Today, millions around the globe will unwrap the best Christmas gift of all: a book. For those of us welcoming these treasures, the weeks ahead promise an intimate, asynchronous dialogue with their authors. At times this exchange will be delightful, at others revelatory, and occasionally, challenging. Yet, regardless of their quality, all these books share one common thread—their creators’ brave navigation through the tumultuous journey of writing, enduring the writer’s block with resilience.
As Roberto Bolaño put it: “Writing is not normal. It is normal to read, and it is pleasurable to read; it is even sophisticated to read. Writing, however, is a masochistic endeavour; while reading may occasionally verge on sadistic, it is mostly a fascinating occupation.”
In this second piece on the craft of writing, I explore the unique aspects that set it apart, and I share how I’ve worked to overcome my own creative standstill.
The Exhaustion of Being Lost in Your Thoughts
I began my previous essay by sharing the struggles I’ve faced with writing throughout this year. But the truth is, this ‘writer’s block’ started on the very first day I sat down to write, six years ago. All this time, I’ve never managed to shake off that creative paralysis; what you see on this blog are just the occasional traces of those rare moments when I break free from the seductive spell of the Gorgon.
Some days, it’s incredibly tough to battle against the tempting inertia that urges me not to write; on other days, it’s downright impossible. Back in 2019, when I thought I had achieved more consistency in my writing, I believed that writing page one hundred would be easier than writing page ninety-nine. I thought that over time, my writing would become more polished, my ideas clearer, and my practice more regular. But it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Writing hasn’t transformed me into a better writer, neither in terms of quality nor consistency. I realized this when I stumbled upon some essays I wrote during my college years. One was about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan for my Middle Eastern History class, another about the role of magic in the Middle Ages for my King Arthur Literature class, and another about the topology of the universe for my Galactic Astronomy class. Comparing them to my current writings, I don’t see a significant difference. Sure, my writings from those days have a certain endearing innocence, and maybe I’ve developed a more defined style now. But aside from fixing a few recurring errors, I can’t claim that my current writing is vastly superior. After countless pages written over twenty years – in my theses, work reports, and this blog – it seems my level is about the same as when I started.
Perhaps I’m mistaken, and in forty years, when I compare my latest publication to this essay, I’ll exclaim in amazement, “Wow! I wrote so poorly in 2023, I’ve certainly come a long way!” But I doubt it. Consider authors like Ryszard Kapuściński, Richard Dawkins, or Ian Stewart (a journalist, a biologist, and a mathematician), three fantastic writers in different fields and styles. When you compare their early and later writings, you notice that the quality remains consistent despite the decades that separate the texts. Their prose doesn’t become significantly more exquisite, and their content doesn’t become markedly deeper. Maybe for fiction writers, it’s different, but I suspect that at least for those in the non-fiction realm, there aren’t dramatic shifts in their voices over time.
Regular practice doesn’t lead to improvement unless it’s guided, has feedback, and an external source to tell you if you’re on the right track. If I had the help of an editor who patiently critiqued everything I wrote, pointing out my stylistic flaws or recurring errors, I could undoubtedly improve. But I’m not sure if that kind of coaching exists for independent writers, those in the self-publishing world.
What there’s no help for is consistency. That’s unfortunate because consistency is the very essence of being a writer. Anyone can write a thousand-word essay – we all did it at least once in school – but doing so doesn’t qualify you as a writer. Moreover, among two writers of similar quality, the one who writes more consistently will better establish their practice and reap greater rewards. This might explain why journalists often make excellent writers; they are held to a constant writing schedule and have an editor who constantly reviews their work. Alejandro Gaviria once mentioned that when he started his weekly column in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, Fidel Cano, the editor-in-chief, told him the key to the business: “A good columnist isn’t necessarily the best writer; it’s the one who submits the column on time.”
Achieving consistency is incredibly challenging. When you’re working on a long piece, one that requires several sessions to complete, and you revisit what you wrote the day before, you feel your mind scrambling to escape the torment of staring at the same idea, albeit with minor variations. That feeling is draining and accumulates into a mental fatigue that ultimately forces you to surrender.
