By: Bonne Leung
It’s Saturday morning. The taste of the previous night’s rain lingers still in the air, deliciously cool after a long summer of heat. It’s a perfect day for writing. Not for anything in particular, but for myself. I’d long developed a habit of simply writing my troubles away (literally), and it had been a good week for my writing; I had written consistently the last few days and found inspiration in almost everything.
I open the window wide, petrichor wafting into my bedroom. It’s a small space, as rooms often are in Hong Kong, with just about enough space for my bed, my bookshelf, some knick-knacks like a guitar stand and a tray pooled with jewellery. And right beside the windowsill I’d spent so many hours in, curled up like a cat in the sun, tearing through pages of books, my desk. On the corkboard, pictures. Keepsakes like polaroids, ticket stubs, pins. Before it, my laptop, asleep.
I sit down with my morning cup of tea and rouse it from its slumber. The screen switches on like a welcome smile, and the familiar click of keys fills the room. My mouse lazily wanders to click on Spotify to play some music, and then, a blank page.
It’s a yawning maw of emptiness that’s staring back at me, a blank canvas for me to paint a story with words. I take a sip of tea and take a deep breath—
Writer’s block. The dreaded spectre that trails after each writer. Some ward it off with specific rituals: meditating before they write, writing only at a specific hour, eating superfoods. Others, like me, simply stare at a screen for a while before sighing dejectedly or stubbornly hallucinate about writing a topic that they don’t hate. But you see, the problem with spectres is that you can never quite be rid of them.
I imagine writer’s block like an old companion who drops in from time to time, checks it on you, shares a coffee with you, and overstays their welcome. That or the monster from the movie ‘It Follows’. Wherever you are, no matter how far, it will follow.
This time was no different. I sat in front of my laptop and flicked through my notes, my list of ideas that all suddenly seemed useless. It was a shame, really, seeing as it had been the perfect day for writing.
Perhaps those of you reading don’t quite understand the frustration of a writer who wishes to write but whose heart refuses to do so. To put it into perspective, Red Smith (a sportswriter from the eighties, a time long gone) once said: ‘You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed’. To me, not writing feels as if the blood in my veins has slowed and that steady thrum of words at my fingertips as sure as each heartbeat— an ability that’s come as easily to me as breathing since I was a child — had disappeared.
When I was twelve, I got knocked off my feet during a rugby match and it was the first time I had truly gotten winded, the air snatched away. I had laid there on my back, gasping for air, seemingly having forgotten to draw breath into my lungs. It was a beautiful day, though. We usually play during the afternoon, just about when the sun starts to laze and the sky starts to fill with ribbons of red and blue. So I laid there and strangely, wondered how it was that the world went on even while I was gasping for air.
That’s what writer’s block feels like to me; that feeling of breathlessness and trying to reach for something you didn’t quite appreciate until it was gone.
Obviously, my coach rushed over to check that I wasn’t too hurt. He brushed the grass off of me, bandaged up my cuts and gave me ice for my bruises. He pulled me aside and offered words to soothe the damage dealt on my self-assurance, and back I went into the fray.
We won our championships that year.
But the thing is, when I’m writing, I don’t have a coach to pick me back up. I’m my own coach, bandage and ice, and winning seems like the furthest thing that I could achieve. The closest thing to team members that I have is the select few of my friends that could stand to receive a few (dozen) messages from me complaining about my old, spectral companion and asking them for ideas, desperate for something to relieve the pressure on my chest and the breathlessness.
But I sat there, before my laptop, staring into the great maw of the laughing beast, mocking that numb feeling that had spread from my chest to my hands, with no ideas.
I hate writer’s block. I’m not afraid to say so. I hate it. It’s a familiar fiend, but each time it visits I feel such an overwhelming sense of disappointment in myself I usually start to question whether I should be writing at all. I think for most writers, especially young ones still coming into their craft, feel as if they have to be constantly producing new content, be it an article covering the latest hot topic, or an elaborate allegory that could win a Pulitzer Prize. I certainly felt that way, though I never expected any prizes for simply putting my thoughts into words. I wrote for me, and when I failed even at that, I couldn’t help but scramble for something to blame. So I blamed the spectre.
More than once, I’ve sat at my desk, head in my hands, trying to conjure some semblance of inspiration. But something about that day, in particular, made me get up, close my laptop, finish my tea, and accept that perhaps writing was not meant to be that day. To most people, that would seem like the most logical thing to do, but to me, it was as difficult as accepting that I had lost something valuable to me and simply sat by waiting for it to resurface again.
I took a walk with my dog on the trail just behind my house, along the familiar grove of trees, across the bridge shaded by overhanging branches that I always closed my eyes and ran by when I was little, imagining sprites and ogres reaching for me to pull me down into the currents. We hiked until we were at the top of the hill, a long, arduous journey with a rewarding view. The sun smiled through the haze of clouds. I swiped away the browning leaves on the carved stone bench (nobody quite knew how it had gotten there), my dog and I both panting, and sat idly.
If you’ve ever seen sunlight through trees—the way its rays seem to cut through them like shards of light—it’s just one of those things nature likes to show you just to make you smile. Sceptics will scoff and put it off as just a natural occurrence, but leave me be. I want to believe that the world around me is trying to make me smile.
And smile I did.
I pulled my phone from my pocket then, took a deep breath, and opened another blank page.
I felt my old companion slide into the seat beside me.
I groaned, out loud because there was nobody but the critters in the woods and the trees to hear me. ‘I hate writer’s block’, I thought to myself, ‘So much.’
To be honest, I’m not sure how long I stayed at that bench, trying to think of something to write, seemingly locked in a chess match with a spectral opponent that didn’t want to move any piece on the board. When I finally stood up to leave, the afternoon heat had started to cool and the sunlight was starting to turn gold.
It filtered through the trees and flooded the path. My dog laid in the sun with his eyes closed, savouring the warmth the sun provided for just a moment longer. I sat beside him, on the floor with all the leaves, and did the same.
I would be lying if I said I hadn’t felt like the heroine in some classical novel, running away for solitude after disappointing my parents, declaring ‘I will never marry!’. It felt silly, but after a while, something in me shifted, like the heart of clockwork within a timepiece that had finally started to beat again.
So, the point? We are now at 1400 words and after all that flowery prose, you must be wondering, why? Why this particular drought of inspiration? Well, for one, I no longer see it as a drought.
Had my old companion not dropped by for a visit, I doubt I would have left the house and made that wretched (it truly was wretched; what I failed to mention was the perspiration that coated me in the aftermath of that hike (it didn’t quite fit the aesthetic nor the narrative)) hike. But wretched as it was, I had made a new friend. Of course, writer’s block is as familiar as its more celebrated cousin ‘muse’, but I’d never quite appreciated the relationship between us as I had with muse.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that, as much as I hated writer’s block, to some extent, I appreciate it now. That isn’t to say I don’t still curse at it when it arrives or bargain my soul to some dark being for a spark of inspiration during its longer stays, but I do appreciate what it does for me.
I think writers feel as if they’ve failed at something when they aren’t writing something or thinking about writing at all times, but truly, I think writer’s block is as needed to be a good writer as muse is. It has created wonderful serendipity (I discovered how much I liked feeling like a heroine out of a Bronte novel) and we don’t thank it nearly enough.
So the next time your old companion stops by, share a cup of tea, spend some time together—because, after a while, you might miss the company.