The Care and Feeding of a Writer

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One of the most common traits I’ve noticed in writers is that they tend to treat themselves like crap.

While lots of us pay lip-service to the importance of living the life of the bacchanal or of embodying duende, most of the writers I know seem to lead somewhat stale, anemic lives that do not involve quaffing large amounts of claret or reading snatches of Byron or Baudelaire at awkward, inappropriate moments (1).  Nor do we follow our hearts and spend a year writing in the wilds of Provence or on the beaches of the Algarve.

No, most writers I know wind up on the outskirts of some big, dirty city of industry teaching the children of privilege at three different institutions—none of which can afford to give health insurance (2).

And we rent apartments that we furnish sparsely with flea market finds, Swedish particleboard bookcases, and piles of dreadful student essays whose only interesting gesture is the inadvertent transposition of “public” into “pubic” more than 25 times in the same paper.   And our regular, nightly companion?  A screechy cat on antidepressants hell-bent on giving itself a Brazilian (3).

Sound familiar?

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Well . . . apart from absolutely everything . . . what is most wrong with this picture is the critical assumption that often flows forth from the mind of the writer who has ensconced herself in such unpleasant surroundings:  the assumption that she has writer’s block and cannot, therefore, write.

You see, as any normative member of the human race—that is, someone outside an English department or the poverty-stricken world of “the humanities”—would immediately recognize, Shakespeare himself would not be able to write in that demoralizing, debilitating situation.

And yet somehow, those of us who grew up loving books and leather-bound journals more than our pet guinea pigs still willingly keep placing ourselves back in that anhydrous situation only to discover that, when it comes time to write, the well is dry and we don’t feel like writing.

Quelle fucking surprise!

So what’s a writer, newly awakened to the horror of her own situation, to do?  How does she prime the pump?

Here’s my koan-like answer:  she takes better care of herself and lets it happen naturally.

Right.  Horseshit!

No, really, it makes more sense than you realize.   Do a little gedanken with me . . .

Think of everything you do and experience in your life as a kind of “food” that your mind uses to write.  The more palatable and higher the quality of food you ingest—both literally and metaphorically—the better your writing is and the less depleted your system feels.  The mantra known to both the nutritional and computational sciences seems screamingly obvious here:  garbage in means garbage out.  So, the reverse must be true, right?

My contention is this:  as writers, we need to be well-fed and fattened up with interesting calories that we can burn; otherwise, we just end up leaching out all of our own calcium when we give our little writing baby the tit.

And, if we do nothing but grade sub-par, semi-literate student essays in a drab apartment seven days a week, we’ve really done nothing more than empty the larder and punish ourselves with a constipatory diet of rice cakes and peanut butter. (4)

If you want to write, you need to take decent care of your system and vary that insipid diet.  You need to live somewhere you find pleasant and inspiring.  And you need to have some fun that involves cool shit, mind-stretching events, and honest-to-god enjoyment.

Some Tips on How to “Eat Well” as a Writer:

1.     Don’t feel bad about being good to yourself. This can be applied to something simple like getting a massage, going to sleep at a reasonable hour each night, or fucking a gorgeous younger man in your department.  As a writer, you need to make sure you feed yourself in an inversely proportionate manner to the amount of crap you’ve had to take in during your “day job.”  So, if you’ve just graded the latest set of drafts in a batch of 60, make sure to set the balance right and fuck him all night long.

2.     Read other writers for pleasure—not for comparison. Don’t pay attention to the reviews—those can be bought.  Skip over that annoying glam shot of the author that just makes her look pissed, pretentious, and precocious.  Rip out that little insipid roster of praise—the “acknowledgments” page that just tallies, as near as I can tell, the number of famous people they had to sleep with in order to get published or win that contest.  And then when you’ve done all that, you should just indulge, soak in, and absolutely enjoy the fresh beauty of those genius words for themselves.  Be inspired by them and know that there are plenty more words to spare in this universe—so many, in fact, that you don’t need to feel jealous about their awesomeness.

