Express Yourself

The Limiting Belief Behind the Worst Kind of Writer’s Block

Shame is probably the biggest obstacle for writers. Here’s how to confront it.

Thomas Page McBee
Human Parts
Published in
10 min readMar 11, 2021

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Quirky photo symbolizing writer’s block. Person sitting at typewriter with a bunch of crumpled paper.
Photo: Drew Coffman/Flickr

I’ve had a lot of lives as a writer. I started out as a poet. At 26, I was in grad school for fiction. By 29, I freelanced personal essays and worked as an editor at an alt-weekly, writing art criticism. At 31, I wrote my first book, a memoir. By 33, I was writing widely on gender and culture. At 34, I wrote my second book, a reported memoir. By 37, I’d tried my hand at my first episode of television. And now, at 40, I’m working on my first feature film script.

Some people might accuse me of lacking focus, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge of learning new formats to tell stories that interest me. I was a voracious reader and film nerd growing up, but the pain of not seeing myself, a trans man, in the narratives I loved both taught me how to find myself in every part of the human experience and compelled me to find ways to make men like me legible and visible in the stories we tell as a culture.

Though I consider myself relatively productive, and despite achieving a lifelong dream of making my living as a writer, I realized a startling truth this past year in the quiet of the pandemic: Writing often makes me miserable. Like, really miserable.

I began to examine how this could be true, and a pattern emerged: No matter the project, the exact same mental loop-to-loop ensnared me every time. I’d get excited about an idea in theory, but as soon as I sat down to get to work, I found myself inundated with dread. What the hell was I doing? I had no idea how to write _____ (about art/a book/sports movie). Soon, the feeling of dread morphed into a paralyzing nausea. When I dug deeper, I found a single, consistent factor: Shame. How does shame sound to me? Something like: I don’t know how to tell a relatable story! My life experience is completely foreign to most people. I’m incoherently strange. I should just stop embarrassing myself by even thinking anything about me is relatable.

Gnarly, right?

What is shame, exactly? At its core, shame is a painful and profound belief that there is something fundamentally “wrong” with us and…

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Thomas Page McBee
Human Parts

Writer exploring the relationship between gender, culture, and history. Most recent book: Amateur (Scribner). Essays/reporting: NYT, The Atlantic, GQ, more.