The thing about a breakup, for a writer, is that it can be crippling, like a baseball bat to the shins. Up until recently, I was on a roll. Ideas galore, inspiration flowing from everywhere. Two stories finished in a month, ready to be polished, edited, submitted. Published author, here I come!

 

***

 

When my then-fiancee called with the phone call rejection notice – yes, it was a phone call, but we were 750 miles apart – all progress stopped. I jumped in the car and drove home to salvage what I could, to talk it out. Surely, a mistake was made. All I had to do was get her to see that everything could be fixed, we could be put back together.

I couldn’t write a word. I tried. I sat in a hotel room in Madison, staring at the computer, playing Scrabble online instead of thinking, writing, plotting.

I searched news sites for story-worthy bits and wrote a pile of writing prompts, anything to jumpstart my stagnant creativity and to distract me from the crisis at hand. Nothing worked.

I was in the barren, infertile wasteland of the post-Apocalypse.

Okay, so that’s a bit melodramatic.

The blinking cursor taunted me until I closed the laptop and watched Monday Night Raw. It was that or syndicated episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, and I despise that show.

I gave in to my block, let it take over. This, for a writer, is like drinking arsenic to cure a cold.

 

***

 

During the next few days, I was preoccupied with relationship stuff. I met my ex and we talked about where things had faltered, who hadn’t done their part, where we would go from there. It wasn’t going to work, we decided. We were two different people, neither ready for marriage or anything it entails. I was okay at first. We went to a party at a friend’s beach house along Lake Superior. We had a good time, deflected concern about us with a joint air of contentment. This is for the best, we said.

The next night, returning to the beach house, something changed. A friend’s band played an informal show in the living room. I jammed on the drum set. I watched the sun set from a sea kayak on the lake. I was having fun, but then a revelation about the relationship, about my failures as a boyfriend, broke me.

I didn’t think about writing. I couldn’t. I shut down. I had to leave.

 

***

 

I drove straight through from Marquette to Omaha, thirteen hours on the road, eager to find some distraction from my current anger, bitterness, defeat. I got lost in Marinette, Wisconsin, and somehow wound up circling the capital building in Madison instead of continuing on the highway. Six hours of Iowa’s flat landscape – sorry, Iowa – didn’t help matters any. I barely noticed the wind turbine fields, like science fiction forests, along I-80. The whole time, I tried to force myself to come up with an idea. A germ.

I find this isn’t the best way to deal with writer’s block. It can’t be forced. If Robert Olen Butler’s right, then it has to come from some dream-like place, not through the manufactured idea farm of the mind.

I returned to Omaha, went to a bookstore and broke out the laptop. Then, a notebook, in which I only scribbled, doodled pictures of covered wagons and guitars.

In the past, I believed that writer’s block was the author’s own creation, a reason not to write. But, this was real. I took the new Ecotone from the shelves, the current Prairie Schooner, read story after story hoping for something. It was hopeless. After six hours, I went to the bar.

 

***

 

The same thing happened the next day, this time for eight hours. And the next. Then a few more days after that. Every day, I texted writer friends, asking for advice. How do I come out of this? Read, one tells me. Drink more, then write, the other says. I did both. By then, the post-breakup loneliness had set in and I was getting worse. More Scrabble and crossword puzzles and World Cup soccer. Production: zero.

 

***

 

I met Brian, my best friend, at a bar. We talked about the breakup, how I was feeling, how my ex-fiancée was doing, about the particularly bad idea of rebound sex.

“I haven’t written a thing in days,” I said.

“Nothing?” he said.

“I’m void of ideas.”

“Maybe you should channel your emotions into your writing,” Brian said. No way, I thought, I don’t write that sort of stuff. Breakup fiction is for Matthew McConaughey movies. But, I thought, maybe he was on to something.

 

***

 

This isn’t what he meant, I’m know. I’m sitting at the same bookstore I have all summer, writing out those emotions, giving life to past events. I’m feeling a break now, a small wave of my former self returning as I write this, the muse awakening from a too-long slumber.

There are no new ideas, yet, but I’m writing.

Now, maybe, that block is finally crumbling.


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JUSTIN DAUGHERTY is a writer living in Marquette, MI, where he stares at Lake Superior and writes words. He is not yet published, but he keeps on trying. You can find him, and talk about writing, at justindaugherty.wordpress.com.

34 responses to “Writer’s Block and The Break-Up”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Oh, I hear you.
    A break up can be a baseball bat to the shins – but in my case, it also was a major catalyst to start writing again. Give it time…
    And I’m with you on Iowa – driving those roads doesn’t help anything!
    Welcome aboard!

