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Writer's Block

Writer's Block

How Words Can Destroy

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She hurt me. Or, shall I say, I was hurt by her? Words really matter, as I've recently re-learnt, so I better choose them wisely. That said, I was hurt by the (rather insensitive) way in which she chose to speak to me.

It was the evening of Rosh Hashanah. About forty-five minutes before candle lighting and all I had left to do before greeting the New Year was to bathe and make a few phone calls. I decided to call my friend Tali first.

"Hi Tali. L'Shana Tova! I'm calling to wish you a year full of vibrant good health, deep and lasting happiness, and spiritual and material success!" Amen, bellowed Tali, who readily blessed me in return. After a few loving exchanges and a little catching up, I asked her if she had read my most recent blog post, to which she replied in the affirmative.

I was asking mostly because I really cared about her opinion"Oh." I said, somewhat surprised, "I wasn't sure if you had because you didn't comment on it and normally you are among the first to respond."

It wasn't exactly that I was fishing for a compliment. Sure, Tali's feedback had in the past reinforced my thinking and, admittedly, stroked my ego, but I was asking mostly because I really cared about her opinion on the ideas in the article.

"Weelllll," she temporized, letters lolling on her tongue like a runway carpet, unfurling in anticipation of something epic to follow, "to tell you the truth, (cough, cough) I didn't comment this time because I had nothing nice to say."

Unsure as to whether or not she was joking, I let out a small laugh.

"No," she said, tone hardening a bit. "I'm serious. I didn't like it."

"Oh."

"In fact, I'm kinda glad you brought it up because I've been meaning to tell you that lately I haven't been able to stomach your work. I mean, it's not that you're not a talented writer, but it's your style and what you write about that has been making me sick."

"Sick?!"

"Yah, it's so dogmatic. So perfect. So cliché. It's sickening already. And no offence, but I've gotten to the point where I can't even read it anymore."

"Woah!"

"I'm telling you!" she said, anger emanating from a place deep within her. "It's oppressive! I feel as if I'm stuck in some sugar-coated fantasy barf when I read it."

"Fantasy barf?"

"Yes. Because it's so darn cheesy and dishonest."

"Uh-hu."

"What's wrong?" she asked, clueless, "You're not mad at me, are you?"

"Huh? Mad? Me? I don't know. I mean…no. I don't think so. How can I be mad? You're just giving me your honest feedback, right?"

"Exactly! I'm just being honest."

"Well…thanks for your honesty, I guess."

"Anytime! Now if you don't mind I better get going, but you have yourself a wonderful new year! L'shana Tova. Love ya."

"Uh…Okay. Goodbye."

Could it really be that my writing was cliché and cheesy? I waited for the line to go dead before allowing tears to run free. Then I watched my hand, in an out-of-body sort of way, as it tremblingly hung up the phone. Dismayed, I headed mechanically toward the bathroom where I spent the next twenty minutes soaking in a tub of sudsy water feeling stained with self-doubt, anger, sadness and defeat.

Could it really be that my writing was cliché and cheesy? Did it sicken all the other readers too? Have I been obliviously oppressing people all this time and embarrassing myself in the process?

As the scent of my cinnamon-raisin challah baking in the oven sweetened the steamy bathroom air, I submerged myself under water to replay and process the dreadful conversation. I felt worse with each passing moment and I began to wonder how I might possibly pull myself together in time for the New Year? Just moments ago I was all gung-ho about 5770. I was feeling optimistic and joyful about everyone and everything and excited to begin a New Year of continued happiness, creativity and good relationships. But instead, there I lay underwater, holding my breath, holding a grudge, and holding a very critical self-judgment over my head. "L'shana Tova?" A good new year? Ha! Was that supposed to be some kind of cruel joke?

Swirling in emotions, I toyed with the idea of calling Tali and telling her how I felt. I constructed a few possible conversations—none of which would be pretty or take away my pain. Her words were already released and even if she tried, she could not take them back. Besides, it was almost time to light the holiday candles and there wasn't enough time to call her and get into it.

So I tried to forgive her. To let it go. To be strong. To wipe away her words from me like "sugar-coated barf." Getting dressed for the holiday my mantra became, "you can please some people some of the time but you can't please all the people all of the time."

