Write your way out of being unable to write

    This morning I sat down to brainstorm at the Old Town dock in Tacoma, sitting on my favorite bench overlooking Commencement Bay with my coffee and my little red notebook. And nothing happened.
    I was stuck. I’d just finished a climactic scene yesterday, and I didn’t know what happened next.
    So instead of brainstorming, I wrote, “I feel scared. Feel worried I’ll mess it up. Worst case scenario, it’s a shitty first draft. Worst case scenario, I ruin it. Worst case scenario, I stop writing. Afraid of making a mistake.”
    And the funny thing was, as soon as I got that out of my system, I quickly flipped to the next page, because my imagination started telling me what happened next. The struggle was over—the answers came easily as soon as I finished writing down my fears.
    They just needed to be heard, not even addressed or assuaged, and then I could go on.
    It turns out, it’s possible to write your way out of being unable to write. Everybody needs to feel heard, even that crazy, fearful part of you that wants so badly to look out for you but sometimes makes things too hard. When you try to ignore that voice, it just gets louder. It makes me feel like there’s an inescapable problem that urgently needs to be fixed. But it turns out the solution is to listen. Nothing needs to be fixed. The difficult feelings just need to be heard.
    I did this one day in October when I was having trouble getting started, and as I wrote, the random collection of thoughts and fears piled up to the point that I could laugh at myself, and soon the tension broke. Here’s what I wrote: “I think I’ve forgotten how to write. It’s been too long, barely touching it for weeks, not at all for two weeks. The refrigerator is rattling, Bertie needs attention—this is not a good time. I’m too scattered, too distracted. The weather is too nice. I have a holiday feeling—not good for work. I’m thinking of Rome, the catacombs. The concept of salad in England. The birds sound like summer. Blue sky. Bertie’s toy hits my foot. She’s determined to find earplugs in Jeff’s computer bag—she’s trying to lose her toy under the fridge. Scared to write. It won’t be good enough. It’ll drag down the quality of the whole thing. Best not to risk it. The heater is blowing; Bertie’s head is submerged in the bag. One feels she deserves to keep what she finds. I’m afraid even to read the manuscript. What if it’s terrible and I become convinced I’m wasting my time? What if it’s good and I’m not the woman I was and can’t complete it?”
    At that point, I realized I had set a trap for myself that I couldn’t escape—whether my writing was good or bad, I was screwed. My convoluted thinking suddenly seemed endearing and a lot less threatening. At that point, I set down my journal and got started. The resistance was gone.
    C. C. Humphreys suggests setting aside a page in the back of your notebook to write down the words that have the power to stop you in your tracks. He called it the “Critics’ Page.” It’s the same idea: if left inside you, the press of the words may be forceful enough to trip you up. But writing them down someplace and just leaving them there takes the sting out of them.
    This is what I wrote at the top of my Critics’ Page: “Who are you to write a book?”
    Once that I wrote that down, I found myself not thinking it anymore. It was surprising, because that was a thought that had given me pause many times before. And it seemed like writing it down would make it more concrete, more substantial. Instead, the opposite was true. Rather than giving that thought more power, writing it down took away its strength.
    Now instead of wondering about whether I should be writing a book, I’m just doing it.