Every morning, as I wake up and stare at the glow of my alarm clock while hoping it isn’t about to start buzzing with that nail-on-chalkboard screech, I begin a routine. Usually, the routine is a series of alarm snoozes so I can pretend dozing off between the alarms on my phone is enough to make up for staying up until two in the morning. Sometimes, the routine is staring at the ceiling as I ignore my alarms and slowly begin the mental process of building my ‘self’ into a person who can deal with the day. Those days are the ones I dread most of all. These are the days that not even momentum can help.
There’s usually enough of me leftover from one day to the next that I can roll from waking to walking without needing time to fix my ‘self’ up or spend time rebuilding my ‘self’ before I get out of bed. But not always. Some nights, it all vanishes in a haze of unremembered dreams whose emotions linger on, leaving me with nothing but the wispy fog of my depression turning whatever solid pieces remain into indistinguishable lumps. As my anxieties call out from indiscernible locations, I slowly feel my ‘self’ dissolve into the fog until all that’s left is my awareness.
Thankfully, the fog is not a trap so much as the valleys around the mountain-filled countryside that is the metaphor for my self-experience. There are still the heights above the fog and a clear, sunny sky can sometimes break through it as the day goes on, but I must still escape the valley if I want to climb the mountain–I still need purpose if I want to work on my goals. Knowing the heights are there will not help me reach them. I must first build my ‘self’ back up so I can walk out of the fog.
To be clear, there are limits to this metaphor. I am still myself, even when I feel as if I’ve dissolved in fog. What I lose is direction. I am no longer a person with a point or a goal to accomplish. Instead, I feel like a lump of traits stuffed into a body and let loose upon the day. I can function like that without negative impact on my mood or health, but I do not enjoy feeling listless. I am all of myself at all times, I think we all are, no matter who we try or pretend to be, but, on these days of shapelessness, I am constantly all of myself. I cannot focus myself to a point. I cannot assume an identity. I cannot be a person who does specific things like act extroverted at work or set aside my desire to rest and play video games for the difficult work of writing towards my goals. I cannot be one thing if I am everything all at once.
So I build. I take the central parts of myself–the things I am certain are me–such as my will to push forward no matter how slowly, and use them to create a solid base that I can trust even if it disappears behind the fog immediately. I start assembling layers on top of that, made of my fundamental beliefs about the world and the person I want to be. I call to mind my goal to leave the world a better place than I found it. I remind myself that most people are good and willing to help each other, even if they’re also quiet about it. From there I keep adding layers, using wisdom, experience, and belief to build a ‘self’ that will be able to climb out of this valley, escape this fog, and eventually climb the mountain of my self-experience again.
The last layers, the ones that add depth instead of height or size, are made up of the person I want to be today. It will influence everything, from the point I’m trying to reach in my climb to how I go about climbing my way there. It is not a decision easily made. Will I be quiet and focused? Determined to succeed at my own goals but perhaps a little less engaged with the people around me? Will I be supportive and considerate, taking energy I could have spent on my own goals to do what I can to help people achieve theirs? What does climbing the mountain even mean to me? Why am I doing it?
These are difficult questions, some days, and they require a lot of thinking. I do not always have the time to answer them while I am in bed, so it is often well into a particular morning before I am finished building. Most of my routines are not conducive to the kind of contemplation and reflection required to weigh these questions efficiently, and my job is even less so. But this last layer, the drive and purpose I assign myself, comes from thinking about the questions even if I never come up with any answers. I cannot spend the whole day ignoring it and still wish I could make myself focus on climbing the mountain.
A single day of good construction can last a while, often taking me through the entire length of a climb, but accidents can happen. Rock slides, eruptions, sudden storms. All of them are things that will wash me down into the valley again and the ‘self’ I made doesn’t always survive the trip. In the past, it has never been a problem to pick my ‘self’ up, fix my ‘self,’ and then get back to climbing, even if I wind up climbing a new mountain.
