vancouver island-based author and artist

Trouble in Paradise: The First Writer's Block

 My entire life on post-it notes.  Guaranteed to make anyone unnecessarily depressed.

My entire life on post-it notes.  Guaranteed to make anyone unnecessarily depressed.

Before I decided to embrace the life and identity of being a writer, I thought that writer's block was like hitting a brick wall at full speed.  Sometimes, it is, or at least that's what I hear.  You can be riding high on a wave of great ideas for weeks or even months, and then suddenly, you can get knocked right off that wave and lose everything.  About two weeks ago, I started to heavily pressure myself to get working on my memoir.  The reason I left home and sought a slower pace of life on the west coast was to focus on writing.  There was a reason behind that reason, which was the inevitability that the act of writing my own memoir, the project I'd planned for over ten years, was going to be impossible to do in the same setting where my story took place.  My uncle disagreed.  He told me I didn't need to move somewhere else to write a book, and that, in relation to one particular dark chapter of our family's history, "It's not a big deal. It was at the time, but now, nobody really cares."

My uncle and I are two very different people.

My memoir contains my admittedly vulnerable personal story, which is painful and traumatic for characters in it besides myself.  It's guaranteed to stir controversy among my semi- to unsupportive family members (said uncle included), but more than to protect them, I sought to leave my hometown to write it because I needed physical distance from familiarity to stabilize my emotional wellbeing.  In other words, I needed to escape in order to live to tell the tale.  And so, I went west.  I got to Vancouver on the 15th of October and Nanaimo, Vancouver Island on the 17th.  I didn't plan to go any further than that.  My goals were straightforward: move to the Island, write the book, go back to school.  There were no deadlines, only that I not rush the writing and allow myself every bit of space and time I required in order to tell my story.  In terms of support, I figured I could seek out whatever I'd need, but meeting other writers and gaining their feedback wasn't my priority.  I came for peace, solitude, and inspiration.  (And if I were lucky, maybe an ocean view from the balcony of my apartment.)  When I realized that studio apartments were rare and elusive in Nanaimo's family-oriented rental market, I started researching other parts of the region that might be more conducive to writing.  A couple of clicks one night brought me to a private listing for a six-month lease on a winter cabin, via the Salt Spring Exchange.  (The 'Exchange' is a local classifieds website for SSI residents with a small but highly active community of users.)  I didn't move into this cabin; I didn't even get to see it.  But less than two months later, I did move into a cabin in the woods, on Salt Spring Island.  Before I knew it, I was living the 21st-century Hemingway dream.
 
Which brings me back to writer's block.  My experience of writer's block - the suffocating inability to express oneself creatively, and/or a complete stifling of ideas altogether - has felt a lot more like a heart attack than hitting a brick wall at full speed.  It's gradual, heavy, and immobilizing.  It's something you hear about happening to other people who have done stupid things with their lives and are offered a second chance to do it again differently, if they manage to live through it.  Like my assumption about heart attack survivors suggests, my writer's block was self-induced.  It started shortly after I forced myself to map a physical timeline of my life story so I could write my chapters accordingly.  Motivation's good, I thought, since I knew full well that I'd made myself as comfortable as possible thus far.  Then, like clockwork, every single one of my ideas ground to a halt.  It wasn't the timeline that caused it, though the sensitive nature of the exercise certainly could have been the trigger.  I know that losing grasp on my creative motivations isn't a matter of life and death.  I've already survived life and death.  I've watched other people choose, reject, and live again after life and death.  Getting 'stuck' is a small price to pay compared to the stories of mine that precede it.  Instead, I've diagnosed writer's block to be caused by something less dramatic and far more simple: mental overload.  My healthy brain had reached its capacity for stress and discomfort in the wake of tremendous change.  I was backed up, and for a multitude of reasons, too scared to unload my shit.

 Flying into Calgary at sunrise. Just one of five flights I took between October and January.

Flying into Calgary at sunrise. Just one of five flights I took between October and January.

