Audre Lorde,  image copyright: Dagmar Schultz

Audre Lorde, image copyright: Dagmar Schultz

Written by Devyn Springer
All writers have periods when they stop writing, when they cannot write, and this is always painful and terrible because writing is like breathing: when you can’t, something goes dead, something stops moving inside you.” - Audre Lorde

My fingers are pressing against the letters on my keyboard until I have two sentences fully typed out. But something in one of the letters catches my eye, bringing my attention to the “a” in the word “sociological,” which then draws me to the entire sentence, “writer’s block is as much a sociological phenomena, a product of socio-economic hindrances, as it is a natural occurrence.” I don’t like it, so I erase it and start over. This time, it is the “e” in the word “writer” that feels out of place. And the irony of my inability to formulate an opening paragraph on an essay about writer’s block sets in: it is here, and it has been, albeit patiently waiting its chance to strut the runway, and now it seems it is here to stay. As two weeks turns into a month without me being able to craft a full article, the question then becomes: does writer’s block just breed more writer’s block, or do the socio-economic factors of my life have something larger to do with it?

Audre Lorde wrote that “all writers have periods when they stop writing, when they cannot write, and this is always painful and terrible because writing is like breathing: when you can’t, something goes dead, something stops moving inside you.” Truly, as I sat here with time hanging above my head, I felt like a piece of me was in decay. Initially, I believed my writer’s block to simply be a product of lack of inspiration but as the time has changed from week to month, it feels as if some part of my petals have wilted irreparably. This is due to the purely exploitative nature of capitalism which freelance writers like myself have to wade through to survive.

Although most major media publications, like Afropunk, BuzzFeed, Teen Vogue, OkayPlayer, Essence, could not survive without freelance writers keeping them alive with content, our labor is undervalued. We are underpaid and asked to go through gruesome, expansive editing processes for paychecks which wouldn’t properly pay a single bill most of the time. This means that in order to live we must write multiple articles, shop around with different publications and various compensations, and push ourselves to systematically create even when we don’t have much to produce. Forcing yourself to be creative for the sake of a paycheck always seems to inevitably drain you of your natural creative energy, which at one time might come organically, but becomes wilted and tired from strain and force. The capitalist freelance market turns one’s passion for writing, reporting, and creatively exploring the world through words into a darwinian game of competitive keyboard racing, stress-writing, and often lackluster results. Those that are able to thrive in this system are praised as magnificent for their ability to write through the confines of this stressful freelance market, while for others, it can be incredibly difficult and destabilizing.

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

The space is then created where I begin to feel that if I am not writing, if I am not creating, I am dying. Audre Lorde said the confidence that the writer’s block will subside is what makes the bearing of it possible, but what if you do not have the confidence that the block will subside? What if you know that to the world you are just another writer in a sea of thousand trying to push a rose through the concrete? What if this feeling Audre describes, the feeling of knowing that you will overcome your block, is the same feeling that is holding your words and your creativity back? Often, it feels as though you have nothing new to add to a subject, no new words to give to a topic or current event because certain thinkpieces and hot takes begin to flood the market, often due to publications’ newfound interest in commodifying social justice for the sake of quick clicks and retweets. One topic or current event becomes pounded out with excessive force until their is no life left in it and the idea of writing it from a new or unusual perspective even begins to lose appeal. This is the moment when you begin to question the block’s permanence; when you start to wonder if this act of searching for your footing in a flooded market is your new future.

If the tiredness and uncertainty which capitalist exploitation brings about is enough to create the initial seed of writer’s block, then my place as a Black, queer, Muslim, existing in the world as simultaneously hypervisible and silenced is enough to grow it. The seed becomes a budding tree blocking my view once that writer’s block is watered with the endless game of identity, and politics, and identity politics. I am often commissioned to write pieces on current events from my “perspective as a Black queer person” or from the “unique opinion of a Black queer Muslim,” or some jumbling of those words, and I wonder if my identity was restructured how much more or less valued would my words be. I wonder why I don’t often get to just write an article for the sake of writing; why when I send pitches to various publications I know to make sure to mention my identity in the first paragraph of the pitch somehow. I once wrote: “if Emerson said beauty is its own excuse for being, then white art more times than not is its own reason for filling galleries.” In this same vein writer’s block always seems to bring me back to the same conclusion, that while my writing is often forced to be a statement on identity, white writers have the luxury of de-linking themselves from such confines.

This hypervisibility within the journalism world exists as more of an oppression, a curse, than a blessing. When a large hot topic event happens publications rush out to find Black, queer, Muslim, immigrant, trans writers to commission to write about it. When a police shooting goes viral, Slate finds a Black freelancer or two to write about it; when another trans woman of color is murdered, Teen Vogue get’s a trans woman to create video content about the issue; when Moonlight was released, I was asked by three different publications to write my review of it for them.

And while this seems great on the surface level, how many of these publications are asking us to fill staff writing positions? How many of these digital publications and magazines are reaching out to us with staff editing, writing, content creation, social media managing, column writing, and other salaried positions? If the writer becomes too aware that the freelance machine only appreciates their work on an exploitative, one-time, diversity checklist basis, it can become difficult to see value in their own work. You begin to feel like not just a writer, but a called upon voice, or a tokenized mouthpiece rented by some publication that will underpay you. The hypervisibility we face becomes exploitative as it leads to tokenization. While struggling to continue typing my way through the writer’s block, I begin to question if it is even worth it to just be tokenized. I begin to question if writer’s block is the world’s way of telling me to just not write, and to value my words more than the tokenization, exploitation, misuse, and stress they will experience.

I go to rewrite the sentence once more. I type “writer’s block as a result of socioeconomic factors.” I then erase the sentence and imagine myself outside the limits of writer’s block, outside of the enclosures of my exploitation I’ve grown accustomed to, and independent of the seemingly restrictive confines of identity that have been placed on me. I breathe. Stretch my fingers. I remember that Stephen King once said that in order to be a good writer you must read other people’s work often, so I decide that stepping away from the keyboard and grabbing a book is my course of action. I am drawn to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and I re-read passages from his 1986 “Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature”  which then somehow leads me towards looking up interview with writers like Thiong’o, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou. They all say the same thing in one way or another: I write because I have to. Maya Angelous described writing as her lifeblood, Thiong’o as his activism, Baraka as his calling; they all went through periods where they couldn’t write a word for combinations of various reasons, yet the dread of not writing was the eventual weight that caused them to force the words out.

James Baldwin said that what motivates him to write is the impossibility of not writing. "Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die," Baldwin states. "Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance." Baldwin essentially says that it is more important for the writer to sweat than to remain hung up on the nature of their own mental confines; endurance becomes the true talent of the writer, not the fatigued talent-filled words you waste time waiting on. So then I go on doing what both James and Audre have now told me to: endure.

I take one more deep breath. Five days have passed since I’ve typed and untyped this starter sentence, the one in the article about how socioeconomic factors perpetuate and exacerbate writer’s block. Before one last try I tell myself “if this writer’s block doesn’t go away, you can just continue being an editor for a living. Just edit other people’s work, that’s how you make more money anyways and you are good at it.” I shake the thought off my shoulders and begin to type. Finally, after weeks of not being able to write and five days of trying to stitch this piece together on writer’s block, the words are flowing. And they are flowing with ease, although the muscle is admittedly sore. Audre told me that it is only when I conceive of the writing block as static that it becomes unbearable, and although it felt unbearable more times than once, it has indeed been lifted, at least for now, and I will let the words run freely for as long as they are allowed to.