SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Blocks, Beasts, and Broken Brains

By Liesl Shurtliff

Time Castaways book coverOne afternoon in high school, I was trying to write a critical essay for my AP English class. I can’t remember the book I was supposed to be writing about, but it was most likely by a dead white male, as were most of the books we read, and I definitely didn’t enjoy it, and so it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I struggled to write this essay. I didn’t even know where to begin. The words were not there. I had nothing to say. The book, combined with whatever writing prompt I had been given, seemed to make my brain contract into the fetal position. 

My father came home from work to find me crying over a blank page. He had no advice to offer, but he phoned my uncle who had a degree in English and was then an editor at a small publishing company. He asked me a series of questions, gave a few suggestions. He didn’t offer me any magic bullets, but he helped me get started, which is often the hardest part of any task. Somehow, little by little, I wrote the essay and turned it in. I don’t think I got any gold stars, but I did the work.  

I don’t write many critical essays these days. None, actually. I canceled those ASAP. Mostly I write middle-grade fantasy, my main goal being to write stories that will delight my readers, immerse them in another world, and keep them turning the pages. (And I sincerely hope no teacher ever makes my readers write a critical essay about my books!) It’s a joy and a privilege I never take for granted. And yet, I still get writer’s block, and my husband does occasionally come home from work to find me crying over a blank page, my brain contracting so violently I can barely talk. 

Writer’s block has been my faithful companion through the years, so much so that I even imagine it as a little beast that sits on my shoulder. My block beastie. Its wild and wicked, definitely hairy with a severe underbite and bad breath. It snarls and snaps at my muses, who are, it must be said, namby-pamby fraidy-cats that run at the slightest threat. I’ve learned to respect this beastie even if I can’t love or tame it. I know I’m not alone. I’ve listened to enough people speak about their creative process to know that everyone has a little block beastie sitting on their shoulder. I have several ways of dealing with it, little tricks to get the beastie to behave or go away—write something ridiculous, skip ahead, circle back, ask some questions, lower my expectations, take a break. One of my best tricks is to take the beastie for a good long walk, take lots of twists and turns, point out some interesting architecture, then run away before it can follow me back home. It might take some time and patience, but I know I can outsmart that little beastie, lull it to sleep or lure it away so I can get to work. 

Lately, however, I’ve felt a different kind of creativity rut. Like everyone, the pandemic tipped my life upside down, shook it around in ways I wasn’t prepared for. I’ll spare you the details. We’ve heard and seen enough of it, haven’t we? Suffice it to say the changes were not ideal for any kind of productivity, let alone creativity. I managed to carry on with the work I had to do, but when it came to working on new projects, I felt totally blank. 

There are days when I sit down to work and I can barely get myself to write any words at all. Even if I do manage to start something, I’ll stop frequently, unable to recall the right word I need to convey the feelings and images in my head. Today I was trying to describe something to my husband but could not, for the life of me, find the right word. I kept saying bigger, extra, more pronounced. After several more awkward attempts my husband finally said, “Exaggerated?” 

“That’s it!” I shouted with relief and then despair. Why couldn’t I think of the word exaggerated? Something weird is happening. I’m not just stuck. This doesn’t feel like your typical writer’s block. I can’t attribute it to fatigue or a plot issue or even a crisis of confidence. No, I feel broken, like literally in my brain. There are loose parts clinking around in there. I don’t know how to put the pieces back together. My little beastie doesn’t even seem to be there anymore. I’ve bored it to death. I’m a broken toy.

I know I’m not alone. According to this Atlantic article, many people are feeling liked their brains are broken or warped, a common mental-emotional side-effect of the late stages of the pandemic. Vaccines are rolling out and we’re hoping things will return to normal, but it’s not all the way over. We’ve still got a long way to go, and no one can really predict how long it will really take or what new crisis will crop up in the meantime. This is difficult for all of us for a myriad of reasons. The big thing for me is that my work relies heavily on my brain’s ability to function properly and come up with new and interesting ideas, so a constant fog and loose parts in the brain are incredibly inconvenient. 

In times like this I think of the Serenity prayer: 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

It has helped me to simply accept what is happening, both outside and inside of me. Denial or resistance to a problem doesn’t help. This is happening. I can’t work in the same way that I used to because everything has changed, including my brain, and there’s little I can do to change that. I’m not going to stop creating, though. That doesn’t feel right. I have to find a way to create under the conditions I’m in now, not what I wish they were. I know all too well the refrain “I’ll do it when [fill in the blank]” is usually code for never. 

One of my writing mantras is “Give what you have to offer.” So often we try to get ideas, reaching for something that we believe will be a sure hit. I remember trying to do this with one of my books, constantly reaching, grabbing, trying to get, get, get those shiny, brilliant ideas. It was exhausting and I was getting nowhere fast. I had an epiphany later, when my brain was at rest, the block beastie asleep, and it suddenly occurred to me that I had been going about my work all wrong. Instead of focusing so much on what I want to get and achieve I should be focusing more on what I already have to offer. And click, it was like I’d suddenly unlocked a safe that had been storing every wonderful idea inside my head. It all came pouring out, a fountain of creativity. Not all the ideas were brilliant, but they were mine, and I instinctively knew what to do with them. 

Now, as I wrestle with a broken pandemic brain, so many circumstances less than ideal, I go back to this mantra. Give what you have to offer. Give what you have to offer now. Not pre-pandemic or post-pandemic. Or pre or post anything. Right now. I sit down to write. I write anything. It doesn’t matter. Most of it is a broken mess, full of misplaced words filling in for the ones I couldn’t recall. There are a lot of confused people wandering around the page. That’s okay. Confused wandering people can be quite interesting, I’ve found, maybe even interesting enough to call back that little beastie. I hear it growling at the muses now. 

Hello, Beastie. Welcome back. Now go fetch! 

 

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Liesl Shurtliff headshot

 

Liesl Shurtliff