It's early February, and I've been an ex-resident of my hometown for just over four months.  In that time, I've travelled across the country twice.  Went back home, twice.  I tapped out of vacation mode in a completely new place, where I learned how life on the road takes its toll and not having a permanent home is harder than I ever imagined.  I fell in love with an addict.  This is something I've hesitated to blog about, because the consequences of the fallout devastated us both, in separate ways.  I danced my part in this short-lived, whirlwind romance only to be left in its dust, wondering if any of it actually happened.  The most confusing thing about it was having its demise not be my fault (for once), but having to fix the collateral damage anyhow.  The next confusing thing was wondering how I could be handed something so beautiful and then have it taken away in the same breath.  The unexpected love, and loss, turned my world upside down in ways I'd never experienced before.  I thought I knew hurt and devastation until I loved someone out of control, their life completely ravaged by the mercilessness of addiction.  It was after I loved someone who couldn't love themselves that I felt the pain of heartbreak worse than death, knowing full well my love could never be enough to take their pain away.  Paraphrasing my own poetry from that time: "My heart broke in a pattern my scabs didn't recognize."  I grew up in those first weeks and months more than I'd already done, ahead of schedule, during my less-than-perfect childhood.  Full-fledged adulthood taught me that love would not conquer all.  So if not love… what would?

I reassessed my whole life and everything I thought I stood for.  I had the time.  I questioned who I was - not in the fragmented, insecure manner I did throughout my early 20s, as I grappled with the inescapable hand-down of my mentally-ill genetics.  I questioned my purpose.  As a writer.  As a woman.  As "inspirational" and "visionary", "bold" and "intrepid" and "daring" as I'm described by my friends, family, and family of friends across the globe who look in at my life from afar.  The idea of being caught in a fishbowl, with my world so small and the whole world outside scrutinizing me, was one I started to think about in high school when I did a project on it.  I would experience it firsthand almost a decade later.  After I visited the Philippines for the first time this summer, I connected with a huge extended family I hadn't met before.  Doing so gave them a window into my everyday life, through Facebook, and they haven't hesitated to use that window to interact with me about our differences, commenting on the highlights that I, too, project out onto the world.  This also led to the awkward, precarious position of being asked to help them out financially, or to do unusual favours.  I've thought about the role I play in other people's lives, too.  I reminded myself that I owe no one anything and everyone nothing.  I revisited my old goals.  The simple ones I made before I left home - move to the Island, write the book, go back to school - and found, shockingly, that they still fit.  I'm still able to achieve the things I came out here for.  After all, there were no deadlines; I just wanted to do it right.  It's been incredibly hard to stay focused on them with all the noise.  Mental noise.  There is very little external noise out here, and I did get everything I wanted: peace, solitude, and inspiration.

Within the first 24 highly-traumatized hours that followed my breakup, I wrote a one-page summary of my experiences which I sent to a few close friends.  In it, I wrote that "I can't be a hero, a lighthouse, an insurance policy, a goddess, a bank account, a holding cell, or a warm, wet body.  I can only be all of that for myself."  I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.  Since then I've eaten, slept, and regained my bearings, but I still circle back to that mental and emotional exhaustion which comes from knowing I can't be these things for anyone at all.  In addition to everything else, I've been amping up my web presence as a writer and have continued to promote my poetry online.  Herein comes an additional pressure to post regular content in order to engage a small but growing audience.  How could this not contribute to the general overwhelm over what my life looks like to other people, and the anxiety that's arguably stifling my creativity to begin with?  Where do I draw the line?  With respect to using social media to promote my work, the answer seems to be that I don't.  I have to push through anyway.  I have to do whatever I need to do to balance out the 'life' part that makes it overwhelming - like get a part-time job, hike more, or watch less-depressing TED talks - but ultimately, because digital communication is the future, the social media bull must be grabbed by its horns if I insist on taking "full-time writing" seriously in 2017.  These channels are a necessary evil that are annoying at best and frustrating at worst, but they aren't going away.  The 21st-century Hemingway dream I'm currently living in is just that, 21st-century.  It's a cabin in the woods with wifi but no running water.  It's inspiration that's Instagram-worthy.  Just like I found with backpacking, it's impossible to do it like they did in the 1970s.   (Besides, in the '70s I probably couldn't be here anyway, since I'm not white.)

