Apathy, Writer’s Block, and All the Things We Can’t Put to Words

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
(Romans 8:26-27)

Some nights I have dreams in which I am unable to speak. I am faced with some kind of unimaginable horror and I know that, if I were able to cry out, I would have hope of being rescued; and yet I cannot. I open my mouth but no sound comes out; I cannot make any noise beyond a few mute croaks which have no hope of projecting beyond my throat and being heard.

This inability to express ourselves can enter life in many different ways and at many different times and places. Although it does not always carry the same degree of terror that I experience in dreams like these, it can be troubling nevertheless to be caught inside a crisis that cannot be put to words. Sometimes we are too afraid to express our fears. At other times, we simply do not know what those fears are. We feel about us a stifling dryness which makes us unable to put to words anything much or motivate ourselves to do anything meaningful or helpful.

For those who like to write, this experience of dryness is often given the name “writer’s block”: the strange, sporadic inability to write anything or generate any ideas that arrests us sometimes. Advice on how to deal with this malady varies. Some suggest a course of sheer, dogged persistence: write every day, they say, however you feel, however good or rubbish the work you produce; write purely in order to keep writing. Others use their writer’s block as a source of creativity itself. Ted Hughes once turned writer’s block into a whimsical poem, “The Thought-Fox”, in which he transformed a “midnight moment” of creative blankness into a reflection on a fox outside his window making prints in the snow. Bizarrely, it is probably my favourite of Hughes’ poems; bizarre because I can imagine that, the moment before the fox appeared, Hughes felt as blank as I often do when I sit down to write. I can only hope that I can sometimes turn my writer’s block into something as intriguing and successful as Hughes did.

Sometimes, however, I suspect that there is something other than sheer mental blankness that is at work in our writer’s block, more than a simple absence of any ideas of what to write about. Simple feelings of creative blankness – those moments when we just don’t know what to write about – can be easily overcome by something coming into view to help put print on our page. What I am talking about has more to do with a kind of spiritual or emotional dryness, which is arguably more crippling and is perhaps harder to overcome, either through discipline or through the appearance of a fox, metaphorical or otherwise, on the other side of the window.

One of my friends has commented that she could chart her mental health quite effectively by seeing how much she is or isn’t writing at any given moment. For many writers, an extended period of not writing either indicates or leads to some kind of deeper emotional malaise. Sometimes we cannot write because we cannot make sense of our circumstances; sometimes we cannot make sense of our circumstances because we are not writing about them. When it is a case of the latter, the problem is easily enough solved: sit down and write. It may be practically hard to do so at times, when our schedules are overcrowded or we are too tired to invest the energy in anything other than just getting by. Nevertheless, we know what the solution would be, if only we had the time or opportunity to do it. When, however, we cannot write because we cannot make creative sense of our circumstances, it is harder to know what to do. At those times, our greatest outlet, our best therapy, proves strangely evasive, and we are lost for words to describe it.

The issue does not only apply to writers. Often we find ourselves in situations that we cannot articulate, problems in ourselves or in our lives that are, for whatever reason, beyond our ability to put into words. When we can articulate our issues, whether in conversation or in writing, they often lose some of their power. At times it only takes us saying our issues out loud to realise that they are not so bad as we had thought. At other times, we find that others can offer the solutions that evade us when we stay trapped in our own heads. And then, for those of us who like to write, we can find that simply articulating an issue helps us to make sense of it. When put to paper or typed out on a screen, we are able to work through its various dimensions and find ourselves satisfied or somehow purged through the process.

Life, however, is not always so easily expressed or explained. Sometimes any way we can have of expressing an issue sounds pat or simplistic; there are depths to what we are going through that we cannot put to words, because we do not understand it ourselves, or because words are not always the most effective means of conveying what happens within our souls. The Bible expresses this quite powerfully in Paul’s letter to the Romans, when he describes the deep longing of the human soul to be reunited with God:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:22-25)

We groan deeply because we long for something that has not yet arrived and may not yet be visible. Sometimes we may not even be aware of what it is that we are longing for. C.S. Lewis describes our longing for heaven and for unity with God as “the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want” within us all (Lewis, The Problem of Pain). Whether conscious of it or not, there is an emptiness in us that cries out to be filled. Yet it is sometimes “incommunicable”, because it speaks to something so deep in us that we are not always conscious of what it is. When we feel lethargic or apathetic in life, it is not because we desire nothing but because we find nothing in life to satisfy our longings – the kind of feeling that Prince Hamlet expressed perfectly when he said:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, I.1.133-137)

Later, Hamlet describes his state to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by saying declaring:

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. (Hamlet, II.2.295-299)

Hamlet’s mental state is often taken to be a perfect portrayal of depression, before we knew the right name to call it. Yet he is arguably expressing something here to which many people can relate, depressed or otherwise: a feeling of disappointment with life, and the feeling of apathy or disconnection from joy which attends it. Arguably, by putting this feeling to words, Shakespeare, through Hamlet, strips it of some of its power; his words are poetic, cathartic, and still resonate with readers centuries after they were written.