3.     Don’t beat yourself up for not making it big by your 30s. Think about it:  when was the last time you cracked open a volume published out of The Yale Younger Poets Series and actually read it for fun?  No, there are only two reasons to pick up such a volume:  1)  you want to flog yourself for being a fuck up or 2) because you, yourself, have been represented within its pages and want to stroke your own ego.  Really, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why those kinds of categories exist except to thin out herd of writers by inspiring exponential waves of hari kari.  I mean, honestly, who the fuck cares how old you are?  Age only matters when it comes to sex—and even then it’s just to make sure you haven’t violated those numbers that might land your ass in jail.

4.    Figure out what your writing process is. Spend some time getting acquainted with the way you really write—not the way you think you should be writing.  As I have found out, these often tend to be two quite very different processes.  And usually, for most of us, it’s “the way you should be writing” that contributes itself the most wholeheartedly to the formation of writer’s block.  So figure out what makes your process work and honor it—even if it means you have to wash that pair of lucky underwear seven times a week.  Learn to love the feel of writing and develop your own signature style—even if you think its corny, ugly, and not likely to get a dance partner at the next square dance.  Just do it and enjoy it.  Not everything written needs to be written for publication—indeed, most of what’s written for publication doesn’t ever succeed in getting published.  So, have some fun with it and stop thinking about the piece’s final destination.

5.     Make choices that support, not emasculate, your writing process. Often, these choices happen before you sit down to write and usually involve renting a set of cajones so that you can tell your beloved or significant others that, while they are super- important to you, the trimming of their hangnails will just have to wait while until you are done writing.

6.     Think of your writing life as a “battery” and turn off all the unimportant shit that drains it. This piece of advice is a corollary to statement #5.  It means that you, yourself, have to learn how to maintain your own boundaries around your writing time and not, say, schedule your OB/GYN visit, make a five-course meal, do a Costco run, or trim your own fucking hangnails during the appointed hour.  This is often much harder to do than merely renting a set and telling other people to back off.

7.     Be willing to cobble together a lifestyle that supports your writing dream. Writers can be really good at keeping themselves too busy to write.  Don’t be one of them.  Being a writer means saying “no” to a lot of shit.  Even Stephen King, the most prolific guy alive, would have a hard time balancing four kids, a volunteer gig at the Alzheimer’s ward every second Friday, and  an MLM biz that hawked vibrators out of his basement (5).  Plan your life around the one you want to have, then do it.

8.  Say “yes” to the really cool shit that will feed you as a writer. Be willing to seek out the new, the strange, the bizarre, and the incredible and just experience them.  Don’t think you have to write about everything you see, think, or do.  Sometimes it’s enough to just let go and be in the flow of things.

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FOOTNOTES:

(1) Unless, of course, they’re still in graduate school living the literary dream on their parents’ coffers.

(2) Even though they can always afford to build new sports facilities.  To be honest and fair, I have a terrific job now—replete with health insurance benefits at a substantial remove from the “road kill” policy I had at my last gig—and this makes my look backward even more sobering as I begin to intuit just how sad that situation really was.

(3) Actually, this was me, ca. 2005, and I should probably let my now-dead cat’s odd fetishes rest in peace.  A shout-out to my friend Carol Quinn for the unforgetable “pubic” anecdote.  (And, yes, it is totally annoying when people who have no “peeps” nor know what “shouting out” might mean use that phrase.)

(4) This is actually based on a true story told to me by my good friend, Tim Gulden.  Tim recounted a legendary tale of a fellow Sarah Lawrence undergrad who, brilliant hacker that he was, was diagnosed with the only case of scurvy the U.S. had seen in decades after he spent several months in a darkened dorm room eating nothing but Doritos and Pepsi and creating one of the first-ever word processing programs.  Hard to hate a genius who was that intense, right?

(5) No disrespect to the “Life is Good” folks, but I think they’d be a far more honest company if their T-shirts all read, “Life is Short.”

Why You Should Write Regularly

It’s hard to write if you haven’t been writing on a regular basis.  And yet, most of the writers I know—myself included—frequently ignore this fact.

Instead of approaching writing like sane, reasonable people, we act like ninnies or pussies.  Instead of just sitting down and writing, we procrastinate or avoid writing for months at a time.   Then, one day, when we finally do manage to sit our asses down, we find that we can’t write (1).

And we panic and think we’re blocked.  We call on the saints or forswear our cruel, cruel god. We eat chocolate in unhealthy amounts. We start to blame our parents and their inadequate parenting style (2). We may even go to see a shrink and become morose when we notice the deep ass-divot on her couch and realize that we will probably succeed only in paying for her daughter’s orthodontia—not in curing our blockage.

