It's not writer's block, it's fear

The lessons will come again tomorrow if they’re not learned today.

At first, I didn’t know what I wanted to write this week. After writing last week’s post, I had a lot of ideas—about finding a professional identity, about how leftist organisations can often tear themselves apart about something as simple as a name, or about my relationship to my own breath—but by the time it came to write a post on Wednesday, the well was dry. Naturally, that made me think that perhaps I should write about “writer’s block”, the difficulty of writing regularly, or trying to develop consistent habits, but there’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said better and clearer by other people many times before. Or, as it turns out, that hasn’t been said by me before.

A trip back to 2015-kieran

Today, I received an email from LiveJournal.

You have received a virtual gift for your 8 anniversary in LiveJournal

I get these emails intermittently. I’m a person that’s had a lot of LiveJournal accounts over the years—it’s probably the first place I really started to hone a writing craft in some form, really (but mostly being a place that I Did My Feelings Out Loud as a teenager). This particular one caught my eye though, because I absolutely did not recognise the username. As I always do, I clicked onto the account and tried to determine what was happening in my life when I felt the need to make a new LiveJournal account. 2015-kieran’s explanation?

I’m caught in a bit of a tricky situation, and I guess that's why I find my way back to this corner of the Internet. I'm settled, again. It's not often that settlement is an issue, but the fact is I'm not really used to this - I've spent a great deal of my life questioning so much of what makes me, me, and defining myself externally that it's very confusing for me to actually have a chance to consider who I am based on my merits. I'm struggling (in a good way) to live a life that is congruent with my values, which it took me a long time to reach.

Ah. So yet again, this was another of my attempts to work out my life through the written word. 2015-kieran goes on to explain that he spent most of his teenage years thinking he was a bad person, how he’s really trying to do better by becoming a vegetarian, eating organic food, and “advocates the stripping of power relations”, whatever that might mean. He’s trying to understand how to feel safe with feeling safe, how to relax into comfort, but also how to want more for himself. He longs for academia but is disappointed by it:

I was really getting on with this idea, even thinking about potential dissertations… how we can attempt to use radical democratic theory to transform social relations, but… I just feel a little bit flat. I don't know why - it just felt sort of underwhelming, and it made me question the whole idea of going into academia.

As Kae Tempest says in their song Lessons, “The lessons will come again tomorrow/If they’re not learned today”.

Lyrics from the Kae Tempest song "Lessons". "I've seen the lions turn to cubs/And I've seen the hunters turn to prey/The lessons will come again tomorrow/If they're not learned today/I have seen the lions turn to cubs/And I have seen the lions turn to prey/The lessons will come again tomorrow/If they're not learned today"
Lyrics from Kae Tempest’s song “Lessons”.

Year on year, the same pattern. Start writing (LiveJournal, WordPress, Tumblr, LOST FUTURES, a thousand half-finished notebooks, Substack). Name and acknowledge every other attempt that has come before. Stop writing. Gear up for the next round of the cycle.

Eternal return

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is weird, right? Most of you won’t have read it, and I’m sure you’re going to agree with me from the outset, because of the perception that you have of Nietzsche, and perhaps of all philosophy. The reason that Zarathustra is weird is because it uses a relatively outdated philosophical style, of communicating novel philosophy primarily through narrative. Rather than a reasoned, ‘logical’ attempt to set out a basis for his ideas, Nietzsche sets out to tell a series of disconnected stories of the titular Zarathustra as a way to advance his own philosophy. We’re not here for a full treatise on Nietzschean philosophy and the ways that it’s been appropriated by fascists, though. We’re just here for one weird story stuck in the middle of Zarathustra, “Of the Vision and the Riddle”.

In Zarathustra, the protagonist has some big revelations then tries to tell everyone about them, and everyone’s like “yo buddy, chill out, you’re being weird”. He journeys on, keeps trying to do the same, heading back to his mountain cave to become more of a pompous arsehole in the interim. One day, he’s journeying back, and this dwarf jumps on his back and is trying to really get to him, telling him he’s the pompous arsehole that he is, that he must fall flat on his face because of that. But then, the man has a vision of a gateway. Behind the gateway is an eternal road, ahead of the gateway is an eternal road.

Then something happened that made me lighter, for the dwarf jumped from my shoulder, being curious; and he crouched on a stone before me. But there was a gateway just where we had stopped.

“Two paths meet here; no one has yet followed either to its end… They contradict each other, these paths… But whoever would follow one of them, on and on, farther and farther — do you believe, dwarf, that these paths contradict each other eternally?"

"All that is straight lies," the dwarf murmured contemptuously. "All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle."

What is happening in this bizarre excerpt is Zarathustra coming to terms with the main thing he’s been running from this whole time—Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. Put in a simple enough form to quickly explain in a post that is thoroughly not about Nietzsche, eternal recurrence puts to us the question: “if everything that has happened has happened before, and everything that will happen will happen again, how can we live through the present moment with the minimal resentment of our eternal selves?” How can we make it so that when we eternally return to the same moment, we don’t say “fuck, I’ve got to do this bit again”?

