The Sputter: The Monster Under Every Writer’s Bed (and how you can fight it)

By: Amanda McCarthy

It is nine-thirty on a Monday night. Usually, you’re not a last-minute-poet. But tonight, your midnight deadline is drowning under pages and pages of beginning lines that, at this point, sound more like the humming of a garbage disposal than poetry. You do really well under pressure, so generally this shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But you can’t write. Blame the block, you mutter, but this time it feels different. When you sit down, it’s not a lack of inspiration that ails you. You are sick with the notion that no matter what you write, none of it will really doesn’t matter.

I’ve heard that this state is often called a “Writer’s Mid-Life Crisis,” but everyone I’ve talked to tells me the term is a misnomer. You’ve become disillusioned with your writing or writing as a whole. It isn’t that uncommon; it won’t be the last time that it happens to me in my relationship with my work. You should understand that writers are self-conscious creatures, constantly questioning themselves and where they fit into the literary world. Disillusionment is the paralysis that is birthed from this deeper fear, when you still have the words but you are no longer sure if they belong to you. I’ve nicknamed my own particular brand of writing paralysis “the Sputter”. No matter how hard I try, nothing that comes out is comprehensive.


There are things that can be done to medicate this period of creative upheaval. I would suggest that you read as much as you want. Find a piece that makes writing feel worthwhile, even if each story only helps in increments. Know that all of these authors have likely felt the same way that you do now. I would also encourage you to read works that are outside of your usual genre, maybe even outside of every genre that you’ve ever written. I am often inspired by pieces that are not written by an author or poet that I had been aware of previously. Therefore, read whatever you can get your hands on: newspapers, blogs, think tanks, articles, or even The Communist Manifesto. Remember during these times of uncertainty that there are many important pieces that do not fall under the header of creative writing.

Next, talk to other writers and tell them what ails you. It is likely that they will all say the same thing: this happens to everyone at some points; no need to fear. It is also important to talk to yourself. Think of who you are in relation to your work. A reaffirmation of how much you love your craft may be needed to get rid of your lingering fears about your relationship with writing.

Finally, write anyways, even if you hate every word. Write when you think that every piece of yours is awful, but look for the strange honesty that your disillusionment is forcing out of you onto the page. Remember that your truths are not linear lines on a sheet of paper but straying stains that extend all over your desk. It is okay to not always be free-flowing; sometimes you will need to be like a sputtering fountain—releasing the energy that is boiling within.

It is okay when your writing is ineffective. Your metaphors may be muddled and overgrown—but so are you. There may come a time, I know this is scary, when no one will understand your writing but you. Therefore, use this time to remember why you started writing in the first place. If it’s for anyone but you, I think you may have just been in the wrong place this whole time.

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