  2. Gloria says:

    I think it’s great that you used your inability to write as the first thing you wrote about on TNB! Great piece.

    Also, I strongly disagree that breakup sex is always bad. Think of it this way: If it’s good, you have something to write about! If it’s bad, you have something to write about! I think stealing a car, robbing a bank, or taking on a never before had heroin habit because of a break up is a terrible idea. But not sex. Well, not all the time.

  3. Rachel Pollon says:

    Welcome, Justin!

    Two things, possibly more.

    1) I am incredibly tempted to invite you to a game of online Scrabble because I’m crazy addicted but I don’t want to be a bad influence. Forget I said anything.

    2) I’m sure you’re being adorably humble, but I think you should brag on your bio instead of underplaying yourself. Example: “Find my kick ass blog at http://www….”

    3) (I knew there was more.) I go through serious bouts of writers’ block or whatever you would call it — blank brain — and I think it might just have to do with being preoccupied with something and our brains not knowing how to navigate out of it/let anything else circumvent it. I am not a doctor, so this might be total bullshit.

    4) You will have ideas again.

    5) You will love again.

    6) Enjoy your summer… with so much possibility ahead of you.

    • Gloria says:

      I’ll play Scrabble with you, Rachel Pollen! If you’re interested, reply to the email address that this reply is attached to. I don’t have Facebook, but we can play on Lexulous.com.

      (Sorry to commandeer your post for a second, Justin, but Rachel said Scrabble!!)

    • 1) Yes, let’s Scrabble. Can that be a verb? Yes, it is … NOW. Scrabble dates rule.

      2) I will take a look and revise. Then, actually post more on that site of mine. “Adorably humble.” Thanks. Insert smiley face.

      Thanks for the great comments.

  4. dwoz says:

    For me, depression manifests as creative block. I’m beginning to think that’s not a unique experience either.

  5. dwoz says:

    …and just to pile on to your ex…she could have picked a slightly warmer and less cruel way to do the breakup, like write it on your facebook wall or something.

  6. Marni Grossman says:

    It’s not just your own break-up, either. In April, my father left my mother after over three decades of marriage. Haven’t written anything worth shit since.

    Hang in there.

    • Yeah, it’s tough. Even when you think you’ve moved on enough to get something down, it can still be difficult, and you can’t force your brain when it’s not ready to get going.

    • Dana says:

      Marni,
      I’m convinced that the break-up of a close friends marriage is directly related to his parents marriage breaking up. Amazing how the parental relationship relates to our own relationships. Could I use another “rel” word in this? What a dork.

      Anyway, I’m sorry about your folks.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    Is there such a thing as a bad idea? Or maybe all ideas are ideas, and the context provides consequence.

    To ask an odd question, Justin – do you love writing?

    And also: welcome to TNB!

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Oops.

      I meant to write ‘and the consequence provides context’.

      Hmm.

      Now I’m not sure which way I like better.

    • I love writing like I love…bacon. And boy o boy do I love bacon. Thanks for the welcome!

      • Simon Smithson says:

        Bacon is so good.

        Then the best advice I can give you – what I find works for me in any scenario where I want to commit to something – is to remind yourself that you love it. The process, the learning, what lies on the other side. And chip away, brother. Chip away. Feel free to push yourself a little. Or a lot, if that helps.

  8. Megan says:

    Justin I feel your pain. Keep doing lots of long drives. Let me just link to myself here (sorry)

    http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/mlpony/2007/11/selected-resources-for-breakup-survival/

    One my writing professors whose claim to fame was writing the British soap opera HollyOaks (it’s a cult hit over there) described writer’s block as “a luxury”. She said writing for soap meant you were never permitted to have writer’s block. You had to push through and meet stringent deadlines.

    So that’s an interesting point and certainly explains the weak writing on soaps. And not to negate your experience at all. But maybe romantic failures are connected to a generalized loss of confidence in oneself…and like everybody irritatingly/rightly will remind you, time heals all. Ugly scars but healed.

    • Confidence def. is lost when someone goes through that kind of change. I’m getting it back, though.

    • Hollyoaks is pretty much the worst scripted TV show this country airs at the moment. ‘Cult hit’ is a bit generous! It’s main audience is hungover students. Unless somebody gets killed or something blows up. And that’s more often than you’d think. It’s like if Michael Bay made a TV show with actresses both less attractive AND less talented than Megan Fox…

  9. Thanks to all for the pleasant welcomes. Good to be here!

  10. Nicole says:

    “After six hours, I went to the bar.” Story of my life. I feel like the only thing worse than post-break-up block is post-break-up word vomit, the kind you know is utter shit as you splatter it on a page. But it passes. Everything does. Best of luck, man.