As I put on my beautiful holiday clothes, I struggled to stop her words from gnawing away at my self-esteem. She's just one person with one opinion, I told myself. Surely there are people out there who appreciate my writing. What about all the compliments and encouraging letters I've received? Don't they count for anything? And what about the articles that have been published on Chabad.org? They wouldn't publish something nauseating, would they?

But try as I might, her words had already triggered something deep inside me and all the positive feedback I'd gotten over the years no longer meant a thing. I was bombarded with insecurity, self-doubt, even self-loathing. Maybe she's right. Maybe I should stick with my day job and leave the writing for the pros. Maybe G‑d agrees with her and wanted this message to be delivered to me because He too is disgusted by my work. And maybe instead of being upset at her for the way she spoke to me, I should thank her for having the courage to be upfront? After all, it's the real friend who tells you when you're walking around with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe, isn't it?

Maybe instead of being upset at her for the way she spoke to me, I should thank her for having the courage to be upfront?Rosh Hashanah came and went. I managed to lift myself back up to a state of joy and come to terms with Tail's critique. I figured there must be at least one worthwhile lesson mixed into her message; the rest of it was her own issue and could be disregarded. When the holiday season ended and it came time to getting back to the computer I had mixed feelings about how to write. I sat down a few times and tried to experiment with a new, bolder style but every time I attempted to write, something important came up.

There was carpool to drive. Facebook friends to chat with. Coffee to brew. Laundry to fold. Kickboxing classes to teach. My life suddenly become so busy that I didn't have even ten minutes a day for my silly writing hobby. In fact, it wasn't until six months later when somebody asked me about my writing that I finally realized I had not written a single thing. And worse, that I had pulled my embarrassing blog off the web.

That was when I grasped how deeply I was affected by Tali's words. And how vulnerable I was to a little bit of criticism. But how could this be, I wondered? I'm a tough woman—a fighter—a national martial arts champion! I'm the strong and powerful Taekwondo master who teaches empowerment, perseverance and belief in oneself. How could I be the fragile, breakable "wuss" who gets knocked down and out by a few harsh words!

So with the voice of my old coach re-awakened in my head I put on my gloves and took another shot at writing. I put my blog back up in cyberspace and sat myself down to write. I was all pumped and ready to go, but I had nothing to say. My mind was blank, and even when I did have an interesting thought I couldn't manage to get it out of my head. I was stuck.

Another six months went by, and I had still not a written word. Rosh Hashanah was approaching once again and this time I was determined to start the year off on a sweeter, more productive note. Fortunately, G‑d arranged it that I would be attending a women's event in my neighborhood where a very special woman would be speaking. Sara Esther Crispe, editor of Chabad.org's "The Jewish Woman" came to Chicago to speak about effective communication. Among the topics she addressed was how to deliver constructive criticism in an effective yet delicate way that would yield positive change. (Too bad Tali couldn't make it!)

Another six months went by, and I had still not a written wordInspired by her speech and captivated by her presence, I wanted to get to know her, but should I introduce myself to her? I imagined I might say, "Hi Mrs. Crispe. We never met in person but you might remember me from those few corny articles I wrote last year that you were kind enough to publish on your website. Anyways, I think you are great!"

Miraculously—not to sound too cheesy—I didn't have to introduce myself because she actually recognized me from my headshot! Not only did she remember me, but she even asked me where I had been! Shocked, and feeling particularly comfortable in her presence, I opened up and told her all about Tali and the "ineffective communication" that led to my writer's block. "And since then I have not been able to write a single thing!"

"Write about that!" Sara Esther urged. "This is your new assignment."

I came home from that evening feeling inspired and honored. Last year at this time G‑d sent a messenger who knocked me down and this year He sent one who picked me up. I sat down in front of my dusty computer and started banging away. To repent for wasted time and to protect against future distractions I immediately deactivated my Facebook account and made a commitment to myself and to G‑d to get back to writing. Writing, I recognized, was part of my personal path toward returning to G‑d. Part of my soul's mission and part of returning to my true self. How appropriate it seemed that this return to writing was happening now, during the ten days of return and repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Reflecting on my fallow year, I can't help but feel a sense of shame that a few critical words stopped me from doing what I have been passionate about for so much of my life. Up till then, writing had been a constant source of pleasure, healing, and self-expression for me. This disturbing experience introduced me to a broken part of myself that resonated with the belief, "I am not good enough. I cannot succeed." Fortunately, this experience also introduced me a new, more empowered and self-confident part of myself. I truly experienced the Jewish concept of a yeridah tzorech aliyah, a descent for the sake of an ascent. Had it not been for that blow, I never would have been challenged to really work on myself and my writing.

