The Cost of Creativity: Unblocking the dam before it breaks me

*Warning: This post is messy and doesn’t sugar-coat the ugly truth and is a personal confessional of sorts*

Writing is hard work. Writing is especially difficult when you are expected to plumb through the dreck, muck & mire in real life dramas to find a spark of creativity. Non-writers who think that writing a story is easy have obviously never tried themselves. Life is no easier for a writer than it is for a non-writer. There is no “escape” from real life dramas. Real life is Messy at the best of times and at the worst of times it takes all your strength to keep swimming to keep yourself from sinking and drowning. Sometimes the mess that is LIFE drains all the energy – both physical and mental – out of you and you are as creative as a dried-up sponge with all the water squeezed out of it. It is so tempting to stop swimming and just let the tide take you. You tell yourself “It is not giving up. It is just giving in to the inevitable.”. You wonder what the point of fighting it all is for. Why bother to keep swimming if the tide is going to overpower you and wash you out to sea eventually?

The thing is LIFE is a journey and not a destination. Nobody said it would be a vacation. Nobody said it would be fair. Nobody said it would be easy. Nobody said there would be enough good to balance out the bad. Creative people are by nature more emotional and more sensitive. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and with every tear and every scar from our lives we flesh out our characters, shade our stories with emotional truths and try to make sense of the MESS. But sometimes real life truths are too painful to plumb for a creative spark and a kernel of inspiration. Sometimes the last thing we want to do is rehash real life in a story. Even fiction has an underlying element of emotional truth. And sometimes it is easier to believe the white lies than face the truths. This is when writing is hard for me. This is when I go into hiding from my own creativity. This is where I have been living for the past two months. Although ‘living’ is an optimistic term because really all I have been doing is ‘surviving’ at the best and treading water just keeping my head clear enough to gasp out a few breaths at the worst.

Usually writing helps keep me sane. Only 3 times in my life have I been in hibernation from writing and now is one of those times. I look at my screen and the flashing cursor mocks me. I take out my notebooks and try to write down words, any words at this point will do. But the words don’t come. It feels like I have a dam inside me just about bursting through the walls of my heart. I know I should let the dam wash through but I am scared the heaviness of the waters will pull me under. So instead I tamp down on the dam’s strength, I build the walls higher and bolster them with false euphemisms, easy white lies I tell myself. Every time I look at the screen or open a blank page of my notebook I know what I want to write but they are not good words, not a creative spark. They are dark thoughts, heavy emotions and poisonous threads that will weave themselves into a cobweb around my words and my creativity.

As I write this post I realise though that I am a writer and words are my way of dealing with crap that I don’t want to deal with. Which is why the cursor mocks me, the blank note-page empty of ink splotches mocks me. Because I am fooling nobody but myself. I don’t want to process the dark emotions. I want to hibernate from everything but especially words. Because one thing I cannot do is write a white lie to make things easier. That is just not how I am built. My words are the truest part of me. When I want to take a vacation from my real life I escape into the world of stories. I realise I have been blocking myself. I am my writer’s block. Hibernation and not writing is easier but it kills me a little more inside. I am the dam wall holding back the words, keeping the emotions at bay. Life should not be about surviving. It should be about LIVING and that means the dark shades are as important to colour in as the light shades are. Perhaps the darkest shades are the ones we need the most because if there is no dark there need be no light. I am ready to un-dam those waters and let the dark words out so the spark of a match will lead me back to my creativity and back to my place of sanity: writing. I have to remind myself  that even the rubbish words are still words. As scary as it is, it is time to un-dam the words. Otherwise I may as well just give up now. I am too stubborn to give up yet.

I am reminded by an old saying that some parents tell their toddlers: USE YOUR WORDS. 

How do you find the creative in the dreck of real life drama?

Have you ever felt like you were your own wall, your own block?

How did you work through it?

I leave you with the advice of one of my heroes: F. Scott Fitzgerald. A man who knew the darkness and wrote a way out of it.

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories “In Our Time” went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In “This Side of Paradise” I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is “nice” is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the “works.” You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

*Aside: For my writer friends out there, this is a great letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald about the price one needs to pay to be a successful writer. 
A little background, in late 1938, eager to gain some feedback on her work, aspiring young author and Radcliffe sophomore Frances Turnbull sent a copy of her latest story to celebrated novelist and friend of the family, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Before long the feedback arrived, in the form of the somewhat harsh but admirably honest reply seen above.*
[Source: F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters; Image: F. Scott Fitzgerald, via. Globe Bookstore and Cafe (facebook)]
The greatest creative minds don’t waste time telling white lies and don’t waste words sugar-coating the ugly truths. They dive into the deepest tides of that sinking mud and they get messy with the truth. They embrace the dark to give the light a canvas to shine from.

