Personal issues with 'writer's block' - Juan Conatz

Personal issues with 'writer's block' - Juan Conatz

Juan Conatz goes over some reasons for his personal problems with being able to write, exploring underlying reasons behind the 'writer's block'.

It has been about a year since I've written anything. This is not by choice. Sure, part of it is a choice, in the same way that anything you don’t do is somewhat of one, but there’s more to it than that. Discovering the reason has been mystifying. People ask “Do you still write?” and when the response is “Well, I haven’t in awhile.”, they inquire “Why not?”.

I don’t actually know the answer to that.

After a few months, blame was placed on the much elusive but finally obtained full-time job. This type of employment doesn't allow a lot of free time. Everyone is different, but there are certain habits and atmosphere usually required when I write. Typically, this requires staying up all night, chain smoking menthols and consuming unhealthy amounts of caffeine. In fact, currently, it is 1AM, there is a KOOL hanging from my lips and circulating through my body is 2 fruit punch Rock Star energy drinks.

It’s the weekend of course. Having a full-time 1st shift job restricts being able to do this at any other time. In any case, even within this time frame, regardless if wanting to write or not, most people would rather be doing something else. The exhaustion of work often allows only 'baseline' interests, such as drinking, the pursuit of relationship partners, entertainment, food, etc. You can sort of loosely compare this to how everyday conversations in the workplace happen. I don't believe for a second that discussions or religion are avoided, as they often are, because of potential controversy. If that was the case, sports talk would also be avoided, because the passion and emotions often associated with this rival any disagreement on God or Obama. Rather, it's the fact that these topics are the kind which require an uninterrupted scenario. It can be difficult to be talking about something as heavy as whether Hell exists or if Obamacare really is gonna cover my hospital bills and then have to go do something else that takes 3 hours, thus interrupting your train of thought.

Anyway, this issue of not being able to write bothered me so much, that for the first time in possibly 15 years, I solicited the advice of my dad. He's a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service and, at least when I was a kid, had been involved in the underground comics and zine culture that was relatively big in the 1980s and early 90s. He says:

Blue collar work can be a catalyst for creativity or it can numb your mind. I've tried to write, draw,paint and do theater over the years in order to express some inner need to be artistically creative but its been very frustrating to do at times. When I was younger I had more energy to accomplish things, especially before I started to have a family. Now that I'm about to turn 58 and still putting in long hours, I rarely have that compelling feeling to accomplish artistic goals.

He goes on to mention there are only a few working peple who were also able to write besides Bukowski, Orwell and Kafka. Personally, I would add people like Stan Weir and Marty Glaberman. However, it seems all these people didn't really get to focus on their writing until they quit their shitty jobs and put all of their time in effort into either academia or writing.

This is an unacceptable solution to me, so there has to be an alternative.

Usually, when coming across a problem, a sort of self-deconstruction of it happens. 'What are the root causes?' and that sort of thing. It can be super annoying and judgmental when its applied to actual people, but becoming an anti-capitalist is the result of this kind of thinking.

Having almost a year to consider all of this, here's what I came up with:

It Doesn't Matter

Most of what I've written either appears on libcom.org, a somewhat obscure communist website, or the Industrial Worker, the newspaper for a tiny revolutionary union. The audience is small, the reach unknown at best or minuscule at worst. So what's the point of exerting the effort. I'm not comfortable with admitting this has gone through my mind, but it has.

This should probably be recognized for what it really is...not questioning the point of writing, but questioning the point of involvement in the radical left/ultraleft. My writing is completely intertwined with my political activity, so any problem with one, has to mean a problem with the other.

Despite being aware of the low possibility of concrete results, disillusionment and cynicism can infect the best of us. There is a very real sentiment that can overwhelm me of 'Forget all this bullshit'. It's made easier by losing campaigns, political/personal relationships being ruptured, feeling alienated by demographics/culture unlike you or any number of reasons.

But this assumes there is a choice. When it comes down to it, there has never been a choice for me. Even before radical politics, the rejection of the 'present state of things' was something done without hesitation. Unfortunatly, this was expressed in all sorts of 'anti-social' ways, helped no one and was incredibly self-destructive. A divorce with radicalism would only result in a return to this, which is pointless and undesirable.

Am I any good at this?

