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Some writers just write one book. Am I one of them? (Image: Archi Banal)
Some writers just write one book. Am I one of them? (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyJune 8, 2023

Help Me Hera: I wrote one book and I’m worried I can’t write another

Some writers just write one book. Am I one of them? (Image: Archi Banal)
Some writers just write one book. Am I one of them? (Image: Archi Banal)

Is it just writer’s block, or am I a talentless troll destined for failure?

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Dear Hera,

I’m a writer and artist and person in my early 30s. I had a book come out recently (by recently I mean about a year ago). It was reasonably successful by which I mean it didn’t make me any money but a few people messaged me saying they liked it. 

Anyway. Up until now I’ve been a fairly prolific writer. I’ve published a couple of chapbooks in the last few years and done a lot of freelance stuff for barely any money. But the writing I have done has been very personal/soul-baring in nature and I don’t really want to do that any more. I’d prefer to try to do something fictional/fun but then I keep finding myself staring blankly at walls or having existential crises instead of writing. I’m also not as ambitious as I used to be. I would prefer to just have a house and a husband and maybe a kid (also not economically viable in this world) and not have a successful book or have anyone look me in the eye ever again. But I can’t let go of this urge to produce, to make something of myself, however crappy and unsellable. To express something through art and have someone else maybe connect with it.

Lately I’m finding myself absolutely at a loss creatively without relying on my go-to hectic vulnerability. I’m wondering if I’m just a talentless troll who should go wallow in a swamp somewhere until I die from some kind of wallowing disease. I’ve signed up for a PhD in creative writing (with scholarship) but am worried I’m just going to be blocked forever like a big ugly Sphynx nose buried in miles of Egyptian sand. 

Basically, what do you do when you are stuck creatively? How do you crawl out of the swamp? And is there a point at which you should just give up … and is that point now?


Sphynxy 2: Electric Boogaloo

A line of fluorescent green card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades
Dear Sphynxy 2: Electric Boogaloo

Is there a carbon monoxide leak in my house? Is this a Nicholas Sparks novel where I’m getting letters from the past? 

First of all, congratulations on publishing your book. Finishing any big project is always a shock to the system and I think it’s supposed to be normal to want to lie on the floor until you grow various lichens. Unfortunately, it’s also normal to feel a nauseous, spiritual malaise whenever you aren’t working on something, and become consumed by the idea you’re wasting your life. 

You just accomplished something huge! You should be celebrating, not inventing new diseases. You can afford to relax. Just think of Donna Tartt. She only emerges from underneath the soil once a decade. But do we begrudge her all that time underground, polishing her egg sacs? 

I’ve always envied writers like Wodehouse, Christie, Pratchett. The Clydesdales of literature, with their prodigious work ethics and singular visions. People who had one idea so good, they never needed to have another one again. In my opinion, the best kind of writer to be. But I don’t understand how anyone has more than three books of poetry in them. Maybe it’s constitutional, and you simply have to have the same disease as Emily Dickinson. Or live in 19th century Amherst, with nothing to do but flirt with God via the back of envelopes. 

There are some writers who are able to perform marathon-length feats of autobiography, like Karl Knausgaard or James Herriot or Annie Ernaux*. In my opinion, even people who keep regular diaries are intimidating. But I can understand getting tired of baring your soul to strangers, like a tawdry old man in a shabby raincoat. 

First, forget about giving up. You’ve got a prodigious work ethic and the sickening and compulsive urge to make something beautiful of your life. If you don’t write, you’ll just have to channel all that energy into making frightening dioramas or maintaining elaborate imaginary worlds of childhood. 

But it’s fun to switch genres. Whatever you write next won’t require less vulnerability. Fiction exposes you in completely different ways. (Are you OK, Mary? I heard you wrote a 700-page novel about a group of tiny people who live beneath a clock?) But it can also be liberating!

First of all, you need to unionise, and demand a holiday from your employer (yourself). Are there any swimming pools in your vicinity? Go and sit by them. Buy yourself an ice cream. You’ve obviously been working exhaustively and need a rest. Not just for your own sanity, but for the good of your writing. 

I think you should go on a reading vacation. By which I don’t mean quit your job. Nobody’s rich enough for that. But reallocate the time you’re currently spending staring blankly at the wall and use it to read instead. Give yourself a lavish and excessive number of months. How long until you start a PhD? Use all of it. 

Whenever you’re discouraged or struggling to think of an idea, the best thing to do is return to what you love. Remind yourself what books are good for. Borrow something from every section of the library. It doesn’t matter whether it’s David Graeber or The Usbourne Young Puzzle Adventures. Re-read your favourite book from every year of your life, starting with Goodnight Moon. Try something ancient and prestigious, like Homer. Get Jilly Cooper on audiobook and walk around the neighbourhood, thinking of horses. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it interests you. Whenever I get stuck, this is always what opens the world up again. 

It can be a dangerous thing to do. Every few years I get confused about how good Elizabeth Strout is, and start thinking I can write depressing short stories set in New England. But trial and error is the only way forward. If you’ve been writing autobiographically up until now, your whole life has been in preparation for those books. It makes sense to give yourself extra time to research alternatives to reality. 

If you truly don’t know what to do, then humour me and write a children’s book. Write the thing you most wanted and needed to read as a 10-year-old, besides an illustrated history of the Titanic, complete with lavish and elaborate cross sections. Kids deserve better than grim American mindfulness fables or the new David Walliams. 

You’ve already accomplished a lot. You’ve proved you can finish things. Now you have the luxury of time. The goal here is to find an idea that makes you truly excited to venture out from the swamp each day. 

Because the swamp is your home now.  

Welcome to the swamp! 

We love, honour and revere the swamp! 

We praise the righteous swamp! Into which we’ll all someday return. 

When you’re in the swamp it’s normal to feel like you’ll never leave the swamp. That you’re destined to languish in the weeds forever. The swamp is where old things decay, but it’s also where new things grow. If you have a long enough career, you’ll probably end up in the swamp hundreds of times. But it’s not so bad in the swamp. It’s humid and green and biodiverse. Fran Lebowitz is here, smoking in a dinner jacket. You might as well pull up a rotten tree stump, grab a copy of Piranesi and make yourself at home.  

*Although Ernaux recently said winning the Nobel has destroyed her ability to write.

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