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28 thoughts on “The Cost of Creativity: Unblocking the dam before it breaks me

  1. Wonderful post Kim. I can relate to both the urge and resistance to writing. I hadn’t quite connected the dots before about not wanting to write about the dark stuff. Maybe it’s time allow more of the dark to flow and unblock the full range of life expressing through me and my blog. Blessings, Brad

  2. If a blog is any gauge of things, our lives have been riding the same tides, weathering the same soul-wearying storms. I read this post and felt a deep recognition: I could have written this. Not in the same words, and not will anywhere near the same amount of awesome inspirational quotes mixed in, but… the truth of it, I understand. I feel it. I’ve been so stuck this year, and every time I un-stick… bam: another storm to weather, another day to survive. It is making me realize I need other sources of stability beyond just my writing. Putting so much pressure on my writing to be The One Thing that Makes Sense and Always Helps is putting too much strain on my creativity. As much as this year has been difficult, it is one that is teaching me how to Be. It will be worth it – for both of us.


  3. Great Post Kim. I enjoyed reading this.
    “and not writing is easier but it kills me a little more inside.” – I so get this. I feel like not writing is a form of self abuse.
    I had not read that Scott Fitzgerald letter before, boy he was brutal.
    Happy Writing!

    1. Hi Cheryl
      YES – not writing is DEFINITELY a form of self-abuse for me.
      Yes – F. Scott Fitzgerald was brutally honest but then truth is only truly true when it is brutally honest. And there is nothing more honest than art – whether it be words, picture or sound – so I guess he realised that she was holding back and therefore really doing her own writing harm. It is the most painful stories that have been lived emotionally that can truly change the world and the way we see it. They turn brutal honesty into rare beauty.
      So glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for stopping by. 🙂

  4. Kim,

    I loved your quote : “Life should not be about surviving. It should be about LIVING.” I’ve been avoiding an essay I started about a childhood trauma and you have inspired me to get back to it.

    Thank you so much for sharing your struggle.

    1. HI hun 🙂
      I am so PLEASED this post inspired you to face your own demons and to write your essay.
      Just your comment and your action to take up the reins of courage make my post and my battles worthwhile.
      Please keep me updated on how that essay goes.
      May the words find a vein of courage in your experience. 🙂

  5. I have been here, Kim. I have been shut up behind the dam. The put it bluntly, it f-ing sucks. You pound and pound and pound and yet nothing will come out. Nothing did for me, anyway, until I took the advice of a friend and started writing a journal about writing. It helped a lot. Perhaps give it a try. It is where I found my honesty with myself when it came to dealing with the stuff that was preventing me from actually getting my work done. Sometimes I still do it, though I am no longer dammed. I hope you find the fissure through which to burst. And thank you for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s post. Those are awesome words to live by. I hope I can do those sentiments some justice.

    1. Hi Meredith 🙂
      Couldn’t have put it better – that “it f-king sucks” sums up my whole post 😉
      It does suck!
      Funny you mention journalling about writing. Four years ago I learnt about morning pages from Julia Cameron and it has been a lifesaver and unblocker many times. However for about 6 weeks I did not want to write any words down because then I would have to face the toxic emotions and thoughts that came out about real life dramas. But I have started journalling the last 2 weeks and it is slowly refilling the well and breaking down that dam. One of the next steps will be morning pages again to really unleash that emotional and mental energy.
      Thank you for your lovely comment and thank you for sharing your own experience with dealing with crap and not being able to write.
      That letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald is one that I just recently came across and it is going to my mantra and my check list for my own writing. Glad you enjoyed it and found it inspiring too. 🙂

      1. I’m here for you for support and to bounce off ideas or if you just need to chat! ❤

    1. JD – Thanks for stopping by.
      Everyone has their own opinion and thoughts on so many levels of writing including Writer’s Block. I disagree with you though in that there is a writer’s block. Not that you can’t write at all. But that you might not be able to write fiction or any other form of creative writing. I have experienced this 3 times. This is when my journalling and morning pages come into practice. But it is also true that when there is a personal life trauma/crisis that it is very difficult to retain inspiration or motivation. This is what my post was about more than just the generic writer’s block.
      But each to their own. Will agree to disagree on this point. 🙂

  6. An honest and inspiring post. Write whatever you need to. They don’t have to see the light of day but may help you, both in getting through the difficult time and getting back in touch with the writer in you. I hope things find an even keel soon.