Look, I'm a high school dropout with a couple semesters of bad grades at a community college under my belt. What business do I have writing?

It's irrelevant that formal education isn't necessarily an indicator of someone's ability or talent. It's irrelevant that I've been aware that average people can write, draw, paint, design or do anything, since an early age. This idea of inadequateness will always be there as long as I'm involved in a radical left that is disproportionately educated. So the key here is to find a way to continuously improve, regardless if needed, while never being stagnant. Descriptions can always be more visual. Persuasive statements can always be more poetic. Expression of emotional content can be done better. Ask advice. Read books about writing. Try to deconstruct favorite authors, identify why you like them and what their shortcomings are. This is stuff I tell myself.

I don't want to be an open book (pun intended?)

Writing is a deeply personal thing. It's a humbling thing. You're putting your thoughts to paper (or computer screen) and are assuming that someone out there gives a shit about what you have to say. It can feel presumptuous to do this. When the hesitation associated is overcome, which is hard enough, then comes the worry you've said too much. There's a reason most people conduct themselves differently among close friends than they do with total strangers. With writing there is little distinction between the two.

I'm not sure how to deal with this issue. Motivation to write is often triggered by an emotional response to something. But the way I was socialized means expressing these emotions publicly goes against the norm of dealing with them internally or privately. To counteract that, a deployment of rejecting criticism (another way many of us are socialized) happens. The two battle it out, with the winner varying from time to time.

Uncomfortable with recognition

It doesn't take much within the small IWW or libertarian communist milieu to be recognized. Particularly as a someone who writes, you basically only need to be sane and have regular content.

While it may not be immediately apparent, and in fact, this is something I've only recently found out about myself, but I'm deeply uncomfortable of recognition. If there are things I excel at (and I'm not saying I excel at anything), it is behind the scenes stuff where it isn't apparent who is responsible. Eventually, this has to be overcome, because what it really is, is a fear of being wrong. A fear of failure with my name on it. With writing, it's a little different.

Some people thrive with recognition. They feed off others seeing them as important with Important Things To Say. But I don't have anything more to say than others who don't write. So, recognition (however currently small) is undue and undeserved. But with anything that puts your name (or pseudonym that can easily be traced back to your real identity), this has something that has to be dealt with. Avoiding the issue does not make it disappear. What's important is how its dealt with.

Rather than shying away from this recognition, it should be flipped onto the people who deserve it or used to draw out the opinions and experiences of the people doing the recognizing.

Well, what now?

This piece is really raw and not edited by anyone else but me at 1AM. It's sort of a mental exercise meant to help me face the actual reasons behind not being able to write. Hopefully, that can happen.

Comments

Chilli Sauce
Sep 5 2013 08:21

Good piece Juan, and good to see you writing again wink

FWIW, I went through a period this year where I didn't do much writing as well (you can see my blog count went down to almost zero during the summer). For me, it was a combination of a 6-day-a-week job and an intensive online course I was taking.

And, for me as well, I find it's the emotional imperative that helps me write: starting a new job, conflict at work, a new political project. After the protests died down here in Turkey, I didn't have much of that.

The other thing I find helpful when writing is having someone to share your work with as you're developing a piece. I'm lucky in that my partner is really helpful in that aspect, but I've worked on some joint pieces of writing as well. I find they really help to keep me motivated and keep the ol' creative juices flowing.

Noah Fence
Sep 5 2013 12:00

There's a very nice irony in the fact that your piece about suffering from writer's block is so clear and concise and enjoyable to read!
I would love to be able to write but on the few occasions that I have tried I have felt totally overwhelmed with any strain of thought that I want to convey becoming completely non linear. The only positive to come out of this being an extra walk for my dog that day while I try to clear my head.
One of my favourite authors, Russell Hoban, who died earlier this year wrote several novels on the theme of writer's block, the first and probably the best of which is The Medusa Frequency. Whether or not it would be of any use to you I have no idea but it's a cracking read anyway!

martinh
Sep 5 2013 17:57

Hey Juan, some interesting points there. As I mainly write for something that doesn't put things onto the web, I kind of got the self-recognition in not wanting to be recognised. I've been badgered about putting things on here, but it isn't something I'm going to find the time to do anytime soon.
If you write, then generally you need to write. If you're not writing for libcom or IW, then you will find that you end up writing somewhere else, even if it doesn't get published/read.
And an emotional response is good, BTW. You can tell when someone hasn't got one....