When we are unable to make creative sense of our world, it troubles us. When we cannot tell stories to explain our day, this troubles us too, even if we do not feel it so clearly. A bad day which can be expressed and, in that sense, dealt with, becomes substantially better than the day which, for reasons we cannot explain, simply did not feel so good. The longings that we cannot articulate are often the deepest and the most powerful.

The British preacher Charles Spurgeon expressed something of this when talking about the power of prayer, noting that, “if a man can pray, his trouble is at once lightened. When we feel that we have power with God and can obtain anything we ask for at his hands, then our difficulties cease to oppress us.” Thus, he argues, the inability to express our troubles in prayer becomes all the more troubling:

We may be brought into such perturbation of mind, and perplexity of heart, that we do not know how to pray. We see the mercy-seat, and we perceive that God will hear us: we have no doubt about that, for we know that we are his own favoured children, and yet we hardly know what to desire. We fall into such heaviness of spirit, and entanglement of thought, that the one remedy of prayer, which we have always found to be unfailing, appears to be taken from us.

What, then, can we do when our problems are wedged too deep in us for us to put them to words? What about the times when we do not even know what we want to pray, except to say that we long for something and barely long for it at the same time?

In his sermon, Spurgeon turns to the answer that Paul provides in his letter to the Romans:

Here, then, in the nick of time, as a very present help in time of trouble, comes in the Holy Spirit. He draws near to teach us how to pray, and in this way he helps our infirmity, relieves our suffering, and enables us to bear the heavy burden without fainting under the load. (Spurgeon, “The Holy Spirit’s Intercession”.)

When we do not have words, the Spirit prays on our behalf, in groans that may not contain words themselves but are more articulate than anything we could say.

Knowing this is in itself deeply comforting; God is speaking on our behalf, expressing to Himself the longings within us that we may not even be aware of ourselves. I do wonder, however, if there is a way that we can learn to articulate that process of giving up our wordless longings and our emptiness to God? It strikes me that, if we could do so, then we might be able to help ourselves and others make sense of the longings that fill us, and to know what it means to process these with God’s help. The Psalms seem to give us some good starting points. Think, for instance, of Psalm 63, that particularly dry psalm, which opens with a cry that many of us can relate to:

You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water
. (Psalm 63:1)

Or think too of the opening lines to Psalm 42:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
(Psalm 42:1-2)

The language of a parched, desert land is often a perfect way of expressing how we can feel at times, towards God, towards life, towards others and ourselves. The Bible gives us a vocabulary to describe that feeling; we would do well to avail ourselves of it more than I suspect we often do. What we can learn from reading the Bible’s prayers is that dryness and emptiness are common human experiences, even for those who have at other times felt the kind of spiritual and emotional elation that we often long for. The writer of Psalm 42 recalls “how [he] used to go to the house of God…with shouts of joy and praise / among the festive throng” (Psalm 42:4). Similarly, the writer of Psalm 63 writes:

I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory
. (Psalm 63:2)

These are men who have known God’s greatness and felt it deeply and richly; and yet they too know what it is to be dry and to ache with that dryness. Reading their prayers can help us both to keep in touch with reality and to be comforted by the fact that they too know how we feel.

The problem is often not that we, like the Psalmists, ache with longing for God, but that we ache and do not know why. Worse still, we ache silently, without knowing it ourselves, because we spend all our time trying to appease our longings with that which cannot hope to do the job. C.S. Lewis famously once said of human desire:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

So then our apathy is often symptomatic of the fact that we have taught ourselves not to feel, not to care, not to desire. We cannot express what we are feeling because we have lost touch with the feeling itself. Teaching ourselves to pray the kinds of prayers that the Psalmists pray, we open up our longings and allow them to be felt and to speak to us. We begin again to desire what we are supposed to desire. The process may be painful, but if so then it is a pain that we should actually allow ourselves to feel: a pain that can speak, in place of an apathy that muffles our true feelings and prevents us from speaking.

Perhaps then we will find our writer’s block transformed, or find our mute croaks turned into something powerful, because we will be learning to cry out in expression of the longings that are most deeply within us: those longings which are, when it all comes down to it, the truest longings that a human being can possibly feel.

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