 Lying under said teepee in my backyard.  This was just days before #snowmageddon hit us!

Lying under said teepee in my backyard.  This was just days before #snowmageddon hit us!

Wherever you are, peace and solitude are futile aspirations to pine over in this time.  They will always be elusive if you're on social media and you don't know how to quiet your mind.  Mindfulness is something I've worked at now for several years, but it remains one of my biggest challenges primarily because there's no one in my life today who's successfully connected and mindful at the same time.  My immediate social circle is the worst.  I can't look to any of my peers for expertise, because every millennial I know suffers from the exact same information addiction, social projection anxiety, and chronic worries over an uncertain future and our perception by more successful others. The whiteboard in my kitchen reads: "What do I want to worry about today?" Which brings me to the conclusion that maybe this isn't just about writer's block.  The noise in my mind is perpetuated by the work I came out here to do and the setting I've chosen to complete it in.  Perhaps what I'm going through is more universal, and the resulting inability to stick to goals cuz life affects more young adults than simply the ones I know. (Many of whom are also engulfed in personal creative pursuits of their own.)  The only way to find out is if I ask.  Share.  Write about it.  My most recent uplifting-yet-depressing literature came from Dr. Brene Brown's 'Rising Strong', in which she explains that shame can't survive being said out loud.  I'd be lying if I said there wasn't some shame growing between the hairs under my arms as the unfinished blog entries mount on my dashboard while my confidence is dropping.  I've tasked myself to lift myself up, write my story, and lift up others in this stressful whirlwind of change, all while staying authentic and true to the good, honest person I know myself to be.  I write to tell stories.  I do all this to be the voice, not the protagonist.   Perhaps this work, and this phase of life I'm crafting around it, is about telling several imperfect stories instead of my one grand tragedy.  I already know that my memoir isn't just one grand tragedy, nor is it a tale of redemption.  It's a story about real life, which is... imperfect.  Messy.  Beautiful.  Heartbreaking.  Tragic.  Dramatic.  And unapologetically honest.

That whiteboard on my kitchen that facetiously questions my anxieties each morning is nailed to a wall opposite a window.  That window looks out to a dreamy teepee made of tree branches, with seven acres of protected forest behind it.  The sounds of a city at night - police sirens, trains roaring, tires on pavement, and the laughter of inebriated adults - are all awash in my distant, foreign-seeming memories.  On clear nights, I step outside and the stars overhead look like a glittering map of constellations, rotating with the position of the moon.  I hear owls all through the night and wake up to the sound of woodpeckers in the trees, or my personal favourite, rain softly hitting the rooftop.  Inside, there's a pile of clean laundry on the floor from which I've pulled the t-shirt and sweatpants I'm wearing right now.  My fridge and cupboards are empty, save for half a bag of frozen pirogies and some pasta sauce.  I'm still Mary from Calgary.  The same 25 year-old who still can't swim, ride a bike, or drive alone.  The same peculiar woman-child who's forever been curious, hopeful, contemplative, and jaded.  Everything around me has changed, but I haven't.  Soon, things will change again, and again after that.  Knowing that some things haven't changed about myself might just be what lifts this heart attack of a writer's block off my chest.  The connection I've forged to the parts of myself I left behind - my city, my family, and all of my memories - will follow me no matter where I go.  I'm counting on that connection to bring me back to my story.  After all, it's in storytelling where we can forge connections with other people and our past selves.  My story is what's shaped me into the bold, intrepid, daring woman who's stubbornly chosen this life of elusive aspirations, the life of a writer.  All of this feels like a second chance at life.  After all I've been through, I wouldn't want it any other way.  

journalMary