I was obsessed with the idea of eternal return when I first learned about it—funnily enough, just a month or so after I wrote the post on that LiveJournal. It really represented a moment of change in my life, because for the first time I understood that every single action we take has a deep importance to it; could I live with the decisions that I am making right now if I have to re-live them for eternity? As is often the case, though, I took the idea too far, burning myself in the next two years on a certain brand of activism that was mostly centred on outrage and shaming people for their decisions. We’ve all been there.

But there’s a very real way that we live Nietzsche’s eternal return without its metaphysics. Our patterns play out constantly, re-presenting us with an opportunity to act differently.

Why do we write?

Everything has happened has happened before. Everything that will happen has already happened. So of course, 2015-kieran has already commented on this:

Another issue that I'm facing at the moment is how to not make this blog post sound exactly the same as similar posts to this that I've written before. I'm overly defining myself, and I'm not sure why it matters, but I suppose I've always used LiveJournal as a method of external reasoning. It helps me articulate what I'm thinking.

Why is that I’m drawn to writing as a way of processing? And why is it that I’m drawn to writing about writing as a way of processing? This seems to be one of the questions that I’m drawn back to repeatedly. Take, for instance, this post from January 6th, 2019, where I talk about a post I made on December 25th, 2014, where I talk about a post that I made on a blog from 2011. The lessons will come again tomorrow if they’re not learned today.

A screenshot of an old blog post. It says "Hilariously, though, I scrolled back to the first post, and it's basically this same post—talking about my experiences with blogging in the past, mentioning how I'm notoriously bad at actually committing to blogging, etc." With a screenshot of an older blog underneath.
It’s really always the same shit, isn’t it?

The reason that these questions come back, though, is because we change. The lessons come again to give us a chance to learn them, and this time I’ve done a lot more living and writing. This time I come at the question of “why do I write about writing, and then stop writing?” having written an 100,000 word thesis and having read and thought about the idea of writing as confession and expression a lot more. Most importantly, I come to this having read Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative.

I think there’s a certain self-consciousness that comes with a post like this; posting something like this as your first or second post always screams “I don’t know how to take up the literary space I want to take up”, “I don’t know who I am to make the claims that I’m making”. Febos’ essay “In Praise of Navel-Gazing” echoes this process of self-interrogation:

Who was I, a twenty-six-year-old woman, a former junky and sex worker, to presume that strangers should find my life interesting? … My own story wouldn’t leave me alone. It called to me the way I have since come to recognise is the call of my best stories, the ones that most need to be told. So I wrote it. And it was urgent, but not easy. In order to write that book, I had to walk back through my most mystifying choices and excavate events for which I had been numb on the first go-around.

… the resistance to memoirs about trauma is always in part—and often nothing but—a resistance to movements for social justice.

… I don’t mean to argue that writing personally is for everyone. What I’m saying is: don’t avoid yourself. The story that comes calling might be your own and it might not go away if you don’t open the door. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I only believe in fear. And you can be afraid and still write something.

Oh, look. It is a post about “writer’s block” after all.

Every single attempt I have made to write publicly—whether on LiveJournal, WordPress, Tumblr, in my own publications, or on Substack—has been an attempt to tell a story of some kind of trauma. Sometimes its the trauma as it’s happening—as my earliest LiveJournals were, essentially recounting and making sense of abusive relationships as they were ongoing—and sometimes it’s been a story of healing and recovery, trying to notice the ways that my life has become different inside of spaces of safety. Struggling to write is, for me, always an attempt to avoid myself, to hide from the complicated or messy.

Making something new

The main place that I diverge from Nietzsche on eternal return is I see it as a sort of challenge. Yes, there’s the question of existential resentment, and trying to live the richest version of our lives (whilst accepting that we can’t often do that). More than that, though, there’s the question of how we can break out of the loop. How can we make something genuinely new? If we’re stuck on the long road of eternal recurrence, how can we make a new path?

Those of you who are close to me will know my love for a certain kind of media: Twin Peaks, The Matrix, The Truman Show, Westworld, The Stanley Parable, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In some way, each of these pieces of media are concerned with the question “how do we do something different, when everything is fixed on such a set loop?”. Neo breaks out of the Matrix because something new happens. Stanley leaves his desk because all of his co-workers had gone. Truman arrives at the end of the painted clouds and finds a door. These are stories about something new becoming possible after a long stretch of the same.

In Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism, he poses the problem of capitalist realism, the idea that capitalism has become so hegemonic, so dominant, so entrenched, that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. By the end of the book, he poses the question of what we can do about this, how we can break out from the “grey curtain of reaction” to find new “horizons of possibility”. Having just spent five years writing a thesis about methods to make these new horizons, this time around, I’m coming to these eternally recurring questions with a new set of tools. I know how to make something new from the same loops. Essentially, I think this means that this time, we’ll get past the second post, because I know why I’m writing and I know how to do this differently, now.

At the end of Kae Tempest’s Lessons, they sing:

You would think that over time
Our lessons would be learned
But time and time again, we find
Our lessons have returned
And even though we've sworn repent
And promised no repeat
We find ourselves back here again
With the same old ragged drum to beat
Saying, how many times must we be shown
The outcome of the pattern?
How many times must we be shown
The outcome of the pattern?

I think it’s the last time. Until the next time.

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