I'm rewriting the same paragraph over and over and over!

I'm stuck creatively and don't know where to turn.

Published December 15, 2008 11:10AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm blocked. Creatively, spiritually, emotionally -- you name it. I'm a 28-year-old writer who can't seem to get anything onto the page without second-guessing and editing the entire time. I write the first sentence over and over, eventually giving up on the idea entirely -- only to see it appear in another publication later. This happens constantly.

(It took me an hour to write that first paragraph. If this were a piece, and not a messy letter, it would've taken me four.)

But this writing block, really, is just one facet in a complex problem. It's merely a symptom, not the cause, of my distress.

A little back story: I've spent a lot of time in various creative pursuits. Moved to NYC for film school, ditched it to come home and form a band, which ended up making several records and touring for years. I had lots of friends and all these fantastic experiences. I felt connected, truly.

When the band ended (along with a really awful five-year relationship), I took to freelance writing. I also took to drinking and generally being a debaucherous mess, but it felt like such an incredibly important time -- I had even more friends (a few of whom are still my bestest) and even more experiences, and it was just so much fun, I can hardly stand to think about it.

But then all the fun got tedious. I met a similarly debaucherous boy (now my husband) and together, we kicked most of our bad habits. Stopped going out as much, laid off the drugs and drinking, and just enjoyed being relatively functional, in-love 20-somethings.

Several months later, after a complete financial breakdown, I bit the bullet and got a real job at a real corporation willing to pay me real money. At first, it was novel and hilarious, just another silly experience, but two years later ... here I am. Not that it's awful; not by any stretch. It is a writing job, after all, and it's in a field I've come to adore. I absolutely love my co-workers, two of whom have become great friends, and my husband and I actually have money; a strange thing for two kids who cut their teeth on the '90s riot grrrl/hardcore scene and have spent their lives in either touring vans or punk houses.

But now, suddenly, I feel stuck. Blocked. I moonlight for a totally amazing publication and my husband and I have just started a two-person music project, but it's a struggle for me to actually finish anything. I write and write and write, and then give up. I never leave the house, even though I want to, and I always feel like I'm not having any fun when my husband does manage to drag me out. I go to bed really, really early. And I'm absolutely disconnected from everyone in this city; the scene/community/whatever that used to feel like home to me is now just this strange, strange place that I have no hope of navigating. The few people that I do know (holdovers from years past) are all doing these amazing things; opening shops, running really great club nights, starting businesses. Some are still touring and recording. I just go to work and come home. My life has become totally about my job and not the work I really want to be doing, the things I ideate and never execute. Granted, my job carries a tiny bit of prestige, but I don't ever see it that way. I just feel old, stodgy and upwardly mobile.

Thing is, I know what I need to do. I know I need to go out and experience things again, to not stare at these same four walls day after day. I know I need to write for the sake of writing and not be concerned about the fate of whatever I finish. I know I need to stay in touch with old friends and try to make new ones, to travel when I can, to invite people over and write letters and live. I know this. But when I make a list of all the things I need to do, I feel so overwhelmed that I end up curling up in a ball and falling asleep. I'm not lazy, I'm not unmotivated, I'm just ... stuck.

Cary, how do get past this life block and experience things again? How do I stop being so intimidated and overwhelmed by everything not work-related? Because though I love my job, it's just a job. It's what I do to make the money to do other things, yet it's all I think, feel and breath. I need more ... but how do I get it?


Dear Quicksand,

I am not sure yet if yours is the letter I will answer for publication or not. [Obviously, that decision has now been made. --ct] I have just taken some Percocet. As I mentioned in the previous two days' columns, I am trying a writing experiment. Because I have chosen to continue writing the column as I recover from minor but painful surgery, it has been necessary to write while under the influence of painkillers and opiates. This presents a challenge for someone with a history of drug abuse.