Meanwhile Tali never apologized. Nor has she asked about my writing.

But I have an important message for Tali and all the other Tali's of the world: If you don't like my stories, don't read them!

Ariella Sunny Levi is a mother of four who has returned to her roots in Chicago after living in Israel for four years. She is a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo, and hopes to help empower women both physically and spiritually through her martial arts classes and inspirational writing.
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Anonymous January 8, 2017

Ariella, It could very well be that your friend Tali is depressed. (That doesn't excuse such behavior but maybe it can help you understand her better) When I had postpartum depression, any time I saw or read about people who looked like they were enjoying life, it made me jealous and then I would get nauseous and disgusted with myself, upset by the fact that I even felt jealous... Reply

jan schulman oxnard, california March 7, 2012

this is not how friends speak to friends dogmatic, cheesy, barf, sickening. this is NOT criticising. this is cruel rhetoric which has no place between friends. to critique another's writing, no matter how bad it may be, is to do so intelligently, with compassion and insight. what tali has is a very bad case of either jealousy or long-standing resentment. to talk like this to someone is to know exactly what you are doing; stabbing somebody's soul. i also write and share stories with others, especially with my best friend. if she EVER spoke tome like that, or if i spoke to her like that, the friendship would be immediately ended. for the people who said that in effect you 'asked' for it, shame. nobody asks to be treated in that manner. there are so many ways she could have indicated to you that your writing needed improvement: "it's just not resonating with me lately. for whatever reason, i'm not connecting to it." would be one way of saying it while still being honest --- without the cruelty. tali is not a friend Reply

Shterna you know who I am!! March 6, 2012

Ariela Sunny Levy. I tottaly do not understant Tali. If shes a friend, who needs enemies?
Your articles are so beautiful, youre such a smart and nice women!! I love to read your articles!! As a favor for me, KEEP ON WRITING!! Reply

Michelle Andre cape coral, fl June 8, 2011

Everyone needs to grow in thier own time! For many years I never knew why my girlfriend never would talk to me or even see me when I would visit Chicago and it hurt my feelings. I couldn't understand what I did? Reciently, that same lost friend Facebooked me and was very loving. At first I thought to my self why does she want then I figured out that she needed time to grow and I would except her the friend I once new back into my life with joy!
I am no angel, I get mad at people and sometimes I need to grow up and humble myself!!! Love is all I got! Reply

Joseph A. Cleary Sand Springs,, Okla. June 7, 2011

Wrighter's Block?. Dear Lady:
I always enjoy what I read when it's written by a nice person like your self.
Baruch Hashem for people like your self, it's the best truth I know.
Some of my male conter parts may see me as a traitor, I don't mind it as I can live with that.
Please be well with a good week and a good Shabbis and a good Shavuot. Please don't stop writing.
Shalom, Shalom, Yosef Reply

Anonymous Ireland June 6, 2011

I'm glad you were eventually able to rise above that episode. Messenger or not, that woman's behaviour was both arrogant and rude. Reply

jan schulman oxnard, ca November 12, 2010

tali should know why don't you send tali this site so she can read what you wrote and what everyone has to say about it. i believe it will cause her to do some deep thinking about her cruel words and insensitivity. and keep up the good work; but don't ask for true criticism unless you can take it. good luck. Reply

Anonymous anywhere, earth November 11, 2010

You do what you do, because that is what you do. It can't get better than that.

Some will agree. Some will not agree. At the end of the day? Does it please the L-rd?

Then go do what you do. Reply

Elle charlottesville, va November 10, 2010

truth is beautiful I think there is some part of me always ready to fail.. waiting for an opportunity to say "see!? I couldn't do it! there is the proof!" and it seems always someone will come along and "prove" to us why we can't write, sing, cook, sew, clean.... what have you, knocking us down and hurting us deeply.

