“It’s healthy to say uncle when your bone’s about to break.”
― Jonathan Franzen, How to Be Alone
It begins with restlessness and warmth. You’re alternately listless and kinetic, bouncing between exhaustion and mania. All your senses feel heightened, on alert. You can hear the muffled tick of the hallway clock. You can smell the sour fear rising up through freshly cut grass. Cotton sheets fail to sooth, and food and drink become a game of substance and consistency, as sweetness and salt run for cover.
Funny how these symptoms describe all manner of ailment from flu to infatuation. The duality can be confusing. You’re on fire, but desire surrenders. Sure, there’s passion, but the ache makes you heartsick, clammy and unfocused. Your mind turns to salve and salvation, anything to break the clouds and let the rain pour down.
Some people grit their teeth and show up to the day’s requirements – work, school, the gym – with stuffed noses and sore hearts. They manage to rise up from the whirlpool of fatigue and fever, marching like zombies over an obstacle course of tasks and meetings and deadlines.
I am not one of these people.
If there’s a fainting couch available – preferably next to a nightstand loaded with all manner of bromide – I’m there. I’ve been accused of being melodramatic, of yielding too quickly, of demonstrating a weakness of will and more than a touch of hypochondria.
I used to let those criticisms bother me. Brought up with a Protestant ethic in a Catholic household, I know all too well how guilt can team up with expectation in a perfect storm of shame and overachievement. I’ve stuck it out on an 8-hour shift. I’ve sat through lectures without absorbing a single pixel of information. Trips and obligations beckon, and so I’ve ended up lying prostrate in a backseat, curled up in the fetal position under an airplane blanket, and – on one particularly sad occasion – losing my lunch in a cramped and rollicking bathroom during a six-hour train ride.
Nowadays, I simply submit. At the first sign of a catch in my throat or an unexpected murmur in my digestive track, I begin clearing the decks and preparing for the maelstrom. It doesn’t make the sickness pass more quickly, but I do believe it allows me to use those periods of involuntary respite more effectively, to recalibrate, recover and hit the reset button. This helps me manage sluggish sick days and barren creative landscapes with some semblance of serenity and optimism.
Last week the dreaded summer flu arrived at my door. Inconvenient and unexpected, I went to bed in denial and woke up to all the hallmarks of that dreaded virus. That Protestant ethic I spoke of earlier often triggers my need to accept personal responsibility – which is just a fancy way of saying that most of the time, when things go wrong, I find a way to blame myself. Hubris caused my downfall. Just a few days prior, I’d congratulated myself on dodging the workplace influenza-gauntlet, believing my superior handwashing skills and consistent multivitamin intake had protected me.
The gods laughed at my petty little triumphs and gifted me with a runny nose and larynx like sandpaper.
So I waved the white flag. I settled in for a fortnight of Kleenex and Claritin. I stocked up on soup and whiskey (don’t knock the power of the perfect hot toddy), and pressed pause. Typically, I try to find a way to move forward on at least one goal every day: whether it’s showing up at the pool for a quick swim, choosing salad instead of fries, or even just balancing my checkbook. Getting sick undermines all that progress, which is both frustrating and demoralizing.
For writers, these lulls are familiar. We call them writer’s block. Those scary moments when the wind dies, the sails go limp, and panic arrives, tugging fear and doubt along for the ride. Whether you’re tossing in tangled sheets next to a thermometer flashing 102 or you’re shuffling guiltily past your laptop every morning, it’s clear nothing’s getting done in the next hour, day or even week.
Colds are easy. Eventually, they move on, and you’re ready to face the world. Writer’s block presents a more difficult challenge. There’s no predetermined end date and no prescription to ease the symptoms. Sometimes the shadow of stalled creativity looms so dark and impenetrable, you begin to believe you will never defeat it.
You can – and it’s easier than you think.
“The greatness of the man’s power is the measure of his surrender.”
― William Booth
Though it may sound counterintuitive, you can beat writer’s block simply by giving in. Just like the inevitability of the flu’s progression through your mucous membranes, writer’s block follows a predictable pattern. The first few days it may seem mild, like that tiny tickle in the back of your throat. This is when it’s at its most vulnerable, but it’s rarer than you think to successfully stop a virus (or a block) during its formative stage. You can certainly try to mount a defense, be it vitamin C or a bit of busy work at the computer, but if you fail, don’t despair. What they say about that darkest moment before the dawn is true. Surrender to the inevitable, in that way you lose the battle but win the war.
Wallow in your writer’s block. Que up the Netflix and embark on a literary film festival; I recommend the Shining and Shakespeare in Love to start since they each represent opposing outcomes for their stalled writer-protagonist. Throw out old notebooks and donate all those novels you’re never going to read. Stalk famous writers on social media, let their tweets and Instagram posts wash over you – judge them (lightly) for their abandonment of the Oxford comma or their choice in footwear. Hate-read an article written by someone you find pretentious or sickeningly self-involved, and then congratulate yourself for being a better person. Eat some chocolate. Drink some wine. (Actually, drink lots of wine!) Stare out at the horizon and try to remember all the lyrics to “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
Let yourself get moody and despondent. Pretend you’ll never write another word. Daydream in detail about the post-apocalyptic wasteland of your abandoned literary hopes and dreams. Call “Uncle!” and hide under the covers.
This too shall pass. The fever will break. You will write again.
“Writing is both an act of power and surrender. Passion and discovery. It is a tug at your soul that continues to pull you forward, even as you go kicking and screaming.”
― Laraine Herring
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