But my hope is that it also presents possibilities. And so, for the third day, I write in a new way. The rule I have made for myself is that I cannot go back and fix, or rearrange, or rewrite what I have done. I realized, on the first day of this experiment, when I absolutely lacked the mental concentration to do that kind of rearranging, that I would have to give it up. Thus I was forced to write this new way.

I recommend this to you. Even now, as I try to form the thoughts, or arguments, that I feel are persuasive in this regard, they remain elusive. What I am accustomed to doing I cannot do. This disability is forcing me to simply keep writing and moving forward.

Of course I fear that I will not be brilliant enough. This fear will have to wait. I cannot hide from it.

Your plight raises many questions for me.

The previous seems to me to be veering close to incoherence. So I will attempt to ground this. I have just paused to have breakfast with my wife and have conversations about my past. Now I am back, with a cup of coffee, rereading your letter. I will now attempt to talk about two things. One is the way that taking a corporate job can affect you more deeply than you at first realize. The other is how a few simple grounding activities may help you to begin moving forward again.

First, from my own experience: Like you, I did many creative things early in life and then tried to settle down. I, too, took a corporate job for a few years. What I would caution you about, from my own experience, is the danger of renouncing your former belief in the primacy of creative experience. In joining the corporate economy, you face a genuine choice.

In spite of what you believe is possible -- that it is possible to "have your day job and keep your integrity" -- my experience has been that the concrete, day-to-day forces, sociological and economic, that hold corporations together and make them function, will and must work on you; they will force you to choose. You cannot maintain two completely separate lives. What you are experiencing now, it seems to me, is the pain -- the terror, perhaps -- of realizing that your occupation must take all of you. I believe that this would take many paragraphs to argue in detail, and as I have said, since I am somewhat impaired, I cannot make that argument in full. Yet this is my strong intuitive sense: that you will continue to be in turmoil as long as you try to succeed in your corporate job and also live a full and inspired creative life outside it.

So, because of this untenable situation, it might be said that your blockage is a kind of symbolic resistance. It is both a symbolic resistance and it is symptomatic. In other words, not only are you resisting being consumed by the corporation, but you are also already feeling the debilitating effects of being in the corporation. Already, you cannot function as an artist the way you formerly did. Yet you continue to try. Your blockage is telling you: You can't do this! Yet you have so far avoided accepting the situation.

So you keep trying to do the impossible. You overestimate your capacity and underestimate the power of the corporate life to sap you of that capacity. Thus you are stuck. Or, more precisely, you feel stuck. You are not actually stuck, any more than a man who keeps trying to climb up the sheer side of a building is stuck. He persists in trying the impossible. But he has a choice. He can recognize that what he is doing is impossible. His options are to either find something he can climb, or give up climbing.

So that is my opinion about how your corporate work is affecting you. My other comment, as I promised, is about how you may regain your ability to move forward creatively. This interests me a great deal right now because what you describe in your first paragraph is what I have fallen prey to repeatedly. Now that I simply cannot hold several thoughts in my head at once, now that I am forced to move in a strictly linear way, I feel a breakthrough is at hand. I would like to say a couple of things about it, one speculative and the other quite a concrete suggestion. My speculation is that one motive for being stuck, spinning our wheels and the like, is that we are trying to stop time. Perhaps we fear what we are proceeding toward. In the case of writing and rewriting a paragraph 20 times or 50 times, we may fear the plainness and simplicity of what is in our minds; we may fear that unless we unleash a dazzling fusillade of verbal inventiveness, the reader will turn away in boredom and disgust. So we keep tinkering, trying to perfect the bomb.

And behind this need to have such an effect, we might say, is the need for power -- power over the reader rather than with the reader. We are seeking a position of power and dominance; to simply speak in even, measured tones of our own experience will not give us that power and dominance; we have to "slay" the audience. We have to prove ourselves worthy. And this need to show ourselves worthy arises out of an unfortunate belief that we are in some sense not worthy -- otherwise, why would we be trying so hard to prove it?

