Sisyphus Walks Down The Hill (Thoughts on Writer's Block)
Welcome to the Hammer Party Issue 2, Feb. 2021
Welcome to the hammer party. This issue is mostly dedicated to my favorite subject, writer’s block, but first …
I visited the podcast Watch With Jen (hosted by my friend Jen Johans) recently to talk about David Mamet. We go both wide and deep, talking about most of his movies and many of his theoretical works. He’s one of my problematic faves, so it was really fun to hash him out with Jen.
I was once again hoping to be able to announce something I’m very excited about … but no, Hollywood deals move much more slowly than you can imagine. Watch this space.
Thoughts on Writing :
What I Know About Writer’s Block
Some folk will say real writers don’t get writer’s block. Real writers sit down and produce, on demand. They suggest that maybe you’re not a real writer if you can’t sit down and produce each day, every day.
This, my friends, is macho bullshit.
I have been a professional writer for most of my adult life. I’ve been a music journalist, a movie critic, a television writer, a screen writer and a novelist. So if I’m not a real writer, what am I?
Because sometimes when I sit down to write, it feels like there’s an invisible thumb pressing down on the meat of my brain, where I imagine the adrenaline gland is. Sometimes the nasty voices in my head get too loud for me write. So I procrastinate. I practice avoidance. I don’t produce. It has cost me weeks; it has cost me months; it has cost me years.
I used to subscribe to the idea that this was just weakness. That gritting my teeth and pushing through was the only solution. My failure to do that piled shame on top of the pain of not producing. In the long run it made the problem worse.
I’m writing this essay for people like me, especially people who are still on their first steps as a writer, who want it so bad, who are driven to do it and yet wrestle with pain and worry that means they aren’t meant to write. I’m writing it to say please don’t pile shame on top of the distress. Writer’s block is a thing that happens to real writers. I want to help you if I can.
Maybe none of this makes sense to you. Maybe you sit down and the words just flow. Congratulations. This isn’t for you. But one more thing real fast.
I don’t talk a lot about being sober. I used alcohol to fuck up my life for a long while, and then quit about fourteen years ago. I bring this up to establish my bona fides when I say this: When someone says that writer’s block isn’t real, to me it sounds exactly like “there’s no such thing as a drinking problem.”
I mean, we could all just have a couple drinks, right? It’s free will, isn’t it? And we can all sit down and write, and if when you sit down to write your head is filled with horrible shrieking, well you can just muscle through that shit because writer’s block isn’t real. It’s free will, isn’t it?
Free will is real. But it is not the only game in town.
If writing is difficult for you now, it can get easier. It’s going to take work and constant vigilance. And you’re probably not going to so thoroughly vanquish your writer’s block that you become as prolific as Stephen King, a man so productive that Google refuses to take a firm position on exactly how many book’s he’s written:
The old saw of writing advice is that you cannot just sit around and wait for inspiration - that at some point you have to just sit down and do the work. This is true. Inertia has a huge influence on productivity. If you’re producing, you should try to write most days to keep it going. But we aren’t talking about a lack of inspiration here. We’re talking about distress and anxiety that makes the act of writing painful to the point of impossibility.
If it happens to you, you have a problem. It’s good to admit it. Now you can deal with it.
And that doesn’t mean putting your head down and ignoring the pain. Trying to muscle your way through a mental health problem is not a winning maneuver. It’s a stalling tactic at best. Maybe you’ll pound something out, especially if you have some kind of external deadline. I did it for years, and still do when professional demands force me to. But it’s temporary and ugly and by making your passion a slog, it’s damaging in the long run. You are always training your subconscious. If you teach the lizard that lives inside your brain that writing equals pain, the lizard in your brain will do whatever it can to avoid it.
Creative work should resemble play or sport. In my experience, both while solo writing and while working with other writers in a TV room, that the best work comes from a sense of focused play.
That doesn’t mean writing should be easy. It means there are different degrees of difficult. Writing should be hard the way doing a set of dead-lifts is hard. It should not be hard like trying to climb out the rubble of a collapsed house. If it feels that way, you’re doing something wrong. And you’re training your subconscious to hate writing. You’re creating a feedback loop that will lead to more blockage down the road.
(This is a general truth about writing, by the way - if you’re having too hard a time solving a problem, you probably need to step back instead of working harder. Banging your head against the wall will give you more headaches and bloodstains that it will give you solutions. But we can talk about that another time.)
So if working harder isn’t the answer, what is?
If writer’s block is a real and persistent problem for you, here is what I can tell you.
