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Episodes: Focus block


Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 01 2016

8 min read



I have writer's block.

This is not going to sound right to you if you look at, say, my publication history on Vox (as always, a fantastic website you should read all of the time). I'm still publishing one or two articles most days, even weekends, on a wide variety of pop cultural topics.

But here's the thing: Years of drilling my reviewing skills at The A.V. Club have essentially made it so I can write one of those on cruise control. There's no guarantee it will be good, but it will at least be passable. You'll read it and say, "Yep. No major mistakes, and it was thoughtful enough, I guess." And then it might leak out of your brain, or it might stick around, or who knows.

I'm not trying to brag or anything. You work any muscle enough times, and you can exercise it on command. So when I sat down to write this Strain piece, for instance, it took me about 35 minutes. I don't think it's a great piece of work, but it's got some fun insights about the show, a couple of solid turns of phrase, and a pretty solid structure. (Yes, this newsletter is just an excuse to post links to a bunch of my work.)

But when it comes to longer stuff, when it comes to stuff outside of my comfort zone, or when it comes to these newsletters (which I consciously try to keep under 1,000 words and write in a half-hour or less), I'm feeling really blocked lately. I'm still able to do all of these things, but I struggle with them mightily and will sometimes spend a whole day doing nothing but fretting about them, before crapping something out in my last hour or so of work.

There are a lot of reasons for this. One is that this just happens to writers, even the best ones. We usually understand it as writers block, but I've come to think of it more as "focus" block. Writing requires careful thought a lot of the time, and if you're not in a place where your brain wants to think carefully, you just can't write, unless it's something you can dash off quickly. I don't know a writer alive who hasn't talked to me about some variation of this, who has all sorts of tricks designed to circumvent it.

Another is that I recently changed up my job title and responsibilities at work. This was something I wanted to do, because I had been working 12-16-hour days since 2010 (when I took over editorial duties at AVC), and I was ready to try not doing that. Having more time has been a boon in a lot of areas -- I'm doing more cooking, and I am working more on my private writing -- but I didn't quite realize just how much the sheer grind of those long, long days was keeping me moving. Having a million tasks forced me to focus on things that needed to get done, and absent that outside force, I can struggle with some of the details.

But the biggest one, the one I'm kind of struggling to deal with and hoping to exorcise by writing this, is that a couple of months ago, I wrote a piece I was really proud of (and am still really proud of) that was, for the most part, received very well. But there were a handful of people who didn't receive it well, and even though the vast, vast majority of those folks didn't receive it well in ways that are totally fair and helpful -- some solid criticism and some things that made me think about how I can improve it if it's published in a book someday (as I hope it is) -- some of it was just people being kinda shitty. It was a reminder that any time you open yourself up online, you're inviting everybody into the door, not just the people you want to come in.

And here's the thing: I had AV Club comments sections for years and years. I wrote about Girls, for God's sake. I thought I knew about these things getting under my skin and figuring out ways to get them out from under my skin as quickly as possible. But this one shook me for some reason, and even though it's not currently shaking me -- at all -- I've still taken the wrong lessons from it, which have led to a certain timidity.

Like take this piece. I worked my ass off in reporting that piece, and I knew my stuff backward and forward. But when I received even the mildest of pushback on some of its points -- stuff I easily could have defended against -- I kinda froze up like a deer in the headlights. I knew the information was there. I knew I could defend my article. But I felt like I was in the wrong, nonetheless.

I don't want this to come off as "Don't be mean to me on the internet!" (though I know it probably is), because a great part of the internet is the push and pull of discussion that rages around these pieces. But I like to think that one of the best things we can extend to each other is a certain generosity, an assumption that everything we write is written in good faith. I like, even when I read something I violently disagree with, to assume that the person who wrote it was writing it from the best possible place and the best of intentions.

Because even on the internet, where we have theoretically infinite space to write this stuff, you can only include so many caveats and qualifications. You have to, eventually, get around to stating your point, and you have to hope that your audience will understand the caveats and qualifications exist without them having to be in the article, because the whole thing would become incredibly pedantic.

And the longer I write on the 'net -- or maybe just the more I become someone people notice or care about, or maybe just the more I write for Vox (which some people assume defines everything I write, because of its simple existence) -- the more I feel like I'm not even granted that most basic of generosities: the idea that I know what I'm talking about enough to know that there are certain small exceptions to everything we write, and spelling all of them out would turn articles into exhausting ordeals.

But I also need to get to a place where I can write something without hearing a million different voices in my head saying, "But what about..." or "I disagree, and..." Yes, it's good to be able to think from different points of view. And yes, it's important to consider what others believe and think. But you also have to be able to focus enough on your point to know what it is, and I'm not sure I've been as good at that as I could be lately.

Having focus block a week before a presidential election at a site that makes most of its bread and butter on politics -- especially when I'm working on an election-related piece I've legitimately been trying to get out of my system for four or five years now -- is not a good thing.

So I'm trying to shut down the incidentals, to keep my focus up. Thus, I'm putting this newsletter on an indefinite (hopefully short) hiatus. I want to be back before December, and I'm sure some thing or another will prod my posting in November. (I have one last election story I want to share, for instance.) But I also need to get my head back, and stop feeling like a dozen shards of myself. I need to be sure of what I believe in again, before I lose track of it entirely.

I would love to hear from you about anything -- even if it's just to call me names or something (believe me, I welcome it when it's to my face) -- so if you have a thought, please tweet at me, or email me at toddvdw at gmail dot com. I think I need to just talk to people more, and stop being trapped in my head.

Be well, everyone, and see you soon.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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