Regards,
Martin

hellfrozeover
Sep 5 2013 18:06

What seems to be missing from this piece is an answer to "why are you writing?" It's touched on maybe when you say "what's the point?" but posing the question that way triggers off the negative selftalk that would hamstring any start towards answering the question.

All of these are possible reasons why you'd write:
* get a political point across
* get a piece of information out there
* ask a question
* capture a moment
* it's fun
* impress/amuse a friend
* something needs said that isn't being said (enough)
* pass the time on the bus to work
* etc

They're all valid reasons, they can be true or not at different times or for different projects, they have different implications for the time, effort, audience targeted and (I think crucially) what would feel like a successful piece of writing to you.

Myself, I had to scale down any idea of or measure of success in my writing beyond "I enjoyed writing this". I can't look at page counts, comments (+ve or -ve), facebook "likes" or re-tweets because they demotivate me. (So much time spent! Only 15 likes!)

I went through a long period of writing nothing because (I told myself) I didn't want to add to the noise and the blather of the internet - everything had to be perfect, so nothing got written. I look back at that now as a time when I was depressed, and that as one of the symptoms. So like forcing myself to go out for walks when I wanted to stay indoors, I wrote things even (especially) when I felt I had nothing to say. Then I binned them, mostly. The process and the habit was what counted. And I need to keep that motivation up, so depending on mood I stay away from putting my name to things, or publishing them, or imagining an audience beyond myself.

That'd be my advice (in there, somewhere). Ask yourself "why not", instead of why, scale down your expectations to the point where you're enjoying writing again. (But causes of not writing are pretty personal things, so it may not work for you.)

syndicalist
Sep 5 2013 19:37

Just read the little, opening para, end..... I can commiserate with Juan on this big time.

Tian
Sep 5 2013 23:51

Yeah, I've been there.

Procrastination and self-doubt, not physical exhaustion, are my biggest walls.

I've found reading helps a bunch, if you have the time. Maybe try reading stuff you disagree with, that gets you really pissed off, or just some fluff to completely take your mind off of your own project. This has worked for me in the past.

Failing that, when I'm stuck I often try my hand at writing something completely different, even if it sucks and I never look at it again, or with the knowledge that no-one will ever see it so it doesn't have to be perfect. Switching between styles or forms might help with this, and knowing that you're just writing for yourself might take off some of that pressure you seem to feel as well.

Keeping notes is good for this -- getting out a journal of ideas/ thoughts and turning them into something, anything, is a good way of keeping productive, or an escape if you're stuck on some project and need a break.

jef costello
Sep 7 2013 06:54

I know the feeling, when you have a job you don't have the energy to write, but when I have been unemployed I have written nothing either. I think Orwell wrote an essay on this paradox and working class writers but I haven't read it for years and can't remember the name.
You need time to think and some pressure but not too much. I've no idea how to manage it, the last thing I wrote was because I was embarrassed at having offered to contribute something and hadn't even started.
I know what you mean about tiny audiences, one of the reasons I stopped churning out stuff was having no idea if anyone ever read it, even if you enjoy writing it is hard to make time for it if it doesn't have some kind of a purpose.
Good luck Juan. And carrying a notebook is a good idea, I often used to think well on public transport.

Alasdair
Sep 7 2013 18:55

This is excellent Juan. I've also been really struggling to write anything for about a year or so, for similar reasons to you. Part of it has been to do with a new job, which in some ways is less stressful, but in other ways more constantly demanding of my energy, and part of it has been that the more I read and my politics develops, the more I feel totally unqualified to write anything, and the more embarrassed I feel about previous things I've written, and part of it is simply getting out of the habit and struggling to get back into it.

Class War U
Sep 7 2013 19:19

I think you're an awesome writer, Juan. I really like your critically constructive point about how to deal with the tensions of recognition: "Rather than shying away from this recognition, it should be flipped onto the people who deserve it or used to draw out the opinions and experiences of the people doing the recognizing." Based on how I've seen you engage with libcom and social media in ways that push and support others to write, I think you're great at democratizing the recognition. Also, in response to your concern about the low circulation of libcom and the Industrial Worker, compared to practically all Leftist academics your writings have a relatively way higher (and better) impact on Left/ultraleft movements (while writing much more concisely and elegantly).

omen
Sep 7 2013 20:08

Juan, I saw this blog post when it first appeared, but was reluctant to reply as it is a bit of a sore point for me. Thanks for writing the post, and also to the other commenters for fessing up to having the same problems. It's good to know we're not alone (you know what I mean).