My other contention, that we are symbolically trying to stop time, is harder to convey. Perhaps I am not even correct in this. But I picture an animal furiously pedaling to nowhere. Language is a linear medium; it does not occur as a mosaic; it cannot be taken in all at once; it must unfold. It must occur in time. So by trying to perfect a paragraph, to make it like a bomb that explodes with wisdom, is to oppose the nature of narrative itself. It may be what imagist poets were trying to do, to induce ephemeral epiphany. So it is a very specialized use of language. Enough about that. It is a minor point I have already spent too much time on.

So, as to what concrete things you might do to get out of this hellish block: I would suggest what I am doing right now. Not that you have to take Percocet (I am acutely aware of the dangers of prescription drug addiction, and do not recommend any sort of experimentation in this regard). But begin unspooling, as I am unspooling. Begin simply writing forward, word by word.

One way is to stop writing on a computer. As we read texts from hundreds of years ago and think about how these texts were created, we must envision how writers worked without being able to move blocks of text around. They started at one end and continued toward the other end. Try this. It entails some fear. I may not appear as brilliant to you as I would like to appear. But I am not hiding. I am doing it one word at a time. There is no hidden process by which I am arranging what you read. I am here with you, in the moment, unspooling this.

Try this. Relax your shoulders. Write in a notebook. Begin with a first sentence. Write as you follow your thoughts. Note your thoughts and write them. Try to envision what you have to say, and imagine that you have the world's most engaged and patient, interested friend and reader on the other end, appreciating your words as they unspool, nodding thoughtfully at what you write. Imagine a person who wants to hear the whole story, told with some structure and coherence. Keep in mind that one of the primary things we love about words and about music is that they continue, that they simply continue, that we can slip into the stream of another's tale or song and for that time we are exempted from woe, we are in another's arms, we are wrapped in a story. Write from the beginning, as if to a friend, and trust that the friend keeps asking you, "Go on, please, what happened next?"

I have probably said enough. Looking over this, though, I have at least one more thought to share, and that is that you may be experiencing symptoms that require professional attention. It would not hurt, in fact, to at least discuss some of this with a psychological professional. Certain things you mention -- your sleeping a lot, your not leaving the house -- may be just ways that you are trying to cope with too much overwhelm, or they may be symptoms of some clinical problem. So please do not consider me an authority on any kind of mental disorder. I am not. I am not trained for that. I have availed myself of much professional help when I felt I might need it. So please keep that in mind.

Thus ends Day 3 of writing without a net. I do not mean to denigrate the practice of rewriting many times. I am sure that if you compare this text to other texts in which I have unleashed volleys of unrestrained ranting and have explored certain images that occur, and tried to decode them, and tried one beginning after another until I found the one most arresting, and cut out transitional sentences and qualifying modifiers, and experimented with rhythm and sound and combinations of different rhetorical devices, I am sure you will see that this is not a virtuosic performance. But it is a true performance. It is just me talking to you, not trying to dazzle you or floor you. There is something to be said for that. There is something to be said not only for its value as a product, but also for the process. When we are stuck revising and revising, we can forget that it's sometimes OK to just write straightforward prose.

This raises one last interesting question: Once the surgical incisions have healed and I am no longer in need of painkillers, will I continue to write in this fashion? What I hope to learn is that some revision is fine, but enough is enough. I hope also to learn to look far enough ahead, as I work, so that the work has a natural movement toward conclusion. But enough about me. In conclusion, I suggest you do two things. One, recognize and admit to yourself that there's no way you can succeed in corporate life and also continue your creative life with the same vibrancy and commitment you previously had. And two, to overcome this block, try denying yourself permission to revise. Just put the pen to paper and start moving forward. Keep going. Envision your ideal reader. Write to that person. Just keep going. Keep your eyes on the road far ahead; keep moving toward the next town.


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