"Writer's Block": Getting to Know Your Gatekeeper

“Writer’s Block”: Getting to Know Your Gatekeeper

SSA Clara and I were talking today about my writing. Specifically, why I’m not doing it. While I have a lot of pieces of the Pollocking puzzle, it’s not coming together. I’ve been vacillating between “BICFOK, Allie. Damn it,” and “But it’s not cookies yet.

Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard

Most people would probably call my “not sitting down to write” either laziness or the dreaded WB (not Warner Brothers, people; the other one). Me, I’m reluctant to use that phrase. Like, I don’t even want to actually type it. (Okay, I have to, because my SEO check is coming up poor and it’s bugging me, but I’m going to close my eyes until I finish this paragraph, because I don’t even want to see the words writer’s block).

Sympathetic magic, you know? If I name it, then I’ve got it, or I might summon it.

Writer’s block is a problem without a solution except “breaking the block.” I dunno about you, but personally, I’m averse to breaking anything in my brain. First of all, ow. Second of all, messy. What are you supposed to do with all those shards of block? Maybe that’s why it happens again and again, because you leave the shattered stone bits lying around and they reassemble themselves, like, uh… blank. All I can think of is Replicarter. And that works, because she was one tough bitch.

Besides, blocks are, you know, blocklike. They get in your way. You can’t see around or through them. Sure, if you’re architecturally inclined, you could get a bunch of them together and build stuff. But, if you’re sitting around building stuff with your blocks, you’re probably not, you know, writing.

So, like Pollocking instead of process, I’m trying to get to the root of the thing. Find the story I’m telling myself and reshape it. Change the narrative, change the outcome. Or as Alex Chee put it, I can figure out the lie and stop telling it. But lie is a pretty negative word, and I want to reserve fiction for when I’m talking about the type of writing.

Of course, I’m coming at this all backwards, now, with the benefit of hindsight. Let me fix that. My side of the conversation with SSA Clara went sort of like this:

I feel like I’m not ready yet. Like I don’t know the physical and cultural space the characters inhabit. I don’t feel like I’m enough of an expert at 12th century England to create an authentic place. I don’t have enough data to make that mental picture, so it’s still hard.

If I know what I need to know, then I have a sort of harmony with the project and even if finding the actual words or the storyline can be hard, I have flow, and I can do it.

There’s a lot of stuff I can do to get the expertise I need/want. You know, this was always a problem with my academic work, too. I didn’t feel like I had a firm enough grasp, so it was always MOAR RESEARCH. (Which lead to leg-and-thigh-notes, but I digress…) The thing that’s different is that I’m not letting myself do the research, either. I have books and articles and movies and TV shows all queued up, but I don’t “feel like” doing it.

But that’s not really it either. It’s not that I don’t feel like it. It’s that I’m always watching TV or movies with the computer on my lap so I can work at the same time. I choose things I’ve seen before, like Poirot or Midsomer Murders, or procedurals, because they have a familiar structure and pacing. I don’t have to watch for them to be the background noise I need to keep from going batshit.

Setting the computer aside means I’m not being productive. It’s a commitment to a block of time where I’m not doing anything “productive”. A commitment to myself and leisure. And I’m not allowed to have leisure until the work is done.

Of course, I spend a lot of time I could be working “secretly” having leisure, probably more of it than if I legitimately blocked out time for it. I’d feel less guilty and get more done.

But there’s always this mountainous To Do List. I feel like it’s a Threshold Guardian, or maybe a Gatekeeper. Yeah, a Gatekeeper. Like, if I do the things on the To Do List, I’ll be allowed to pass and then I can write.

A-ha! A Gatekeeper between me and this nebulous thing I call the leisure to write.

Man, there is some amazing storytelling going on there. I can’t write unless I have the leisure to do it? Art is a leisure time activity. Leisure time is what you get from dutifully doing all your work and being financially solvent and cleaning the house and getting your exercise and eating your Wheaties and taking the dog for a walk and going to the doctor and dentist and…

Basically, leisure time is awarded as currency for productivity.


There are so many problems with that. And so much family-system conditioning. It leads to thoughts like “I can’t justify the time for this unless I’m making money at it, or it’s a leisure time activity.” Blech. Phooey.

So, the Gatekeeper says “nope, you can’t go through until you’ve found the key” where the key is the requisite productivity, (depending on how crazy I’m feeling might be an exacting To Do List or just a sketchy general idea). But the key and the hole are never the same size, or almost never. It’s like Alice looking through the keyhole, without any Eat Me, Drink Mes.

I decided to noodle around on Pinterest for awhile to look at some gates (if there’s a Gatekeeper, there’s got to be a Gate, right?) while I thought about this some more. The first thing I noticed is, “hey-o, gates are actually DOORS. They go through things.” By definition, a gate is almost the opposite of a block. Hoorah!

Then I noticed, “oh yeah, but they’re a special kind of door. They’re a door in a fence, and fences don’t just keep things out, they keep things in.” They create discrete spaces, like walls. But unlike walls, usually, you can see through them to what’s on the other side. And if you can’t, there’s a good chance you can see through the gate.

You don’t bother to put a fence around stuff you don’t care about. It might be dangerous stuff, so it’s a safety fence. Or it might be precious stuff, that you don’t want anyone accessing. It might be fruits or flowers, you don’t want rabbits nibbling, or horses you don’t want to run away. Gates are how you move in and out from regular space to a pasture or a… yeah.

A Secret Garden.

Man, I loved that book as a little girl. I read it dozens of times and spent hours imagining my own secret garden. On some level, I still do it. My RP spaces are private gardens. My desk area. My bedroom. When I’m using it for writing, even the kitchen table becomes one. How significant that I was also saying to SSA Clara that not having a space to write was getting in my way. That I can’t afford the coffeeshops and restaurants right now, and I need to find a dedicated space for writing in.

Well, wow. All of the sudden, I don’t have a block between me and an activity. I have a Gatekeeper guarding a gate to a secret garden. Gatekeeper wants something from me before I come in. Gatekeeper wants me to be in the right spirit to leave my regular space and enter the beautiful, magical space of novel-writing.

Now the job is to figure out how to give that part of myself what it wants. So whether it’s the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, my favorite color, or some reassurance that I’m not going to trash the garden, instead of trying to break a writer’s block, I’ll be here, getting to know my gatekeeper.

Hey, if I’m lucky, maybe he’ll look like Idris Elba.

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