Personal reflections · Psychology and mental illness · Recovery

Letter of Self-Compassion: Writer’s Block

Image: two hands typing on a typewriter. The rustic wood desk also holds some books, a lamp, a wicker basket, and a small vase of wildflowers.

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

This phrase is commonly attributed to Hemingway, but may have been said by Red Smith in an interview about column writing. I haven’t read the works of either of these men, but for years I lived by this mantra in my writing practice. All I had to do was turn on music, and let the emotions flow out onto the page.

With time, it occurred to me that many writers – both those considered great and those lesser known – struggle with depression and the existential. This is part of what drew me to writing in the first place. I could explore extensively the questions that made me feel, and the feelings that made me question.

For me, writer’s block set in gradually, but I would say that it really started to set in around 2018. In December of that year, I wrote about how it was difficult to work around my debilitating depression. I was working on a longer piece with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and that would finally find a home in the Huffington Post Personal section online. It was a terrible time to be losing steam in my regular blog updates, though, because the publicity was a great opportunity.

Image: a white model with shoulder-length brown hair sits in a chair at a desk, leaning back slightly. They have a pondering expression, with an elbow on an open journal and a pen held up to their mouth. The desk also holds a laptop, a vase, and other writing supplies. The model is wearing glasses, a white t-shirt, and a jean jacket.

This is a letter to my struggling writer-self:

Before it hit you, you had no idea how writer’s block could be real. Writing was such an easy thing at the beginning. Not easy in that it didn’t bring pain, but the pain was never the problem. Pain was delicious, expressed at last after decades of holding it in. You desired pain because you thought you deserved it. Mourning out loud made you feel seen. You didn’t deserve more pain. You didn’t deserve to rebuild on public display.

When you realized not everyone deserves to know every detail of your life, it shattered your approach to writing. It didn’t feel like you were bleeding freely anymore, but like you were being wrung out. Exhausted from fighting, not knowing how to stand up for yourself, you gave in to your ex’s every whim. He was impossible to satisfy, often saying it wasn’t enough every time you gave him a gift. In the end, he had you waiting on his every need and wish.

Artemis, you deserved so much better than the predator who could not be pacified. When you met in 2016, he was quick to drag you down to his level, and soon you were both homeless and without resources. You lost everything for the illusion of love, even your writings. When Ryann entered your life, love took on a different meaning. It was gentle, not violent. It asked instead of demanding. It was safe, not unstable. Gradually, a way out of the mess became a possibility. Ryann showed you the way of compassion.

More than that, you studied your own codependent habits and learned to care for yourself at last. It hasn’t been an easy path, prioritizing your mental health. Especially when it seemed that writing might not be something you’d return to. Writing about trauma was causing pain still, but you knew better now: you didn’t have to continue hurting yourself with words. Revisiting those memories, recreating them with words, and sharing them with the world wasn’t working anymore.

I’m so proud of you for your work. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. What matters is how I feel about myself, and I’m proud of me. I have grown outside of the spotlight, quietly recovering. The trauma lingers, and my work is not done. My mental health is my priority, before and above everything else. I need therapy, group therapy, classes on coping skills, psychiatry, and community support. Each day requires dedicated work, and I am committed to showing up for it, even if doing the work means learning to rest when my body is in pain.

I am hesitant to declare the writer’s block officially over. I do not know what this year, and the years that follow it, will bring. What I know is that I have thoroughly explored the possibilities for my writing, and my approach has required a reinvention. As my voice changes and I go through my second puberty, my writing tone will change, too. That’s okay.

I hold you in compassion now, Artemis.

Image: A model sits at a table, writing in a journal. The image shows their torso and arms, but the head is out of the frame. The table also holds a laptop and cell phone. A blurry foreground contains a teacup with a saucer and teaspoon, oil and vinegar containers, and a tall pink rose.