The trap I often fall into is thinking that I need a break, a few days off to recharge and stop obsessing over the text. I believe that when I return to the computer, I’ll approach my words with more balance and compassion, and with renewed energy, I’ll be able to untangle the knot my text has become. However, this approach doesn’t work, which I find counterintuitive; one would think that to rest from running, you have to stop running. I don’t know the correct way to recover from writing exhaustion; perhaps there is no proper way of doing it.
I began to consider other activities that share the same combination of quality and persistence, and the only one that came to mind was meditation. Like writing, meditation has a learning curve that’s not too steep or too high. Just as it’s relatively easy to sit down one day and write a couple of pages that have some allure, it’s equally easy to sit down for twenty minutes and focus solely on your breath. Both activities involve some technique that can be refined, especially with guidance from an expert, but in general, the quality of the experience doesn’t change drastically over time. The real challenge lies in maintaining the habit consistently. I’ve experienced similar saturation points with meditation as I have with writing, derailing what could otherwise be a consistent practice.
For the past few weeks, I’ve returned to both meditating and writing. I dedicate twenty minutes to focused breathing followed by sixty minutes at the computer. I aim to do this five times a week, always at the same time. The idea of combining two habits and practicing them simultaneously to reinforce the behavioural pattern isn’t my own; I borrowed it from James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits.” It’s too early to declare success, and I think I’ll need several more months to see if this routine can withstand life’s usual ups and downs. In December 2024, I’ll share how it all went.
Four Words Concealed Four Thousand More
Over the years, I’ve been compiling a lengthy list of ideas I’d like to write about someday on this blog. For each idea, I usually have only a sentence or two that vaguely captures the essence of a potential full-length article. Some of these ideas revolve around topics I’ve previously explored (“What matters is not casting your vote, but rather talking about who you intend to vote for”), while others touch upon subjects I’ve never dared to tackle (“Mark Lanegan and the 90s grunge scene”). Some entries on my list are a bit cryptic, making sense only to me (“Bug. FDTD. Zaragoza 2002”), while others would be quite clear to anyone (“Something related to meditation. What have I learned after all these years?”).
A couple of weeks ago, as I revisited this list with a hint of guilt, acknowledging that my commitment to writing might have been fleeting, I stumbled upon another idea buried in the list: “Why do I write?”
I can’t recall when or where I jotted down that phrase as a potential starting point for an article, but if memory serves me right, what I wanted to share was a somewhat dull story:
“In the summer of 2017, the company I worked for sent me on a volunteering trip to Uganda. One of the requirements for my trip was to document some of my experiences on a blog. Excited about my adventure, I decided to purchase the domain for this blog and, while in Africa, wrote a few short entries about microfinance. Months after returning to London, I remembered that I still had that blog, and for some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to write a few more entries, this time on other topics. The end.”
But instead, what happened was that as I sat down to write and faced those four simple words, a flood of memories, thoughts, and emotions rushed in, all attempting to decipher why I engage in writing. The result was the essay I shared last week, and the one I’m sharing today, with yet another one in the pipeline. It all sprang from nowhere, much like life itself, and that’s the beauty of writing—it’s a unique form of therapy.
I wish I could confidently proclaim that these recent essays signify my triumphant return to writing, ushering in a prolonged era where I’ll find the time and inspiration to write daily, with words flowing effortlessly through this splendid blog. However, I can’t say this with conviction. Life is complex, and we live in strange times. I dare not extrapolate too far into the future based on just a couple of recent experiences. The only certainty I possess is that I’ll likely grapple with writer’s block again, my rhythm will be disrupted, and silence may once again prevail.
Nonetheless, this acceptance of my writing journey is healing. It has afforded me a breather, which I’ve used to cathartically explore these essays on the subject of writing. It has also provided me with the space to reflect on a conversation I had with my father exactly six years ago, offering greater clarity on why I continue to find joy in writing, despite its inherent challenges.
And to be fair, that acceptance is also revealing because it makes me realize that if just a four-word phrase on my list holds all these memories, reflections, and emotions, what might the other thousand phrases hold?