I've half written three novels over the past six years or so - and part rewritten those several times - and made stabs at a few shorter pieces. I have a large stack for notebooks containing notes for one of those novels. I once estimated that I'd written well over 600 or 700 pages (not including rewrites or the notes). I was also planning a graphic novel at one stage. I've not written anything much for the past 2-3 years, though - mostly just slowly adding to my notebooks. (Although I did write this charming little piece a few months back. Not my best, but I didn't spend too much time on it.)

I think one factor is that at some point I told friends and family what I was doing (more to make conversation than anything). It turns out that was a really bad idea! (Who knew!?) To cut a long story short (by omitting all the relevant and traumatic details), it got to the stage where I was feeling physically sick whenever I sat down and tried to write anything at all.

I'm working towards starting again very shortly (doing lots of reading at the mo'). By now people have stopped asking me about my writing, and I have no intention of telling anyone this time! (Internet people don't count as they aren't real people! wink )

And as mentioned by Jef, above, unemployment is probably not the best environment to write in, even though you might seem to have all the time in the world; if only because people ask you what you are doing with yourself, and you end up caving in and telling them that you are writing a novel (see above for fallout).

It probably also doesn't help that the typewriter was replaced by a doohickey that also functions as an eternal prevarication device. See? It's doing it.. right now! eek

Standfield
Sep 7 2013 22:08

I'm in the process of dealing with this now (only I'm a painter).

Self-doubt, laziness, time constraints, etc, have all played their part.

It sounds obvious, and a little patronising perhaps (I don't mean it to be - I'm right now in the same position), but I think self-discipline is the key. Creating goals, and ways to achieve those goals is good. I'm making a diagram, and a timetable, making sure I do a certain amount each day. It sounds painfully regimented, but it's the only way I can order the mess that is my brain. Picasso worked Mon - Fri, 9am-5pm. Of course we don't have that amount of time, but setting aside two hours a day where you do this is actually quite liberating I think, finding time for ourselves, and no-one else.

Just today I got all of my sketchbooks, oil sketches, from the last few years, and selected the best and stuck them on my wall. Just by going through all of it, and honing it down, I see a progression that has lifted me. I think sometimes we get caught in the moment, and feel we aren't progressing. But take a step back, and it's like, wow! I can now see a direction from that.

Also, I know this is a cliché, but just doing it, I mean physically, brings out the creativity. For me, a drawing a day of some object for merely formal purposes, with no theory/ideology behind it works well in clearing the mind, and brings on new energies. I have a tendancy to over think things too much to the point I don't actually do anything. I don't know what that would mean for a writer, maybe a diary or something?

To think good thoughts requires effort. - Gorou Tokimune, woodblock, 1885.

Juan wrote:

Quote:
They feed off others seeing them as important with Important Things To Say. But I don't have anything more to say than others who don't write.

That's really beautiful, Juan. I think that statement shows you have a better grasp of what art is than these "important" people. I'm sympathetic to Tolstoy's view on art's function (art for art's sake? Fack 'awf) as being the embracing of others, making the audience - and artist - feel less alone in the world. That's the point of it for me. Preaching at people isn't going to resonate in them, but just having the skills to be able to communicate what others feel, will. Art, for me, has a communal, functional aspect to it, and you touch on it.

As for being recognised, I'm with you on that. I feel incredibly uncomfortable with praise. How about a pseudonym? I really like the Wu-Ming/Luther Blissett format, and I'd love to look into it more. It's clever, and I think it's useful in so many ways, for artist(s) and audience. But that's another thing altogether.

Anyway, all the best!

