Flickering Match in the Fog—Some Personal Reflections on Writers Block

posted in: personal news, writing 9

E.L. Doctorow once said: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” My version is: “Writing this novel has been like driving a car at night in the fog. With no headlights. Holding a flickering match out the window.” I’ve burned through a lot of matches on Masters of Shipworld.

This has been kind of a big problem for me. I mean, I’ve worked through blocks before. But this is orders of magnitude beyond any creative block I’ve previously experienced. Some of the reasons I think I know. I’m not going to discuss them all in detail here, because they’re between me and my shrink and God. But let’s just say that I see the compounding effect of a variety of things getting in the way of my creativity. Some are fairly obvious: recent multiple losses of a personal and professional nature, health concerns that I can forget only until the next time I take a breath (or get my O2 hose stepped on, usually by me), and the looming practical concerns of preparing for a move downstairs while also prepping for some major needed home renovations. I’m not sure how well I’d handle any of these separately. But cumulatively, I feel as if I’m surfboarding in slomo over the Falls of Rauros on the River Anduin.

It’s possible that that’s a mixed metaphor.

A recent conversation with my shrink (yes, I’m getting professional help with this) highlighted an interesting dichotomy in my lifelong patterns of work and play. At least I think they’re interesting; maybe you will, too. Bear with me while we rocket back in time.

In my teen years, I was a real grind at school, and I didn’t know how to loosen up and have fun. I did well academically. I wasn’t a sports fan per se; but on the wrestling team, I achieved a good record through dedication and determination, even though I lacked certain native attributes such as speed and upper-body strength. But did I have fun with the sport? Well… I achieved satisfaction in my accomplishments, yes, but truthfully, I was too tightly wound to have much fun. Okay, then, what about off the mat and outside academics? I enjoyed band (clarinet and drums) until I didn’t anymore. I definitely enjoyed reading science fiction and had a few friends (and teachers) I could share that with. But socially I was deep down an impossible introvert, and hopelessly shy around girls. A lot of what I did, frankly, was to apply my nose to the grindstone and not look up. Those were my high school formative years.

Come my college years at what is commonly regarded as an elite university, I flipped all that over. I realized I wasn’t enjoying wrestling anymore, and I quit. I realized that academically I was not nearly as smart as a lot of my peers, and furthermore, despite my love of science, I really did not want to pursue an academic or professional career in it. It was too specialized, and I was a generalist and a romantic at heart. Instead, I wanted to nurture my imagination that had been fed by science fiction and develop it into an SF-writing career. There was no good academic help available for that, so I was really on my own. The other thing I realized was that I wanted to stop being a grind and learn how to goof off and have a fun—a skill that most of my peers had mastered years before. I learned to scuba dive. I learned to drink and cuss and be rude. I became marginally less shy around girls.

In the years following graduation I returned to nose-to-grindstone, but in a different way. I applied myself to writing and getting published. (The other aspects of my life more or less flapped in the wind, as I had learned no marketable skills for earning a living, and my social life was going nowhere. I turned to things like substitute teaching, diving for quahogs, and sorting packages for UPS to stay alive.) That last part is parenthetical because my real point here is that developing a career in writing, for me at least, and I suspect for many writers, involved a supremely tricky balance of cultivating my own creativity and imagination with dogged work and perseverance in writing and rewriting and rewriting some more, and—finally—getting published. At first intermittently, and then on a regular basis. (Oh, in the meantime, I stopped being shy around girls and I married a real keeper.)

Jump to now, when the same requirements exist—to juggle free-thinking imagination with determined work—except that I have changed. I’ve experienced life, with, in particular, losses such as we all endure, such as important people dying on me, the aggravating possibility of dying prematurely myself, the seemingly limitless disintegration of decency and honesty in the culture I live in, and so on. I know it would be helpful to find a way to integrate all of that into my writing, and eventually the stories—maybe even the current project—will be better for it. But right now, the link between the imagination and the grindstone seems to have come apart in my hands. There’s a puzzle—or maybe a labyrinth—between me and where I want to go. I see pieces of it, but I haven’t yet figured out a workable solution. I will, because I have to. Coincidentally, as a part of downsizing, I’ve been reading the Zelazny Amber series—to decide whether or not to keep the books, which I’d not read before. His descriptions of walking the all-powerful Pattern are highly resonant with my impressions of the creative process.

In a different metaphor, I’m wandering in the wilderness and trying to find my way back to the path. It can be very discouraging. But discouragement is the enemy of imagination, so… take another deep breath and try to get back on track?

Why am I describing all this on my blog? Well, partly to clarify it for myself, partly to let you, my faithful readers, know why things are taking so long, and partly in hopes that it will offer solace to others who may be similarly struggling. (You’re not alone.) Anyway…

Sometimes readers who have to wait a long time for the end of a story become irate, if not outright disillusioned and cynical. I can understand that. But no writer does this intentionally or because they don’t care. If you’re one of my readers waiting for the rest of the story, all I can say is, please continue to be patient. I’m working on it. In order to do that, I’m working on me.

And I’m one hell of a difficult patient.


9 Responses

  1. Theodore V Davis
    | Reply

    Your post sounds a lot like much of my life. I was good academically until I got bored and almost flunked high school. I almost didn’t know what girls were, until a forward one taught me.

    In my high school newspaper, I was the kid who hadn’t read the dictionary because I was waiting for the movie to come out. When my buddies had Honda motorcycles, I had to be different and had a Suzuki. At our local college, I learned photography and hid behind cameras for years.

    Somewhere along the way, I learned about writing. I discovered Asimov, Heinlein, and many more. My parents died, I had kids, grandkids, and life happened. So much for plans.

    Your comment about wandering in the wilderness and looking for the path caught my attention. That story is told in detail early in the Book of Mormon.

    I was working on several fiction books, as well as books 3 and 4 of my father’s biography. It’s like John Lennon said, life happens when you have other plans.

    Don’t worry about taking time to write your book. I waited ten years for one author to finish her series . . . and she got it wrong. Take the time to do it right. If somebody gets upset because you are taking too much time, ask them to write a book. It ain’t easy.


  2. Nicole Valentine
    | Reply

    I do appreciate this post. I find myself choosing time with friends and family over writing these days. It’s been a hard couple of years and it’s finally occurred to D and I that these people won’t be here forever. The writing is still important to me, but I will take my time. The living of life feeds the art and the best writing comes from remembering the living part.

  3. Rich Bowker
    | Reply


    Wherever your journey takes you, we’ll be there for you. Also, yes, we agree that Allysen is a keeper.


  4. Crystal
    | Reply

    Wow, so much truth in this writing that it’s a little alarming. Those of us, who’ve had the privilege to spend time around you realize that you are a good man; you have a good heart. You care about what’s happening out there without cursing it all to hell. And even though this writing journey is a huge struggle, you have walked it with integrity and grace. Thank you for your witness.

  5. Fran Giuffre
    | Reply

    Thanks, Jeff, for sharing your experience on the road & the curious place you find yourself now. You’ve been very successful following your heart as well as the Muse. I’ve noticed this gets harder when we get older. I’m choosing people over writing right now, but my pen is nearby. I’m trying to hear that mysterious inner voice that guides me and usually gets it right. Quieting the mind is the hard part. What you want to do most on any given day may surprise you. Whatever that is, it’s alright.

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