Cold, blue-white-lit, MacBook-fueled terror. AKA writer’s block.

by Ethan Gilsdorf

If you are a writer, you know about magical thinking. About the power of procrastination. About the very attractive, rational idea that if your pencils -- OK, my pencils -- are lined up by descending size, and if I've placed my garbage safely on the curb each Monday night, and sorted the recyclables according to the City of Somerville's strict regulations, and if I've had that one extra, perfect cup of [insert beverage of choice here] -- but not TOO much, of course -- now, yes, only now, at last, under these special conditions and only under these conditions, will the dark clouds finally part to reveal a clear view to Mount Olympus, Asgard, Nirvana, or the god-home or muse-home of your choice.

If and only if ... then, and only then ... the writing can begin.

Ah, that kooky reason of the writerly mind. I barely scraped by in my math classes and never took logic, but this OCD-borne, ADD-driven hocus-pocus makes perfect sense to me. It always does.

Because, you see, sans these magical, mystical or practical conditions, writer's block rules with a dark chocolate fist. (I was going to say "iron fist," but my students' Cliché-O-Meters would go through the roof and they'd rightfully nail me for not practicing what I preach, i.e. being a lazy writer and relying on received language. There's also a better reason for this odd image: Only a dark chocolate fist could truly lord over me. I would laugh at all other fists. Except maybe a mithril fist. But I digress.)

Back to writer's block, from which I suffer. Of course, writer's block is a fabrication. It's balderdash, malarkey, baloney, bunk, hogwash, bull, hokum. To quote Woody Allen, "It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham." Because anyone can write. Yes, even you. Now.

Here: I'll give you an assignment:

There's a wedding cake smashed on the side of I-93. After what chain of events did this come to pass? Take 10 minutes to write. Explain the backstory. Oh, you want more time? You're not done yet? See -- writing is easy.

Oh, you mean write something great?

Ba-da-bingo. 

It's under these conditions of greatness, the desire for greatness, that writer's block truly thrives. Because, of course, writer's block is fear. Cold, blue-white-lit, MacBook-fueled terror. Paralyzing, blizzard-white dread, wrought in 8-and-a-half-inch-by-11-inch rectangles. Sharp, deadly, cruel. Aye, cut you to the core, they will, matey.

As we talked about in my recent class "So You Want To Be a Writer," this fear can strike at any time, at any hour in a writer's day or week or career. I think it's partly fear of failure. And partly fear of success.  As Sonya Larson recently and so wisely wrote in the pages of this blog, “So long as my novel lives with just me, I’m okay ... But once it’s out in the world, I can’t help it anymore, I can’t make it better. What if people think, ‘Really? You spent five years making that?’” [In the place of "novel," insert "poem," "essay," "story," "book idea," etc.]

Ipso fatso: That overwhelming urge to not write, to slink into the den for another night of baseball and reality TV and one-bite brownies, is fear of exposure of being a fraud. Of risking greatness.

So how do you prevail? You learn to live with that fear. You learn to not pay attention to the voices that strive to defeat you. I can tell you, after more than 23 years of trying to take myself seriously as a writer, these petty panics, agitations, trepidations, consternations, distresses, anxieties, worries, angsts, and uneases never quite, well, ease up.

Like a loud neighbor living in the third floor of your Somerville triple-decker (who still stomps around like a six year old), you learn to live with it. You say to yourself, "Oh yeah, I know you." You think, "I've seen and heard you before." And you grumble to yourself, "I know you're going to make me feel lousy. Ha, I already feel lousy. So there."

You hear, but you don't listen. You slip in your ear buds. You cast a spell.

You keep writing.

And maybe not worry about greatness so much, OK?

[If you're looking for a practical, non-emotional, peanuts-and-bolts, guaranteed writer's block-free class, I'm teaching this one-night seminar "How to Pitch Your Articles, Op-eds, and Essays for Publication" on Monday, September 12th, 6:30-9:30pm. In three hours, I'll pass on all I know about how to write killer pitch letters (aka “query letters” or “cover letters”) for submitting essays, op-eds, articles and feature stories to editors of magazines, newspapers, literary magazines, and online publications. There are a few slots left. I hope you can join us.]

A Grub instructor and Board member, Ethan Gilsdorf not only suffers from writer's block. He also teaches a lot of different classes. He writes for places like Salon.com, the Boston Globe, wired.com, Playboy, National Geographic Traveler, Poetry, The Southern Review, Psychology Today, and the New York Times. Some people have enjoyed his book, a travel memoir investigation called Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. He has interviewed Sir Ben Kingsley, David Carradine and Sister Helen Prejean; taste-tested caffeinated beer; worked as an extra on a Merchant-Ivory film; walked across Scotland; and embarked on a quest for the perfect French fry.

About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, he teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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