On Writer’s Block

I vividly remember the first time I struggled with writer’s block in a serious way.

It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year, and I’d just spent a glorious month doing nothing but going for long, luxurious runs in the woods with our dog, meeting up at Barnes and Noble with my boyfriend, and pounding out a novel.

All summer, the words had flowed right out of my head and through my fingertips, arranging themselves neatly on the page. I was making serious progress–at only a month and a half into summer break, I was already half way through what would eventually be a 90,000 word novel. I felt unstoppable.

And then I drove up to my small liberal arts college, where I’d been hired as a camp counselor for a two-week long environmental science camp. When I got in, the assistant director of the camp picked me up to take me to a barbecue with the other counselors. He was this scruffy guy with eyes that crinkled into paisleys when he smiled. That night, he cooked me incredible farmer’s market zucchini on the grill and told me quite frankly that he only dated Jewish women.

This guy: the zucchini cooker who derailed all my writing plans.

When I got back to my assigned dorm room that evening, I curled up in the deep-set window well and perched my computer on my knees, all ready to finish my latest chapter. The window was grown over with vines and lined with craggy grey stone. The pink hue of the sunset glowed through the gaps in the vines, silhouetting the leaves against the glass.

I sat there, in the silence and rapidly growing dark, staring at my computer screen, waiting. But nothing came. It was like someone had turned off a faucet. I couldn’t picture my characters. Couldn’t hear what they’d say. Couldn’t follow my carefully laid threads of plot to see where I needed to take them next.

Over the next few days, I’d try to write many more times. Camp was busy, but I had plenty of time in that lonely dorm room with the lovely window–plenty of opportunity to get words on the page.

I couldn’t do it. My body felt weird, like I’d drank a cup of electricity. My limbs buzzed–I had the urge to run everywhere I went. And there was something wrong with my brain, too. Instead of obediently picturing my characters, it kept conjuring images of crinkly, smiling eyes.

On the fourth day at camp, the assistant director with the smiley eyes asked me to grab him a clean shirt from his room; he’d sweated through his while cooking the campers a sustainably sourced dinner.

I drove the van back to the dorm, used his key to get into his room. It was an absolute mess–clothes strewn everywhere, his computer half open on the bed–and it was impossible to tell what was clean and what was dirty. I picked up a random shirt from the floor and sniffed it.

Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure it was that fateful moment that sealed my destiny.

Because when I buried my nose in the soft, blue cotton of his shirt, my brain exploded. It smelled incredible–like cinnamon, but deeper and sweeter than that. It had to be clean, I reasoned. It couldn’t smell that good and be dirty. On the drive back to the church where we were cooking, I guiltily sniffed it again.

When I handed it over to Jordan, he looked different to me. He was no longer scruffy, and his eye crinkles were no longer the only attractive thing about him. How had I not noticed how broad his shoulders were before? How perfectly his hair fell over his forehead? The perfect arch of his fanned eyebrows?

My heart felt like it was going to beat right out of my chest as he thanked me, stripped off his sweat-soaked t-shirt and pulled the new one on. “It’s the one I wore yesterday, but that’s probably for the best. I’m just going to soak it again.”

The smell had been him. Not his detergent.

It was like a switch flipped in my brain. The rest of the evening, I felt acutely aware of where he was in the building.

That night when I got back to my room, I didn’t even try to write. Instead, I wrote angsty entries in my journal, full of confusion over this all-consuming distraction that’d meteor-ed its way into my life.

When Jordan texted me a few weeks after camp ended, my blocked up words suddenly had no problem flowing. We talked from morning to night, filling each other in on each and every thought, never seeming to grow sick of each other.

Jordan, beta-reading my first novel after I’d finally finished it

Several months after camp ended, we made our relationship official. Even still, it took a year of us being together, and me living half a world away from him in Australia, before I started trying to write again.

But even in Australia, the words wouldn’t come. I’d pull up my story on my laptop, and spend hours staring at my blinking cursor, occasionally writing words like, “the,” and “while,” before deleting them.

I tried courting my old muses by going through elaborate rituals: making cups of tea, waking up early in the morning, going for runs. But still, that same chapter that I’d left off midway through my story never grew.

I started to wonder if I’d ever write again, if I could even call myself a writer.

Finally, help arrived in the form of Maggie Werner’s Grammar and Style class.

She stripped away any sense that writing was a half-magical art by teaching us how to diagram sentences, laying bare the grammatical bones that lie beneath great writing. Slowly, purposefully, she unclogged the block that I’d developed.

I stopped seeing writing as something akin to love–large and all-encompassing and either present or not–and started to understand the mechanics behind it. To understand that I could create solid sentences and paragraphs regardless of whether I was in the mood. Regardless of what was happening in the tumultuous world of my emotions.

Soon, I was waking up early again to work on my novel, and making steady progress. It was slow going at times, but the following year I finished my novel. Since then, I’ve written three more novels (one of which is now getting published–sign up for my email list for more info on that coming soon!) during times when I both felt like it and not.

And I’m happy to say that while I still have a huge crush on the assistant director with the crinkly eyes and cinnamon-smelling shirts, he no longer gives me writer’s block (although I do still lose my car keys when I’m around him).

In fact, instead of turning off my writing faucet, he’s the one who keeps us all alive while it’s on–delivering food and water to my desk and taking care of the kids.

Right this very moment he’s watching the kids downstairs so that I can write this blog post in peace. I can hear the littlest one squealing with joy, and the bigger one laughing. And I feel pretty lucky that I’ve finally figured out how to have both love and writing in my life.

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