Fifteen Rules for Dealing with Writer’s Block

A short story.

Fifteen Rules for Dealing with Writer’s Block

1. Sit down on the couch with your notebook and just sit. Call it brainstorming, if you want—a few moments of silent, mind-wandering brainstorming.

2. Write down a word. Cross it out. Write another word and cross that one out, too. Rewrite the first word, then cross it out again. Keep doing it until at least half of the page is filled with words and phrases that look like this.

3. Take a sip of your coffee and think—even Ernest Hemingway got writer’s block. Well, he probably did. He was a man, not a machine. But he was Ernest Hemingway, and you’re not. So maybe that isn’t the best way to encourage yourself.

4. Hemingway was an alcoholic, though, so maybe that was the key to his success. After all, aren’t most writers—the good ones, at least—addicts of some sort? Decide to give it a shot, by taking a shot. You still have half a bottle of Bailey’s on top of the fridge, from your mom’s birthday party. You and your sister spent the afternoon sneaking into the kitchen to Irish up your coffee, the only thing that made the event bearable.

5. It’s not that you don’t love your mom; you do love her, but something happened at that party. It wasn’t good enough for her. Your apartment was too small. Your grandmother’s perfume smelled funny. Your sister’s new skirt was too slutty. Actually—hang on, that was your new skirt, and your sister still has it. Send her a quick text. Glance at the time. Shit. You’ve been sitting her for fifteen minutes and you haven’t written more than half a page of crossed out words.

6. Turn the page so you’re staring at crisp, blank lines. It won’t actually help, and you know that, but it makes you feel like you’re about to write something good.

7. Your coffee is cold, and you can’t write anything with a cold cup of coffee. Get up, stretch, and go to the kitchen to warm it up. Put it in the microwave and lean against the counter, knowing full well you’re stalling. Oh, well. At least you’ll be caffeinated.

8. Your mind drifts back to the Bailey’s on top of your fridge. Try not to think about it but fail. Your mom is drinking again. You don’t know when she started—whether it was the night of the party or if it happened during the five months you didn’t see her. You shouldn’t have been so distant.

9. Remember the party. You don’t know where she got the booze—she must’ve snuck in a flask. You do know that no one there would’ve given it to her, since it was an intimate affair and everyone invited knew she was in recovery. You should’ve paid closer attention to her instead of hiding in the kitchen the whole time, pretending to be busy when you were really just sad. Your sister was right—you should’ve gone to that shrink so you could look at your mother without seeing his face.

10. You isolated yourself for a month and didn’t do anything. Your sister took time off work and went to a grief therapist. She started going to mindfulness classes and preaching about crystal healing. She found the healthiest way to cope and you have to admit that to yourself, no matter how much you hate that she smells like incense and patchouli every time you see her.

Your mom drank. That’s how she chose to cope. After years of sobriety after your father’s death, she started to drink again after the death of your brother. And now here she was—fallen off the proverbial wagon yet again.

Your brother was always the favorite, the baby of the family. Your sister is a teacher and doesn’t make much money, and you’re a writer. “But not really a writer,” as your mother always points out, because a degree in English doesn’t mean much when you’re still waiting tables in a diner. The empty page on your coffee table is proof of that, which makes you hate it even more. But your brother had just been accepted to Harvard, and he would’ve graduated early if some drunk asshole hadn’t T-boned him and he never got the chance to go. Sixteen months after his death, and your mom isn’t coping well. You hated her when she was an alcoholic, but you stopped talking to her after she started going to meetings and getting sober again. You weren’t ready to talk about your brother and that’s all she wanted to do. So you quit talking to her and now she’s a mess again.

Wonder if it’s your fault as you pour too much Bailey’s into your mug, then push the thought from your head. Of course it isn’t. She’s the one who decided to pick up the bottle.

11. Take a sip of coffee. It’s creamy and sweet and boozy. It reminds you of your mom and you hate that. Dump it down the drain and pour a new cup. You aren’t Ernest Hemingway. You don’t even like Ernest Hemingway that much. And you aren’t your mother. You can survive without alcohol.

12. The party was two weeks ago, and you’ve done a pretty good job of blocking it all out. If you hadn’t remembered that bottle of Bailey’s, you wouldn’t be in this mess.

Go back to the couch. You should’ve just stayed there, staring at the wall and trying to come up with ideas instead of letting your mind wander, finding distractions. That’s all your mother is: a distraction. She got drunk, caused a scene by falling all over herself and slurring her words, made the guests uncomfortable. That wasn’t even the worst of it.

Your sister doesn’t know. On her way out of the party—reeking of booze and stumbling towards the door, totally unaware of the embarrassment she caused you—your mom leaned in and said, “It should’ve been you.” You can’t tell your sister, because she’d make you see your mom again, make her apologize and make you accept it. You don’t want a mediator. You want an apology.

13. Because you would talk to her, if only she’d apologize. You know you won’t get one, but you wish for it all the same. It makes you angry.

Draw flowers in the margin, wishing you could get your mind focused on something productive. You can’t. You’re stuck feeling angry; angry with your mom for relapsing, angry she wishes you were dead, angry that she wasn’t supportive of your brother’s move to Massachusetts, angry that they fought that night and he went for a drive, angry that your sister went to therapy and you spent a month chainsmoking and sleeping too much. You’re angry that you don’t know what to write about and because of that, you’ve gone down the rabbit hole.

Consider writing about your brother. You haven’t yet. You’ve kept that night locked away, not sure how to write about losing not just your brother, but your mom, too. You were two when your dad died. You don’t remember what she was like before she started drinking, but you know she’s always been like this. Grief turned her into a shell of herself and even when she was sober, she was mean, empty. The only difference when she drinks is that she has fewer inhibitions.

It’s an area of your mind you haven’t explored yet, but you don’t know how to write about it. You don’t even know if you want to.

14. That’s okay. Breathe. Click your pen a few times. Sip your coffee. Tell yourself that writer’s block is common and no matter what anyone says, you’re a real writer. Even though your mom disagrees, you’re still a real writer. A good one, too. That’s why you’re going to write the best story of your life, right here on the couch.

15. After three-and-a-half agonizingly uninspired minutes of staring at the page in front of you, mutter, “screw it,” and walk away. You can come back to it.

how to
Katherine J. Zumpano
Katherine J. Zumpano
Read next: The Deception of Instagram
Katherine J. Zumpano


See all posts by Katherine J. Zumpano