Edited to add more.

hellfrozeover
Sep 8 2013 10:14
Quote:
It probably also doesn't help that the typewriter was replaced by a doohickey that also functions as an eternal prevarication device. See? It's doing it.. right now! eek

If we're talking tools then I <3 FocusWriter. If you miss typewriters, or old-style wordprocessors then you should try it. Free Software, cross-platform, even makes clacky noises if you want it to.

omen
Sep 8 2013 10:33

I certainly don't miss typewriters (in fact I've never even owned one). But I think its more of a problem of will power. At one point I had LeechBlock installed in firefox, but it kind of doesn't work when you can just disable it. I'm weak! embarrassed

Caiman del Barrio
Sep 8 2013 23:39

Hi Juan

Thanks for this. I enjoyed your (maybe accidental?) attempt to intertwine writing and Libcom. To me it doesn't sound much like writers' block if you're able to express yourself in such a primal way.

I would recommend that you're genuinely interested in writing for 'political'/instrumentalist reasons, then you stop asking why and do more of this sort of stuff. It doesn't necessarily need an audience (although you may end up showing it to someone), there's something to be said for writing as a catharsis, especially if your personal/emotional misgivings & issues from your past are blocking your shithot militant communism. wink

kevin s.
Oct 5 2013 05:07

Good piece. Very much relate to this-

Quote:
Writing is a deeply personal thing. It's a humbling thing. You're putting your thoughts to paper (or computer screen) and are assuming that someone out there gives a shit about what you have to say. It can feel presumptuous to do this. When the hesitation associated is overcome, which is hard enough, then comes the worry you've said too much. There's a reason most people conduct themselves differently among close friends than they do with total strangers. With writing there is little distinction between the two.

I'm not sure how to deal with this issue. Motivation to write is often triggered by an emotional response to something. But the way I was socialized means expressing these emotions publicly goes against the norm of dealing with them internally or privately. To counteract that, a deployment of rejecting criticism (another way many of us are socialized) happens. The two battle it out, with the winner varying from time to time.

and to this-

Quote:
what it really is, is a fear of being wrong. A fear of failure with my name on it.

I have an unpleasant pattern over the years of writing a couple scattered pieces of which I'm proud, getting cocky (or trying to "push myself" which is even worse), writing some pieces which I quickly regret and then feeling embarrassed and stop writing for a long time. When I'm on on a "writing high" I get in the Important Things To Say mood, and the minute I read back and get embarrassed about a piece I basically cringe and shut my mouth.

Also gotta say, on the emotional side of stuff I relate very strongly but, frankly, you are way better at this than I'll ever be. I'm incapable of writing personal stuff-- you've got multiple very compelling (personally and politically) personal essays and, in my opinion, I think that's a big part of why a lot of people follow your writing and not just simply the aspect of "only need to be sane and have regular content." A lot of organizing and political writing can read very dry and "manual-y" and I think your stuff strikes a deeper emotional chord than that stuff. (Which is the exact opposite for me- I do everything I can avoid emotionally laden content and try to focus on "being smart.")

About this-

Quote:
This idea of inadequateness will always be there as long as I'm involved in a radical left that is disproportionately educated.

Wear that with pride is my advice. Anyway that's how I do and you're a better writer than me; but then again that's a lot less likable of me isn't it.

Anarcho Rhetex
Aug 26 2016 01:29

Wonderful article, Juan.

Your piece expresses sentiments I can relate to and learn from. I too am an aspiring writer who faces debilitating impediments to writing regularly. I have also had difficulty defining the precise root of my writing's block.

You articulated many of the thoughts and feelings I have had toward my own writing ambitions; I find it reassuring that I am not alone. There is something to be said about how recognizing commonalities in our personal struggles can help us face and eventually conquer them. Maybe it is the underlying sense of solidarity, or that common problems have common solutions?

At first I considered my aversion to writing to stem from my physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by work and school. I still believe this to be true, but to a limited extent. This is because it doesn't explain my hesitance to write when given the privilege of ample free time (e.g. winter break). I now consider significant factors to be my lack of confidence and discipline, as well as the unfamiliar and uncanny feeling of having a real passion for once in my life and actually wanting to stimulate and exert myself.

I am currently trying to establish an online presence by starting a wordpress blog and youtube channel. The process is slow. I hope to organize my thoughts and feelings, learn about myself, challenge and educate myself, and continue to mature as a person. A daunting task, but it's a project that I believe will finally give my life meaning and my actions a purpose, and hopefully a chance to truly savor my scant existence.