Acute panic accompanies a blank page, so I almost never use one. It’s a mental trick. You see, I write columns in one contiguous Google document of half-shaped paragraphs and ideas, a grotesque prose jabberwocky that eventually grows too bloated to function.
My previous document got to 629 pages and 127,000 words before it froze. My current file is a third of that in various states of undress, a busker’s tip jar. Throw a couple (40,000) words in, and you can fool even yourself.
Not this week. Not right now. Can you tell I have writer’s block? This doesn’t normally happen. I’ve built a catalog being fast, productive and free from the prison of overthinking. Confident writing is a muscle that develops with use, each collection of words a bicep curl. I write two columns and one email newsletter each week, and in my free time, fiction. I’m constantly writing. Results vary, but the words plop out and I move on.
This blockage, though, this intellectual fatberg wedged into the pipes of my right hemisphere and would not budge. In a hysterical state, I made repetitive trips to the coffee pot and sent a check-in to my editor that read, “Trying to avoid a full mental spiral, that’s the update.” For four days, I couldn’t focus or even compose a tweet. That’s 280 characters. Emojis are an option. “Real Housewives” GIFs. Photos of sloths.
There have been moments lately the internet seems so bad, so fast, so furious that no path feels distillable, entertaining or insightful. I started and stopped pieces, dashed off notes about local and world events, toyed with potential headlines, mined my drab, puny personal life.
The Google doc became a notebook found beneath floorboards of a remote cabin.
Do not waste food. Use all food in fridge! Be inspired by French.
Start a community garden? Explore logistics.
Gas is for millionaires?
Men online. Is this the end of men?
Ostensibly, “things” aren’t worse today than they were yesterday, or two years ago. “Things” are bad on an ever-sliding scale. “Things” are fine for me, personally. So what? What is happening when the flow congeals?
Storied writers have issued opinions on the B-word ranging from “death is the only escape” to “it’s fake.” The ones who say writer’s block is a myth probably don’t have three standing deadlines a week.
British writer Alexander McCall Smith once told The Daily Mail that “writer’s block is a load of nonsense,” that he finds going to Botswana helpful to open his mind. OK, well! Then again, there was Ray Bradbury in The Paris Review with more practical advice: “I have three rules to live by. One, get your work done. If that doesn’t work, shut up and drink your gin. And when all else fails, run like hell!”
It’s not just writers who get stifled, right? Interior designers must have days when everything looks gray and flat. Chefs have nights when every sauce is 70% emulsified garbage. Accountants have moments when the numbers are utter nonsense. The lights flicker in every mind.
I’m tempted to blame the barrage of online stimuli, trending topics, cycles of hot takes, hot reactions to hot takes and corrections to hot reactions to hot takes. How does anyone find time to interrogate the dusty corners of the soul when there’s always something shiny to see? I, for one, need to review every dress from Cannes.
My go-to remedy for writer’s block is getting out of the office. Not Botswana, but, like, a coffee shop. And, of course, reading. I reached for a book this week by Mary Schmich, retired columnist from The Chicago Tribune. Let’s visit page 44 of “Even the Terrible Things Seem Beautiful to Me Now”:
“In moments when I have nothing with which to fill this column — which, really, is not happening right now — I recite that sentence to myself several times. Panic is my muse. Panic is my muse. Panic is my muse.”
She wrote that in 1999. The internet may be rotting our brains, but panic is timeless!
In the end, relenting worked. Admitting that I was, as they say in Paris, “le losing it,” shook free ideas, shook free these words. The muscle was there, hiding under a dopamine afghan, tucked inside cortical folds of doom. It just needed a nap before pressing on.
Stephanie Hayes is a columnist at the Tampa Bay Times in Florida. Follow her at @stephhayes on Twitter or @stephrhayes on Instagram.