    1. Hi Rebecca 🙂
      Oh my I have journals and journals of stuff that nobody will ever see 😀
      I have started journalling again, something I could not do for a while and slowly I am learning to refill myself creatively.
      Thank you for your support and your encouragement.

  7. Honey, I’m with you. I make you look perfectly normal. If writers struggle to get past the “why isn’t this sounding like I’d envisioned it” stage, it’s because they’re still amateur. When a writer hits this point, however–like you and me–it’s a show that we’ve hit another level of knowledge between life and writing. Because dealing with difficult emotional memories in life is the coloured picture, and writing it into a fictional story is the black sheet with little peepholes the writer carves out so the reader can glimpse into what’s being told.

    As cliché as this sounds–take a break from writing! Seriously, when I get into this stage you’ve just blogged about I amp up my reading don’t allow myself to creatively write until I formulate a plan how I can steal the way my favourite books achieve what I want to do, but in my own way. That way, I’ve climbed out of the hole I carved for myself, and am sitting at a high-level where I can regroup.

    Thank you for this post. It’s the raw, honest stuff like this that makes me feel just that *bit* better about my irrational mind.

    1. Hi my sweet friend 🙂
      Aren’t all writers irrational? I am sure that is why many resort to drink and other vices not to mention weird superstitions. 😀
      It has not so much been a case of “taking a break from writing” it has been “wanting to take a break from reality”. I have been escaping into stories though, other peoples’ stories.
      I will get back on the horse once things start smoothing out. I think the hardest thing about being a creative professional is that as any artist will know – whether your art is words, picture or sounds – we pour all of ourselves into our work. It is not a 9-5 job. It is not something you can switch your real life off for like you do with a day job. So the difficulty for me is that emotionally, mentally and physically I am running on empty right now. But small steps will get me there. The words will eventually come when I am ready to deal with them.
      Thank you as always for your support, your encouragement and for making me smile with this comment.

  8. Eloquently put. When your dam breaks, I’m sure beauty will spring forth. If a little on the dark side.

    As for me, massage therapy. I’m not kidding. When things go wrong, my brain tortures my body into pretzel knots until I can hardly move. Then it’s back to physio and massage and a wishful promise to myself that I won’t let it go that far again. And then I write.

    1. Oh my word Marie – I so need a masseur on call! Yes when stressed I too tend to tense up all my muscles which leads to aching and pulled muscles + migraines. Unfortunately I am an internaliser, I pull stress into me instead of releasing it.
      Thank you so much for your words of encouragement. Friends like you make this journey worthwhile.

  9. A very brave post.

    When I’ve blogged about my issues with writer’s block, I’ve always made it jokey. Imaginary conversations with my muse, anecdotes meant to amuse my reader(s)

    The fact is, writer’s block is not funny.

    When the words elude me, I start to feel desperate. I have a harder time dealing with the crap in my real life because there is no escape. The absent words haunt me, and wound me. I feel this vague sense of constant irritation, an emptiness where words used to be.

    Right now, I’m making myself write. Every day. Even if it’s only one word. It seems to be helping, though I may be 90 by the time this ms gets finished.

    Great post!

    1. Hi Meggan 🙂
      Perhaps it should be called creativity block…It sux when you can’t lose yourself in your creative writing because of real life dramas. It does make me feel desperate because writing is how I empty that pitcher and how I refill it too. At the moment I am journalling which is a help. But for about 6 weeks I could not even do that, the emotions and thoughts were too raw and too ravaging. But I have started journalling again and I know the next step will be to pour out the rawness into some new poetry…and then the fiction will come. It is a process I guess. Every small step counts.
      Well done on writing. Every day.
      Thanks for sharing your experiences and your thoughts and also for your encouragement.
      It is one of the reasons I wrote the blog post because too many times we don’t share the darker times as writers and as human beings and once shared we realise we are not alone even if we feel alone.
      Good luck with that ms. Every word written is close to it being done!

  10. Just get up everyday and keep going. You will prevail over this. Go for a long walk and just keep being you. We all sadly have something that tries to beat us down. Keep going please.

    1. Sometimes the biggest progress is “just getting up”. Walking is something I totally subscribe to. I will keep going – I am too damn stubborn to give up. Even if it kills me! 🙂

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