Dealing with a Broke-down Brain, a.k.a. Writer’s Block

I had a remarkable thought while hunting a pacifier the other day: If only scientists could harness the energy source that powers a squalling baby and eliminate dirty diapers, we’d have unlimited clean energy. The thought isn’t remarkable in the sense that it’s groundbreaking or even remotely plausible, just that it’s a thought and I haven’t thought much lately. 

I’m not sure what my brain has been doing, but mostly it hasn’t been thinking. It’s been trying to do anything possible not to think, even resorting to watching World Dodgeball Federation videos on YouTube. (Who knew semi-professional dodgeball was such a great spectator sport?)     

You might think that not-thinking would be the modus operandi for writers of a particular sort who plumb the depths of unsophisticated farm humor. To a certain extent, doing dumb things does provide plenty of raw material, but to craft that raw material into words requires neurons and synapses to fire, and lately my brain has been backfiring.

It always amazes me to read about writers who have the brainpower, or really willpower, to write no matter what, every day. One of my favorite writers is Annie Dillard, and she’s an advocate for sticking to a daily writing schedule. In The Writing Life, she says, 

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”

And Dillard practiced what she preached, writing every day, reasserting mastery over her manuscripts, so much so she won the Pulitzer Prize–by age 29. Another one of my favorite writers, Patrick McManus, spent two hours every day writing. He died a few years ago at age 85, having authored 23 books. 

Despite my best efforts to write some every day, lately I haven’t been mustering the brainpower. I’ve got a nearly-finished first draft of a manuscript that has, as Dillard put it, turned into a lion. I’m afraid to reopen the document and look at it, much less work on it again. It just seems untamable. The problem is I don’t really know what the book is–is it a semi-truthful memoir of my attempts at farming, a collection of loosely-related and ridiculous short stories, or a manual of what not to do for young farmers. Right now, it feels like a three-headed beast that needs two of its heads chopped off. 

Speaking of farming, I had a farmer tell me once that there are two types of combines: combines that are broke down, and combines that are fixin to break down. I think that accurately describes my writing process. Even when I’m writing every day, there is always the looming feeling out there that my brain is about to break down, not in a bonkers sort of way, just in the I-don’t-have-energy-to-think sort of way. And right now my brain is broke down, and I’m not exactly sure how to get it back up and running again.

For you writers out there, what’s your go-to solution for fixing a broke-down brain?

How my brain feels