Did you happen to talk to Tali? Because in the interest of being kind, it would be kind of you to do so. Perhaps she us unaware of how hurtful she was and how powerful words can be. This might need to be brought to her attention before she hurts another with her tongue. It would do her a great disservice if you didn't bring this kindly to her attention. Will she accept your words? who knows. that is up to her. Perhaps your blog hurt her in some way causing her to lash out at you? find out!

Remember to focus on writing because it is a gift to you - Hashem's way of letting you minister to yourself and to others. But also remember the lesson that words are powerful. so powerful! even yours! Reply

RG Tzfat, Israel November 10, 2010

I agree with Anonymous of Nov 8, 2010 yes, Tali is entitled to her opinion (esp. since you asked for it!) and isn't guilty of any abuse (but maybe she could have found a better way to express it). Yet, it can be ever so hard to accept any criticism and to grow from it.

Congratulations for the fruitful accounting of yourself and the positive growth! Reply

Odeliah Shmuelov Tel-Aviv, Israel November 9, 2010

I love you! You express yourself and the situation so honestly, showing both sides to the coin, which cannot be "cheezy" because it's truthful and hits to the core, bearing your entire being, and pointing to the strengths and weaknesses, which most are too proud to admit. You inspired me to return to writing, and placed in my heart a renewed fervor. Keep writing, healing, and saving souls! Reply

Anonymous montvale, nj/usa November 9, 2010

AMEN, sister Reply

Anonymous B November 8, 2010

It was just her opinion I can sure relate to your reactions & would myself be very challenged by what happened. But the fact is she gave her opinion & is entitled to it & you asked for it. And surely she did no wrong, really?

I am still working on my own great sensitivities & insufficient self esteem. My ego may be too big. Well, ok, it is.

An opinion is just an opinion. She did not abuse you. You took her words personally to abuse yourself by saying you couldn't write. Obviously you are a good writer. So you didn't please her? Fine. Do you have to please everyone? How about you just go and be the writer you are? Reply

Greg Chiasson Greenbush (Scituate) , MA November 8, 2010

Ariella Sunny Levi Where does one find in Torah Theology the notion evoked by Ariella Levi of:

yeridah tzorech aliya?

Fascinating! Reply

Melinda aventura, florida November 8, 2010

Touch'e Your an inspiration for many who allow anothers harsh words, to disinegrate their very being. Thank you for being strong for the rest of us, so we in the end know we can be strong too. Reply

Rachel Trugman Mevo Modiim, Israel November 8, 2010

The Fighter Frees the Writer! I like the way you used all parts of yourself to get beyond the block - the fighter frees the writer! Keep spiraling upward. Reply

Anonymous Chicago, IL November 8, 2010

Great Article Your writing is beautiful and insights profound. Keep it up. I enjoy reading your work! Reply

Judy Goodman Wilmette, IL November 8, 2010

Writers Support Writer's block is an old friend of mine. Our minds work kind of like a farm. Farmers discovered that, not only rotating crops, but actually letting a field rest for a season helps keep it vibrant and working to capacity. Similarly, writer's block can serve a useful purpose and, part of the writer's job is to manage it as we would any other tool. Easier said than done, true, but keeping that purpose in mind helps me through the tough times.
Another source of help for me is the company of other writers. I'd like to invite you to check out Jane Stories Press Foundation, an international group that encourages diversity among women writers and the inclusion of many voices in the publishing industry. Among the perks of membership is a circle of Chicago area authors to support and connect with. We have local critique circles in other states and online, as well as members in other countries looking to connect. You can find the "Janesstories" sites through Google and at Wordpress. Reply

Anonymous london, uk November 8, 2010

Good for you Great article. I often struggle with the same thing - too sensitive to criticism and this stops me from expressing my inner self
I really liked your story and am glad you are writing again Reply

Anonymous Johannesburg, South Africa November 8, 2010

Wow! You are so honest! and you write beautifully! I am inspired, sometimes I feel that I am making progress and at other times I feel like I have taken 10 steps back. But even if a year has passed... we dont continue from where we were a year ago, we have learned the lesson, we looked inside, we made a resolution, we are going forward!! may you keep on writing and go from strength to strength!
Thank you for sharing and inspiring me to look into myself and be positive!
Thank you! Reply

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