Writer’s Block: One Reason Why, The Three Things that Fuel It

I have an output ratio of 100:1. That means for every word, idea or story I manage to force into words and out of my pen, there are 100 backed up in my body, getting restless and bored and clamouring to get out. It’s exhausting and at some point it will be dangerous. Why risk exploding like a vowel-laden balloon when i could just sit down and open the tap?

Because I can’t just open the tap. The one reason? Fear.

What am I afraid of? As a child, nothing. As a body in the throes of puberty, everything. As an adult, too many things to count, so I sorted them and it turns out, fuel for my fear fals into one of three categories: fear of being eaten, fear of being ostracized, and fear of being wrong.

Fear of Being Eaten

I blame the food chain and survival instinct for Fear #1. Fear of being eaten is what kept our ancestors alive to see another day in the cave. Even today, as human settlements spread into what was once wilderness, there is a chance of encountering predators that value humans not for their superior intellect, but for the quality of their meat. In my world, I may at some point encounter a hungry bear or wolf, but I am more likely to be consumed by beliefs, values and attitudes – mine and others. We are told over and over to ‘be ourselves’, yet praised when ignoring ourselves for the good of others, be they individuals, institutions or corporations. We know it as guilt, conscience, instinct, or signal, but that gnawing weighted feeling in the gut when a decision goes against something we’ve been taught to believe can literally eat us from the inside out. Depending on what we’ve been taught, what we choose to believe, or whether we feel we have a choice at all, every decision and action may come with this gnawing feeling. maybe you’ve heard the voices: I’m working late, I should be home with the kids; I’m playing Barbies with the kids, but i should be reviewing that report; I’m buying takeout for supper, I should be cooking; I’m working my 9-5 but I should be writing; I’m writing but I should be doing something that actually contributes to society … That is what increasingly consumes me each time I sit down to write: first on my novel, then my blog, then anything that had to do wth promotion or creation of my own work. For clients? Not a problem. To open the tap for my work, I have to treat myself like my best client. That means getting curious about the gnawing sensation, standing my ground, learning from it, and releasing the energy for writing rather than consuming it to beat myself up. Eat or be eaten. Yes! And I’m done being my own dinner.

Fear of Being Ostracized

This again came from our hardy ancestors, I believe. There is safetyy in numbers when fending off hungry prowlers or enemy tribes. Being cast out of the cave or village to fend for yourself meant certain death, most likely from Fear #1. In modern times, being ostracized is not as dramatic but just as devastating. losing a job is terrifying not only because of the financial stress, but the social judgement: only losers lose a job. What will my partner/children/parents/neighbours/guy in the grocery store who knew my manager’s wife’s uncle think?
How many times do we nearly bite our tongues in half for fear of losing a relationship that in reality brings us way more grief than joy, anyway? Or go along with the committee even though we believe they’re on the wrong track? Peer pressure is often described as a childhood angst but for most adults I know, it remains a thickened concrete influence in their lives, and rarely for the better. Being alone is ‘bad’; being ‘with someone’ is good, even if that someone threatens to smother your signal or keep you small. Whether or not I was taught that, it is something I came to hold as true. Opening up enough to learn something new will open the tap to my words as well. We are each individuals, and we are never alone unless we tell ourselves otherwise or listen to people who spin those stories for their own benefit.

Fear of Being Wrong

This is the biggest brute of all in my bully pen. As a very young child, I had no limits or blocks. I laughed, embraced, sang, talked, danced, and entertained anyone and anything that would stand still and listen. I shared completely and instinctively. That was who I was. But for parents raised with strict codes of privacy and silence, my behaviour was overwhelming and appalling. A young child approaching strangers at random requires immediate supervision, patience, and a comfort level of self that the parents can smile and own their child’s behaviour on her behalf rather than be humiliated and afraid of being judged for raising a wild child, which is how I think my parents felt. They only wanted to keep me safe, but the price of that safety was my spontaneity, and the lessons were both swift and effective. Keep quiet, and there is reward. Act out and there is punishment. I wasn’t physically harmed, but the sting of a glare or shouted lecture on how i have to start behaving myself has lasted 40 years or more. The occasional spanking I received has been long forgotten. Then I started school, and call out the wrong answer, get in the wrong line, step on the wrong playground and retribution again is swift: shame and humiliation. Some of us learn to laugh it off. I thought I did, until years later I began excavating the landfill blocking my inner signal and discovered mountains of memories oozing their zaps of ridicule, name-calling and calling-out. As an adult, I was called to work in the printed word but also realized how seriously each word committed to paper was taken. Words in a contract could cost you plenty. The wrong words in a news article could cost you a lawsuit or your reputation. Not writing it down seemed the safest place to be. Safety created by others. An illusion. Safety created by me: no word is stronger than that.

Finding these three triggers has helped me built a world of safety, of my own creation. Threatened by one of these I can treat it as I would any bully; look it in the eye, learn what I can, then release and move to a space where my signal is safe and waiting for me. This wil be a constant process of repetition to rewire decades, generations even, of learned and shared behaviours. So what. I don’t know how long it will take, either. Not much of a business plan, but a definitive plan for how I want to live my life.

The tap is now open to a trickle. Here’s to keeping it that way, and seeing what else is to come.

Thanks for being here.

– Jennifer

Jennifer Hatt is a publisher, consultant, and author of the Finding Maria series.