1). If therapy is an option for you, I recommend it. Cheap answer, I know. But it’s true.
2). Work on tricks that can make writing less painful. For me, reminding myself “first you make it, then you make it good” can help me not get hung up on the imperfections. Remind yourself that you are not your work. Intentionally write badly.
3). Look at changing your mental diet. There is a direct correlation for me between Twitter usage and difficulty writing. Put less internet in your brain. Also, work on putting some good stuff in your head instead (more on that below).
4). As a French graffiti artist said in the summer of ‘68, there is a sleeping cop inside your brain who must be killed (but that’s complicated and we can talk about that later).
And the one the macho folk will tell you is all wrong:
5). If you sit down one morning and your head is full of voices screaming at you and you cannot write - get up and walk away. (If you have a deadline, this might not be an option. I’m sorry. You can grit your teeth and push through for now. Just don’t take that as the permanent solution.)
If you can, go do something else. Take days or weeks or months off. It is not a sin. It is not a failure. We’re conditioned to think of productivity as the highest good. It isn’t. Be fucking kind to yourself.
Doing these things, and most importantly giving myself permission to do these things without guilt, I’ve gotten much better at beating writer’s block these past few years.
The last half of last year, it was better. I produced at a rate I hadn’t before. Starting earlier this month, it was worse. There’s a lot of different reasons why, but that’s not important right now. Because here’s what I did after two days where I sat down and felt that old pain, two days where I didn’t really produce and felt like shit about it:
I got up and walked away. I gave myself a week off from writing. I watched movies. I signed up for MUBI so I could watch some new movies. I read. I took walks. I refilled the tank.
I spent time thinking about Sisyphus. About how every picture you find of Sisyphus is of him pushing the boulder up the hill, before it slips from his grasp. They never show what he does while it rolls back down. And it seems to me that maybe that’s the important part. What you do when the boulder slips.
Sometimes the boulder is going to slip. Let it roll. You don’t have to chase it. You don’t have to get crushed trying to stop it. Walk down after it slowly. Shake the ache from your hands. Look up at the sky. Get to the bottom of the hill. Take a breath. Then start to push again.
After two weeks of not writing, of refilling the tank, of being as healthy as I could be, I could feel the shift inside myself. It was time to get back to work.
I set my alarm and started getting up at five thirty in the morning, when it is quiet and dark. I work for an hour or two before Megan wakes up. The first few days were slow, and still a little painful. And then the boulder started rolling.
Here’s the trick for getting restarted.
One step is enough.
Sit down in front of the computer. Write one sentence. If you want to, write more. If you don’t, don’t. You’ve won. You’ve started pushing the boulder. It will roll easier soon. Just keep pushing.
And be fucking kind to yourself.
Refilling the Tank
Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassky
One of the most important things you can do as a creative person is constantly monitor and refill your creative reserves. I spend a lot of time re-reading and re-watching things I’ve consumed many times already, which is a vital part of my creative process (one I’ll talk about in a future issue). But I also pay attention to the need to refill the tank, which is best done by a strategic program of exposing myself to new stuff. So Refilling the Tank will be a part of this newsletter, sharing things that have done the most to replasticize my brain.
My friend Blake Howard mentioned he was not re-watching any movies this month - perhaps a normal state of affairs for most people but not for a film-lover like Blake - and I decided to join him. Also, I signed up for the art-house streaming service MUBI, which has been excellent for refilling the tank.
My favorite discovery from MUBI is the work of Austrian avant garde filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky. He works with old movies clips, creating strange, hypnotic and assaultive images that speak directly to the subconscious. It’s excellent stuff. It deserves to be watched on the biggest screen you can find, with the lights out and headphones in. And be warned, if you are prone to seizures you may want to skip this.
Murder Ballad of the Month
“Walk Around” by Ghostface Killah
When he chooses to be, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah is one of the best crime-fiction short-story writers of the last twenty years. His story-songs are often minimalist masterpieces, telling full, rounded stories using less words than all but the briefest of flash fiction. “Walk Around” is the story of the emotional and practical aftermath of a man who has just committed a public murder. He uses sparing detail to paint scenes quickly (“the corner store and the buttered roll”), he writes the violence brief and brutal as Ellroy, and he lets the viewer see behind the machismo to the storm of defiance and regret that swirl inside the killer. While the song ends before the story does, the killer’s threat to “Larry Davis a cop” before surrendering lets you know what the inevitable end is going to be.
Writing Music of the Month
And the Refinement of Their Decline by Stars of the Lid
Simple, soaring, epic drones.
Party’s over. See you next month.