Why I Stopped Writing for Seven Years

The Jack ThinkerDuring my senior year of college I took my last creative writing class. At the end of the semester I met with my professor for a final conference on my progress. At that time she told me that she recommended I pursue something else. I wasn’t cut out for writing, she said.

Really? I asked. I was half shocked that it could be that easy to kill all of my hopes and dreams in ten seconds, and half already resigned to the fact that she was probably right.

Couldn’t I get any better? I asked. You know…with practice?

No, she said. I don’t think so.

That was in the spring of 2000 and I didn’t write one word of fiction after that for the next seven years.

I had a lot of adventures in the meantime. I moved to Seattle and lived there for a while and then I moved down to San Francisco. I still kept up my passion for literature, landing a job in a bookstore and reading everything I could. I followed the lives of my favorite authors, living and dead, and thought sometimes about trying to write again.

But I didn’t do it. Every time I bought a journal and opened it to that first page, or started composing a poem in my head, something inside of me cringed and shut down. It was painful. Like, real pain pulsing through my real physical body. It felt similar to black grief choking me, or a simmering rage eating away at my insides.

I couldn’t explain it. And I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about it.

I felt completely alone.

I also felt extremely guilty. My biggest problem on earth was that I wanted to write and—for some inexplicable reason—I just couldn’t. I beat myself up over it all the time. There were people starving across the globe for God’s sake, and the thing that was killing me was good old self-indulgent writer’s block. My problem seemed to have the easiest solution in the world. All I had to do was sit my butt down in the chair and write.

Right?

But it wasn’t easy. And I couldn’t do it. Even though I felt worse and worse about it every day.

By the time I joined a writer’s program in San Francisco—a writer’s program that described itself as a support group for recovering writers—my seven-year writing drought was making me physically ill. I was depressed, tired, with little to no energy, and I couldn’t kick the sore throats that had plagued me for years. I showed up at my first meeting ready to cry, scream, and run out the door at any moment.

I was absolutely terrified.

That first meeting was hard. We did one hour of silent writing and I wrote about three pages. I still wanted to cry, but I didn’t scream and I didn’t run out of there. I sat with my pages, folded them up and then pushed them down into the bottom of my backpack where I could keep them out of sight.

I showed up again the next week. And the week after that. I kept showing up, and little by little it got better. I got better. 18 months later I had finished my first novel. And I wasn’t depressed and sick anymore. I was hopeful about my life. Everything looked different.

And I already knew that I wanted to start writing the second one.

When writers don’t write it is more than a hobby we’re ignoring. It’s an essential part of our being that is being neglected. It’s like slowly starving yourself. When you deny your soul the basic nutrition it needs to live, it will start to shrivel up. If you don’t address the problem, it will get sick and cause you tremendous amounts of psychic pain.

This is why I decided to become a writing coach. This is also why I urge writers to join groups, find writing friends, and do whatever it takes to carve out writing time in their life.

Because it’s important.

It’s the difference between living with an open heart and the power to use your full potential on this earth, or just getting through the days, waiting around for it to be over.

What’s your choice?

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15 Comments

  • Reply Gisele LeBlanc 8 January, 2015 at 10:52 am

    I am gobsmacked. Seriously. A true teacher supports, encourages, guides, they do not knock down their students. I’m guessing this woman was bitter and had issues with her own writing and was projecting her own insecurities onto you. So. Not. Right.

  • Reply Catherine North 8 January, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Wow, this is such a powerful story. It really shows the destructive power that harsh criticism can hold over us for many years, and in some cases forever. I’m so glad you found the strength to reclaim your identity as a writer, and you’re now helping others do the same. It’s very inspiring and thanks for sharing.

  • Reply Dave Bara 8 January, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    That’s an amazing story. I’m really angry at that prof though. They can be so full of shit and yet we take everything they say as truth.

    I’m glad you recovered your writing. I hope to see those novels in print someday.

    db

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 8 January, 2015 at 2:52 pm

      I have forgiven that professor. I’m not sure what her intentions were, but I decided not to let it get to me. However, I always forget that when I tell other people my experience they’re hearing it for the first time, and so they get pretty pissed off at her! I think that in some way she really did believe she was helping me out. Writing was very hard for me, and my heart wasn’t in the stories I turned into her. I’m sure she picked up on all of that and maybe she thought I would be better off doing something that caused me less pain.

