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Criticism, Fiction, My Novel, Publishing, Ruminations, The Writer's Life, Writing and Depression, Writings

The Real Writer’s Block

My writer friend Stewart Sternberg recently posted about the difficulty in working two “jobs,” his daytime paying position, and his nighttime, mostly unpaid career as a writer. He is far from alone in that pursuit. How do so many people find the energy and drive to do both especially when faced with the odds of ever becoming self-sufficient as a writer—odds that have ground the psyches of greater talents than mine into creative writing dust?

I work two part-time jobs, which is still not as tough as a single, all-day jag inside a cubicle at some fluorescent corporate warehouse, but it’s hard enough after the day’s work is done to clear my mind enough to write.

Add to that my writing time, which is generally early in the morning or after dinner, severely detracts from time spent in that happy social arrangement known as marriage. While other couples are relaxing together in front of the TV, or sharing the details of their days, I’m either immersed in my latest tale about human depravity, or wishing I could be.

And for what? Most of my stories are still as yet unpublished. Many have been rejected more times than I can say without embarrassment. At my current pace of success, I will become writing self sufficient around the year 2237, long after I am dead.

In among the dozen or so form rejections I now receive weekly (I’ve been on quite a submissions tear), I usually get one or two personal rejections from an encouraging editor (like the one from Conjunctions, which is one of my “pinnacle” journals).

Notes like that tell me I must keep writing, because I am getting closer to my goal, and that means if I stop now I am a quitter. I might never know what success the future might bring, and to not pursue it also makes me a coward. But what if I keep writing and I am never successful? What if no editor or publisher believes in me enough to take on a novel of mine? After five years of writing almost every day, the path of irrelevance and wasted effort has come into sharp focus. What if I look back after years of effort, only to see that I have missed out on much of life, on the moments with loved ones and friends, on the entertainments others enjoy, because I was hunkered over the keyboard?

What if?

This is the barrier, the real writer’s block, the thing no one mentions when you decide to write seriously. Call it doubt or personal demons. Call it the industry’s unfairness and rampant cronyism. Call it bad luck or the they-just-don’t-get-my-writing syndrome. Fortunately, it rarely surfaces while I am actually writing. It prefers to save its tortures for idle moments, when the mind is open to suggestion.

For now, back to my latest story. I will put my doubt aside for a few more hours, until it returns to haunt me again.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


6 thoughts on “The Real Writer’s Block

  1. Perhaps for us writers, the act of writing is as much a part of daily life as watching TV or spending time with loved ones. I think I’d rather look back at years of effort with little success and think, we’ll maybe someone will get me eventually, maybe even after I’m gone. I’d hate to look back after years of no effort and think what if I’d only written. What if?

    Posted by cpurcel1 | March 31, 2011, 2:36 AM
    • A great point, Christine. Not submitting to the urge to write would be far worse than wondering what TV shows one has missed. Now, how to tell my wife I won’t be sitting in on “Glee” this week…

      Posted by jpon | April 1, 2011, 11:43 AM
  2. Oh, dear. You’ve brought up a great deal here. This is certainly the epitome of writer’s block, the fundamental existential question. The life of any artist (or any conscious person) asks “for what?” I say, because what we do is meaningful. Our work matters. This goes back to the conversation about success, and what it means to be successful. And why we write. Why we do anything. Do we write for fame and glory? For recognition in the eyes of society? For the fortune we’re going to earn from it? Does outside validation ever give our lives meaning? Television is a waste of my time. Writing is who I am and what I do. And I know that my husband works 80 hours a week and I don’t see him because we are both doing things that when we die we will not regret having done. Trust the process, Joe. It’s all a process and a journey. Your work matters. Also, a gentle reminder to take care of yourself. You deserve free time, too. Balance. A walk in the woods. A massage. A weekend away. When we’re wrapped up in it all the time we lose perspective.

    Posted by moondaria | March 31, 2011, 2:12 PM
    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Gwen. You are right that the impulse to write does not come from any of those material goals, and yet, to write without recognition is not an appealing prospect. I couldn’t care less about writing bestsellers and making tons of moolah. But what I do want is to be a part of the literary conversation, to know that my view of the world resonates with intelligent people. This, to me, is the essence of the artist.

      I have many more thoughts on this subject, and will post again, soon, to try to explain.

      Posted by jpon | April 1, 2011, 11:52 AM
  3. I think it’s all about the need to be heard. Joe, you used the term “Literary Conversation” and that nails it. Thinking about it, being unpublished seems to be like being mute. You have things to say, but without acceptance, no one can hear you. There is the frustration and the screaming brain and the begging angst of trying to speak, to communicate, and not being able to. All the title of Best Seller means is that more people can hear you. And the money? To paraphrase the movie, it’s just a way to keep score or how well you’re doing. I have a piece of flash called Some Days that deals with this.

    Posted by jonzech | April 1, 2011, 1:43 PM
  4. Sometimes it feels like the mean kids have the ball and won’t let anyone else play with it.

    Posted by jpon | April 2, 2011, 1:25 AM

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