On Writer's Block, I

11" x 14" mixed media on canvas
I have been a writer all my life.

Since I had this innate gift with words when I was quite young, I was also a bit arrogant with my talents. It wasn't that I was a braggart or anything. I simply took it for granted that the words would always be there.

As some of you already know, "writer's block" is a hotly contested topic in the writing community. For years, I believed it simply didn't exist. I explained away blockages as either a lack of individual effort or an attribute of the "moody writer" persona a lot of people adopt for show.

Life showed me otherwise.

I had no clue how pervasive my arrogance was until I faced a crisis of my own. On March 1, 2005, I had a miscarriage. It was a three week fiasco. For that three weeks, I was pregnant with a baby that had no heartbeat until my ordeal ended in surgery to avoid sepsis.

To this day, I have not committed this experience or the subsequent hospital trips fully to paper. In fact, I couldn't put down any words at all in the aftermath. They were simply gone.

Words were an automatic thing for me. I summoned them at will, molded them to my whims and released them for public consumption. I managed to find words for my most horrid of experiences. Yet I could not master language to describe the void of silence that screamed things within me I'd never felt before.

In the months that followed, I grew to hate the page. My notebooks were blank, desolate and empty. The cursor on my computer screen blinked at me to do something about it. My hands shook over the keyboard. The pen wobbled in my grip. Fruitless daylight hours of blank thought turned into nights of staring out the windows, worried about my career. For the first time in my life, I had to ask myself what I was going to do if I could no longer write.

My talent had abandoned me.

As the days passed, every single thing I'd ever said about writer's block drifted up from that void like smoke. I choked on it, feeling like a fool. I'd been so dismissive of other people's experiences, making myself an authority on how the creative mind worked. Yet I had countless books on my own shelves telling me the phenomenon was real.

It just hadn't happened to me. Then it did. And my experience humbled me, ladies and gents. I floundered in the dark for nearly two years before I admitted I needed help. Curiously enough, I ended up in a session with creative psychotherapist around the same time I began studying with the Tibetan monks at the Nechung Foundation and Monastery.

Dr.  Helen Borel explained that blockages among creatives were common. "Creative people are anomalies," she said. "To be an artist is to live through your true self. Not many people are brave enough to do that. So when we can't live authentically, the blockage happens."

While I understood this intellectually, nothing she said struck a nerve. I continued to go out of sheer desperation. I needed to get at the root of my problem. By this point, my writing output consisted of recycling my dusty folder of discarded ideas. You know the one: it's where all your rejects go. You pull one or two of these brain farts out of the bin when you've hit the deadline wall or can't come up with anything else to say. Well, I'd been using them for two years. The drawer was almost empty.

At the next session, Dr. Borel took me off guard by mentioning that I wore neutral colors to every session. "What are you trying to hide?" she asked.

I stared down at my clothes in bafflement. Honestly, my color choices hadn't occurred to me whatsoever. I went home, searched my closet and drawers. She was right. The only colorful items I had were things I wore around the house when I was home alone. I'd even stopped wearing black, which is among my favorites to wear because of its versatility.

I sat down and meditated on the reason why I'd stopped using color in my life. I'd say this was one of the hardest thing I've ever done. You see, it's really easy to bullshit yourself. And we've all got seemingly valid reasons for doing it. But eventually, the real you is going to get fed up with that nonsense.

The day I learned my daughter had no heartbeat was also the day my bullshit crashed down on me. Going back through my grief in meditation, I felt an intense loathing for myself underneath it all. I'd morphed into someone I couldn't stand, a sort of Stepford wife.

Society continues to define femininity by the roles of wife and mother even if you have a career. I found that once I got married and had a son the following year, people suddenly developed amnesia that I'd ever been a professional at all. Even though I worked up until the week of my due date at a newspaper and returned after maternity leave, I was under an obscene amount of pressure to leave my job. When managerial structuring became an issue, I resigned that fall. My mistake was in staying home.

In my traditionalist family and among other mothers I met, conversations now revolved around the possibility of having additional kids, whether we planned to buy a house and my husband's career. The rest consisted of lectures on how to be a "proper wife," which I apparently failed at by these standards. Everything from my hair (too short) to my home decor (too juvenile) was attacked on a constant basis. My clothing was also targeted as being too flamboyant, artistic and loud.

As my son grew into the toddler years, I ended up around well-off materialistic women who routinely insulted me on playdates "for my own good."  Some of them disparaged the homeless or snickered at people who had less money than they did. I got a lecture once for being a "bleeding heart" after I donated my son's old toys and stuffed animals.

"You don't make enough money to give to the poor. Stop being such a bleeding heart," one of them said over lunch.