  11. Dana says:

    Does ANYONE love Raymond? Seriously, I can’t think of a soul that might.

    Sorry about the break-up, but delivering the news over the phone is brutal.

    On the writer’s block: A friend who’s a songwriter plays a songwriting game with other songwriters. He believes that it’s a muscle that needs to be flexed. One of them will come up with a title, email it to the other participants and then give a deadline (I think they use 48 hours) when the new song needs to be written and delivered. They each email back their original song entitled “Justin’s Bad Breakup”. There are no winners or losers, no prizes for participating, but somehow being accountable to a group of your peers helps them continue to write. I know they’re not all keepers, but sometimes a gem is delivered. Also it’s the reason that one of Glenn Tilbrook’s albums includes a song entitled “Hot Shaved Asian Teens”.

    Maybe you could start a similar game?

    • That is an excellent idea. I ought to try that. Writing prompts themselves – often because many of them aren’t that inspiring – do not often deliver for me. This sounds like a great way to jumpstart some writing, even if all of it isn’t solid gold.

  12. Dana says:

    Also, why Omaha?

  13. Joe Daly says:

    I’ve found that the harder I try to overcome writer’s block, the longer I’m stuck. I’ve had better luck just accepting that I’m done for the day/week/month (eek), and wait until the drive kicks in again. I’ve only recently considered that for me, writer’s block is a sign for me to abandon the direction in which I’m moving or even the entire piece.

    Reading a good author also seems to do the trick.

    Welcome aboard!

  14. Meg says:

    There are days when my brain barely functions long enough to ask for black coffee or to sign my name on an UPS receipt. And then there are days when it functions too much and instead of working on a policy or a grant application, I’m drowning in fictional characters and puppeted dramas.

    Break-ups suck. I’m so sorry it came out of left field and left you with broken shins. But welcome to a place where strangers will offer you solace in hard times and each comment will wrap their black bold-faced words around you like a warm hug.

    And also, I love the idea of wind turbines as science fiction forests. Love it. 🙂

    • I feel you, Meg. Some days, it’s tough to crank anything out at all and then sometimes the doors open wide and there’s unlimited inspiration…at least for the moment.

      Thanks for the compliment. 😉

  15. Hey Justin,

    Welcome to TNB! Thanks for posting this. I feel your pain, buddy. I’ve been through more break-ups than Jerry Seinfeld. Hang in there, it gets easier, gradually, as you may already know. And there is hope: I’ve been in my current relationship nearly eight years. Like Meg said, I’m sorry about the break-up coming out of left field, and hitting you in the shins. Ugh! That’s tough. It is an opportunity for you to look inside (if you want) and see what it is you want to manifest differently in your next one.

    As far as the block, when it hits me, I usually take those few days (week?) and hit the business end of writing, duotrope, maintenance, revise some older pieces I have avoided. And I read new material, a lot. Something I’ve been meaning to read. David Foster Wallace or something magical. Usually that works.

    A teacher once told me it helped her to just write about the block. Sometimes it helps you start something, then can transition into whatever is holding you back from pouring words onto the page. Might try that?

    In the end, you have support and a great writing community here (and wherever else you choose). I think we live in the same neck of the woods, too. Next time you come through Madison or Milwaukee lets hang out. (I live in MKE). Cheers.

  16. Nice first post— welcome to TNB.

    I find the only way I can get past writer’s block is to keep writing. I’m struggling for inspiration a bit at the moment, but it’s kind of like a soccer player who hasn’t scored a goal for a while. He’s just got to go out there and keep playing and have faith in his ability and the fact that sooner or later the goals will come. I’ve written a lot of shit these last few days just waiting for the inspiration to come back…

    I had a pretty bad experience with a girl at the start of the year which had the opposite affect. I took the anger and frustration to my computer and just put all that drive and energy into the start of a novel… not an angry bitter novel either…

  17. angela says:

    after my divorce, i was pretty much only able to write nonfiction, and that’s not a bad thing. i had been wanting to try my hand at it, and i had tons to write about.

    i think it’s great you’re using writing as a means to help you through the relationship stuff as well as the writer’s block.

  18. […] a year, you will tell this story as a single man. You will have to learn how to talk to women again, how to flirt, how to be okay with the […]

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