keep trying. Maybe it’s just our own wisdom showing us there’s treasure to be found in those broken sentences if we’re willing to hunker down and work for it.

So I focused on the problem. I wrote down everything I wanted to accomplish in those opening lines and then wrote down every reason they were letting me down. In the past, this painstaking approach has, slowly but surely, helped me tear down those walls.

It took weeks, like I said, but eventually a trickle of an idea came to me, followed by a another…and another…until eventually I was drowning in a full flood of inspiration and I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with my soaring thoughts.

Sure, it took me three weeks to write one paragraph, but it was worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing, because without writer’s block to hold me up I would have turned in a lousy essay.

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