      But that’s the thing with writers. Even when writing gives us pain, we still love it 😉

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 8 January, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    Well written and timely piece, Lauren. So sorry to hear about your no-nothing professor, but I think we all had those at one point or another. And even though it took seven years, I’m glad you decided to pick the pen back up and do what you enjoy!

  • Reply Rasma 9 January, 2015 at 1:14 am

    I think it sort of blocks a lot of emotion and is not good for the soul for a writer to get inhibited and to give up on writing. I have been writing ever since I could remember. I mean I started on diaries when I was just 10. Now what could I possibly have had to really write about? However all of these have been saved and I am in the process of reviewing them because I can get lots of inspiration from them Kept on writing all through my teens when I started on poetry and I just keep going. I figure sure there might be some bad sprinkled in with the good but eventually it will just keep getting better as I just keep writing and writing.

  • Reply The Lifeblood of a Writer | Facets of a Muse 9 January, 2015 at 4:55 am

    […] came across this post today by Lauren Sapala, and it struck me (not like a lightning bolt, more like a forehead slap) […]

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 9 January, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    Well done for coming back from such a devastating put-down. I now know how lucky I was. I handed my first efforts to two people – a friend who read a lot and an elderly and rather fierce academic. The friend gave them back and said she didn’t feel like reading the next instalment; the academic ask me several gentle questions and said she looked forward to my next instalment. She became my mentor, and I had everything to learn. My first novel is dedicated to her.

  • Reply Andrea 10 January, 2015 at 11:01 am

    I’m coming out the other end of a very similar story. I also had/have sore throats as I work through my stuff. I’ve learned from my side journey as a massage therapist, the correlation with the mind and body and how things manifest. The throat is where the throat chakra is. The center of communication and expression. When closed it can manifest into sickness and dis-ease. Another testament that it may not be a coincidence. Thank you for sharing 😀 And love and light to your old professor. Wonder what demons she was wrestling with. She’s got a story too. 😉

  • Reply Priyanka 11 January, 2015 at 6:20 am

    This is powerful. Makes me angry how some teachers kill creativity and instead of helping it blossom. So glad that you found your voice.

    I was struck by your comment: I couldn’t kick the sore throats that had plagued me for years. I’ve recently been reading Eastern Body Western Mind by Anoeda Judith, who talks about blockages in our chakras. It seems like your throat chakra was blocked, you couldn’t get your voice out, and this was making you physically sick and causing your sore throats. And resolving the underlying issues freed you from the physical symptoms of dis-ease.

  • Reply Marie Ann Bailey 11 January, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    When I read this, “I wasn’t cut out for writing, she said,” my first thought was “what the hell does that mean?” Cut out for writing? That makes no sense whatsoever. Maybe she just didn’t want the competition 😉 I’m glad you’re proving her wrong, Lauren.

  • Reply Judith Post 12 January, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    I read an article years ago about a famous violinist. A young violin player came to him, and he listened to him and said that he didn’t have what it took and to quit. The young player did, to which the master said that he told EVERY hopeful who came to him the same thing, that if they weren’t strong enough to ignore criticism, they wouldn’t make it anyway. To which I say–bull pucky! We all have to start somewhere, and yes, we should know our strengths AND our weaknesses, but a little encouragement helps us bloom. We might not all become bestsellers, but we can develop as writers.

    • Reply Catherine North 13 January, 2015 at 1:52 am

      Completely agree with you Judith, I’ve heard that story and it annoyed me too! Because it implies that self-belief is some kind of innate quality which you either have or you don’t, when in fact it’s a cognitive skill that can be nurtured and developed by a mentor – just like learning to play the violin!

  • Reply Justin Meckes 13 January, 2015 at 5:55 am

    I hope that there was a reason for that 7 years. Maybe it had to happen for life experience to seep into your craft. That’s what I tell myself about the gap I have in my own writing career. Thanks.

  • Reply Patrick Ross 14 January, 2015 at 8:49 am

    Lauren, kudos for the bravery in sharing this story, and double kudos for not only returning to an art-committed life but focusing on helping others live that life as well. As I think you know, I’m a bit obsessed with this topic for my own reasons (and my own absences from writing). I’m sorry to hear of the impact your absence had on your health, but it speaks to the force that the desire to create can have in us so inclined to create. I’m so glad you found your way back to the path.

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