I’ve had a lot of these inclement moments in the past year, in addition to the occasional day when I wake up and have lost my ‘self.’ I am only recently discovering that repeated instances of this make it increasingly difficult to put myself together again, and not for the reasons I initially suspected. I am not losing sight of the mold, I am finding myself questioning parts of my ‘self’ I haven’t questioned in years. There is some value to this, of course, as improvement only happens through some examination and refinement, but there comes a point when any further examination is similar to repeating the word “bowl” a few dozen times. It starts to lose all meaning and what was once a simple word starts to sound alien.
I don’t think there’s a way I can hurry this process without building a ‘self’ that will be too haphazard to survive a bit of rain, let alone a mudslide or blizzard. These mountains are dangerous places and I need to be sure of what I’m doing. At the same time, I should probably do a better job of moving through the first few steps. In twenty-seven years of depression, trauma, pain, love, strength, and joy, nothing has changed my core belief that I want to add to the world. I shouldn’t take that for granted as it could lead me to overlook any cracks or flaws that might appear in the future, but I can safely assume that, if this piece of me is still in good condition, it’s going to be the base.
I can cut down on the amount of time it takes to form the basis of my ‘self’ and spend more time focusing on the more difficult parts. Perhaps I should even take some time to do maintenance while climbing the mountain instead of just pushing on until my ‘self’ falls apart. I have a lot of options worth considering and I know I need to start considering them if I am going to make it through the rest of this year. Or however long this tumultuous period of my life lasts.
If your protagonist was given the chance to get everything they’ve ever wanted in exchange for giving up on whatever goal they’re pursuing in your story, would they take it? Protagonists rarely have easy lives, so the offer of having their dreams come true could be incredibly tempting, especially if whatever is offering this bargain can show them the trials they have yet to overcome in their journey. Would it be an agonizing decision for them? Would it be a simple one? What would they choose and why? Write a scene today that shows your protagonist facing this sort of temptation, of having a wish granted in exchange for giving up on a goal, and show their ultimate decision. Maybe they use the wish to get the goal anyway. Maybe they wind up making the right choice by giving up on their goal and using the wish to address the source of the problem they were trying to fix according to someone else’s wishes rather than their own
One of the ways I get most of my ideas is from conversations I’ve overhead. Especially at work since I’m usually not listening for them and out-of-context quote are some of the best places to get ideas. Without the full context, things like “Spiritual Hard Hat” and “Cyborg Anatomy” are just so open for interpretation and improvisation that it almost makes it difficult to pick a place to start. Other good places to go for this are malls and crowded restaurants during lunch hours. Just put in some ear buds in and don’t play any music. You’d be surprised what people are willing to talk about in public if they think they won’t be overheard.
If you pursue a career as a writer or spend any significant amount of time learning from professional writers by reading what they share on Twitter, you will eventually have to confront the fact that “Writer’s Block” is a bunch of bullshit. There’s no such thing. What is so special about writers that we can have some mysterious condition that prevents us from writing? Patrick Rothfuss has a good bit about it, making the point that plumbers can’t have Plumber’s Block. Sure, there are days when Plumbers just can’t work, but that’s not a result of a mysterious condition, that’s the result of them being sick or injured. The same is true of writing. If you can’t write, chances are good that there’s something going on inside your head that is preventing you from writing. A lot of the time, it’s the result of poor choices like not sleeping enough, not taking care of your mental health, or leaving things until the last moment so the fear of failure brought on by the nearness of the impending deadline cripples you. There are lots of reasons you might be unable to write, but exactly zero of them are “Writer’s Block.”
I’m not saying this to rain on your parade or make you feel guilty. I’m not even saying this to take away a simple explanation for a whole host of issues, much like we say we’re sick when are physical health is below the minimum required to go out and do things with people. I’m saying this because it is a truth you need to confront so you can actually work on healing or recovering from whatever is in your way. If you go around blaming “Writer’s Block” for it like it’s a problem you can only inspire away or wait to pass, you’re going to get stuck there constantly. The next time you think you’re being held back by writer’s block, take some time to comb through your mind and figure out what’s really going on. I promise it’ll be worth it.