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Memoir Update: Writer's Block


A week consumed with writer’s block. My stomach hurts. Avoidance. New Microsoft game—popping bubbles. It’s a great distraction. 

On a deadline: I have to have finished a chapter today but it’s about something I don’t want to write about. I don’t even want to think about it. 


I’ve been writing about one of the toughest times of my life, the four years of my residency. I even had a nightmare once that I had signed up to do another one. I woke up with a panic attack.

Why is it so hard to write about? It was a long time ago. 

Because it is about the kind of stuff called unfinished business, emotional baggage, trauma. 

Two points. 


  1. There is a general misperception that writing is easy—that ideas flow like a river, sentences automatically fill the page and every word is brilliant.  That perception is not true. Writing is hard work. A writer has to trust the process, that the first flood of words are just that, rash and jumbled, driven by emotion and imagination, tossed onto the digital page to be transformed by a diligent author who wants to say something to the world and is willing to do as many revisions as it takes to make her work readable.  

  2. After serious consideration, I have determined writer’s block should be counted among Freud’s ego defenses—rationalization, projection, denial, displacement, repression, sublimation and writer’s block. It is a mechanism to protect the writer’s ego. It's a shield against the painful and traumatic memories. Writer's block is a well meaning intruder. It keeps the things that need to be said shoved way down so that they can’t rise up hurt. beyond that, writer's block can save the author from an imperfect sentence that would keep her awake at night; she doesn’t risk failure—which for a writer has different meanings, but probably the most common is rejection. Writer’s block isn’t useful, especially when there is a deadline. 


What was so tough about those years that I nearly made myself sick this past week writing about them? 

I had to admit I was afraid—of making a mistake, of not knowing enough, of dealing with those rascals, humans, who were so unpredictable. 

I recalled what is was like living on the edge of my emotional and physical limits for four years, working hundred hour weeks with two children. It was beyond demanding.

To keep going, I often quoted a stanza from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If.”


If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the will which says to them, “Hold on,”


Writer’s block can be debilitating but there is a simple remedy. 

Write. Write until it goes away. Put words on the page and stop judging yourself. Stop comparing. Don’t be afraid of the past.


I heard something last week I really liked. “Comparison takes away joy.” So does having unreasonably high expectations and judging yourself. So does being afraid of something that already happened and that you survived. 


Good news. I finished the chapter. 


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