writer's block

Busting Creative Blocks in Sobriety

By Kate Kennedy Spindler

I sit down. I stare at the blinking cursor. ‘Creativity and addiction often go hand in hand…’

Nope. That’s stupid, delete.

‘The creative life requires bravery…’


I get up, put some change in the soda machine, pace while taking a few swigs of caffeine. I write a few more clunky sentences full of boring words and the syntax of a third grader. Every word is painfully, muddily wrenched from my sludgy brain onto the screen. Why do I keep trying to write? What is the point of all this? I have no talent! I’m a Midwestern mom of average intelligence and mediocre abilities. Who cares what I have to say about anything?

Ten years ago, this would have been the perfect opportunity for me to use alcohol, drugs, or food. Creative blocks are uncomfortable, and as a person with addiction, I had zero tolerance for uncomfortable feelings. I, like many I know, became convinced somewhere along the road to happy destiny that uncomfortable feelings were intolerable and would probably kill me. I know there are many more uncomfortable feelings than writer’s block, but in the moment, I can’t think of one.

Back home in my writing corner, I throw a pillow and flounce into a couch. I stomp around the house, cranky as hell. And because I am a bleeding pile of needy emotions (one of my best qualities!), I post on Facebook, “Hahahahha, writing a blog post about creative blocks and I can’t get one word down. I hate irony sometimes.”

So here’s your first lesson, if you needed a lesson: tell your friends when you are stuck. My inability to sit in silence with any emotion whatsoever often surprises me in how well it serves me. Thanks to my social media emotional plea, I suddenly had a list of things to read (How to Write A Lot, by Paul Silvia, “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of A Case Of Writer’s Block,” from the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis), several suggestions for breaking through blocks (write as if to a friend, or an enemy) and jokes (“just take a selfie and post it!”). Oh hey! Here I am, writing through a block! (*high-fives a million angels!*)

And these suggestions were just the new-to-me ones! I do other things besides use alcohol, food, or drugs when confronted with a creative block, now. I like to think I’ve become sort of an expert at busting through, but that’s only because I desperately want to be good at something, and I like procrastinating by purchasing books on Kindle. Still, I’ve learned a lot over the years! Reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron changed my life through her introduction of Morning Pages. They are hard, but worth it: upon waking, before you do anything else (ok, I get my coffee), get your favorite pen and notebook and write three longhand pages of stream-of-consciousness drivel. Don’t think, don’t edit. It’s not for publication. It’s for cleaning out the dross at the bottom of your brain. It’s tedious, but that’s why it works, and yes, you must do it in the morning because you need to get it done before you can think too hard about it. Don’t question the Morning Pages! Just try them! Cameron refers them them as “spiritual chiropractic,” and that’s pretty accurate.

Pick up Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Read anything by Natalie Goldberg you can get your hands on. Natalie will give you writing exercises, and you will suddenly be able to create again.

Text your artist friends. (I’m lucky; my inner circle includes at least three writers.) They will assure you that you will get through this, and you probably can even do so without picking up any of your drugs of choice.

When stymied creatively, your work now becomes finding the next “in.” You need a crowbar, or maybe just a Slim Jim -- just enough to make a crack. Because here’s the honest truth: when you avoid your work, and you’re a person in recovery, you may be in danger of using again. That block sits there, and your mind starts layering all kinds of silly things on top of it. Time passes, and your brain convinces you that this block is now a boulder. Then a mountain. Then that huge black demon thing that comes out of a mountain from Disney’s Fantasia. But it isn’t; it’s just a pause. It’s just a pause.

How do I know when I’m avoiding and when I really do need to take a short break from writing? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do know that when I’m having a block and I still pick up a pen or open my laptop and get 300 words down a day (thanks, Anne Lamott!), I’m still holding the string. If I’m not writing 300 words, maybe I’m researching, or taking care of my creative life in some other way. Hell, maybe I’m sitting down to color with my kids. If I am engaging my creativity instead of numbing out, I’m not avoiding. (I think. I will still probably numb out at some point in the day. After all, Netflix ain’t gonna watch itself!)

I’m grateful to be sober. Of course I am. This life is a thousand times better than those dark days of sickness, lies and self-hatred. I will admit though, I’m annoyed that I’m not a zen master yet. I really thought recovery would make me more impressive. I had grand visions, at the start of this journey out of hell, that I’d be in high demand as a motivational speaker, or maybe a modern creativity guru. I assumed I’d have several memoirs written by now, filled with pearls of wisdom and beautifully crafted sentences, and I’d float along with a bemused smile on my face at the folly and beauty of the world and its inhabitants. The reality is, mostly I just need to wear yoga pants more often and take a lot of naps.

Sobriety didn’t uncover a brilliant talent, but it did uncover a deep tenacity to keep doing my work, even if it’s terrible. Especially if it’s terrible. And while that doesn’t bring in speaking fees or my own line of scented candles, it is the gift that keeps on giving me a quiet, determined satisfaction that was never available when I was drunk, high, or using food. So today I do the next right thing, as often as possible, and it is good. The next right thing usually means sitting with icky feelings like inadequacy, fear and annoyance in order to get to the “good” stuff. (Maybe it’s all good stuff?) Life is difficult, sometimes thrilling, but ultimately peace-giving and satisfying - two things I never would have had without sobriety.


Kate Kennedy Spindler is a writer, actor and storyteller living in Saint Paul, Minn. She has three kids, one husband and two cats. She is an NYC Moth StorySlam winner, and you can find her wherever stories are told. Read some of her work at www.jizomom.typepad.com, and listen to her podcast Love from New York, We Did Saturdays Right on iTunes. She is in recovery from lots of stuff.