These were supposed to be the "right people" for me to associate with based on my husband's career, but I'd never been so miserable in my life. I put up with all of it just to fit in, not wanting my son to go without friends. I started wearing neutrals, taming my wild curls and swallowing every acid barb aimed at me with a smile. My miscarriage hit me right in the core of why I'd erected this false persona in the first place: I'd thought it would be better for my family.

I went back to Dr. Borel with these new found discoveries. She congratulated me on my progress, saying she'd seen many artists struggle to get to where I was at the moment.

"But I still can't write," I whined. "Okay, I'm not living the life I should. But I can't even write about wanting to dismantle it!"

Dr. Borel listened to my self-absorbed rant for twenty minutes before she held up a hand. "Writing is not working anymore. You have to find a new way to get through this blockage. Take up another artform."

I was flabbergasted. Had she told me to summon a million dollars out of thin air, I would have been less shocked. "I'm a writer," I protested. "What else am I supposed to do?"

She shrugged. "Try painting." Then she told me my time was up.

I left mad as hell. Painting? What did swirling paint have to do with anything? Sure, I'd dabbled with a few canvases right after the miscarriage. I figured out pretty fast I couldn't paint worth a damn. So what was she even saying?

Frustrated, I went back to meditation. After three days, the light bulb went off. Painting wasn't a new to me. The walls were already my canvas. My entire apartment was covered in bright colors and stencils I'd done myself. I just hadn't thought of any of it as "art." I remembered that every child fell in love with my son's room, immediately recognizing it from Toy Story. Mostly, I recalled that I'd been happy doing all this decorating.

So I signed up for an art class at LaGuardia Community College. For one day a week,  I painted oils for two hours in a class with other people from every age group. Even that was a struggle, though. I hated every painting I made. They were all done in shades of unobtrusive brown, orange, yellow and beige. I thought they were unassuming, dull and a vexing reflection of my lack of talent.

At home, my family made it clear that my pursuit of art was stupid. My husband complained about the family time I devoted to this hobby. My newfound friends told me I was going through "a phase." Quite a few of them also told me asking for two hours once a week was the height of selfishness as a mother. I even left a couple of classes early out of guilt.

That's what made my professor take me aside one day after class, saying she'd noticed my early departures and rushed creations. She asked me directly if I was supported at home in my desire to express myself through painting. I shook my head no, ashamed of this truth. She nodded as if this confirmed something for her.

Then she asked, "Why do you always paint neutrals?"

"They just come out that way."

She smiled at me. "I don't think so. You're hiding."

Since these were the exact same words Dr. Borel used, I followed her without prompting when she moved to stand in front of the painting I'd completed that day. We'd been working on a still life of a bowl of fruit on a table with a chair beside it. In my painting, the bowl of fruit was on the floor, the chair was on the ceiling and the table was upside down.

"I know," I said. "I'm a terrible painter. I just can't paint what's in front of me."

"No," she said. "There's strength in how you place things. Where we see order, you see disorder. A facade. You're trying to reveal it."

She told me she'd been studying my work and that I was easily the best artist she'd seen in her class in quite a while. After finding out I'd had no formal instruction, she gave me a list of books and additional supplies to purchase. Then she told me something that would drastically change my life:

"You paint in neutrals because you're afraid all the time," she explained. "You don't want to offend anyone. You want to be accepted. If you can learn to paint in black and red, you'll be a great artist."


"Because those colors are the ones you never use at all. They represent your blockages. Learn to paint with them and you'll paint yourself out of the box."

So that's what I did. But this victory would not come without a cost. My issues weren't just a matter of canvas and paint. My consciousness was in conflict over the paradox of my external life and my internal torment. The awakening within me demanded resolution.

And just what was my family's reaction to all this? They thought I'd completely lost my mind. :)

Even so, there is no such thing as a "half-way" artist. You're either all or nothing. That's why the struggle to be authentically true to yourself is such a vital one for every creative. You risk more than just a career change by ignoring your calling. Some of us also risk our health and sanity.

Coming back from the void of writer's block, I remembered that words don't come from me in the first place. Any artist who is honest about this will say that when you are "in the zone," you don't create anything. A force moves, breathes, and operates through you. You forget yourself, your problems, your life. You are one with the very force of creative energy behind everything, taking us out of limited selves and into the realm of infinite possibility.

As artists, we're not performing for ourselves. We are living conduits of creative energy. To deny this is to suffocate slowly in a life of conformity. We become neurotic, anxious, fearful. But when we are open, the creative flow lights up our lives and those around us. We are in our element.

So for this week, I'm asking you to review your own life. What boxes are you hiding in, waiting for permission to be yourself?

Just remember:
Nobody can unlock that cage but you.

Be well on your path. 

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