Worse yet, if we do manage to eke something out by brute force after a long, dry spell of no writing, it often and quite predictably ends up being terrible.  And not just minorly terrible but insufferably terrible. The kind of terrible where the New Yorker wouldn’t even bother sending back their quickest, most-form-iest rejection letter because they thought that vile and stinky little piece of writing shit came from a kid (3).

Now, given the output of these two scenarios—blockage or a sudden case of the terribles—how likely it is that we will ever want to pick that pen back up and write again?

Yet, most of us who write—especially those of us who teach and write—seem to follow this pattern on a regular basis: we set ourselves up to fail, we fail, and then we pathologize that failure as a debilitating blockage rather than seeing it for the bad psychological trick that it is.  And the more we indulge this unhealthy writing pattern, the more we solidify a stronger and stronger case against ourselves and our ability to write.  It’s like an M.C. Escher sketch gone AWOL in our heads.

An independent observer might pause and ask:  is this intentionally sadistic or just merely unconscious behavior?  Tough to tell.  Either way, self-sabotage or somnambulism, it’s not a pretty picture.

And, as someone who struggled with writer’s block for nearly a decade and still falls victim to her own bad thinking and patterning about her writing, I am living proof about how destructive that behavior can become when repeated over a good quarter of one’s own lifespan (4).

“OK, enough of your Debby Downer shit,” my reader delicately proffers, “What the fuck do I do about it?  I’m nowhere near as messed up as you are!”

Point well taken. My best advice:  treat your writing the same way you would a musical instrument.  No, I am not suggesting you make yourself into an Aeolian Harp or some annoyingly sacred vessel of the muse (5).  Rather, I am suggesting that you think of your writing more like practicing the piano or going to the gym.  You know, something that you do a little bit at a time and build up over several months or years.

By developing a daily writing practice where you learn to write in smaller, more manageable chunks over time, you can do several things:

  • Turn off the expectation that you need to write a large, War-and-Peace-sized chunk of your magnum opus in one sitting.
  • Give yourself more space to experiment and be creative without ruining everything—your novel, your Ph.D., or your family’s reputation.
  • Create lots of opportunities for smaller successes that you can reward yourself for copiously (6).
  • Build up writing callouses—both physical and psychological—that will strengthen your ass for more heavy-lifting down the road.
  • Stop before you make yourself sick.
  • Learn how to enjoy writing again.

I’ve written about this before, but I think it bears repeating:  writing is less a gift of brilliance or genius than it is a practice that needs patient and persistent cultivation.  Sure, you have to have some writerly DNA to be able to craft an interesting sentence or two, but most of us overestimate just how important raw talent is.  As long as you are somewhere in the normalish range, you should be just fine.

Besides, I’ve seen a lot of gifted, brilliant writers flame out because they couldn’t get their shit together. I’ve also seen less talented writers perform Herculean feats and produce some really cool shit simply by giving it a go and refusing to look backward.  Personally, I’m shooting for the latter. 

To my mind, the brilliant writer who produces nothing isn’t really a writer so much as a brilliant fuck-up who pretended to write (7).  Moreover, if you take a look at the so-called brilliant writers who were prolific—people like David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf—I’d say it’s probably better to be a little less talented and end up alive than, you know, dead and esteemed eternally. But that could just be me.

How to Set up a Daily Writing Practice

1.     Set up a writing station where you can’t be disturbed. Fill it only with things you love and be sure to remove all items from former lovers—especially ones who commented on your lack of sexual technique—and parents (8).

2.     Buy a calendar and place it on the wall. Buy the Plainest Jane of a calendar you can find.  You don’t want to be distracted by George Clooney’s delightful jowls or Gisele’s hair-free crotch.

3.     Write every day for 10 minutes—no more or no less. Don’t be proud here.  Be a man and use a timer like the rest of us.

4.    Place a gold star on the calendar for each day that you write. Then, pat yourself on the back. Don’t be lame. Just do it. (9)

5.    Repeat until you are able to write for 11, instead of 10, minutes each day without dying. Adjust your writing time upward accordingly.

6.    Repeat ad infinitum. Like its more famous imprimatur—lather, rinse, and repeat—there will come a time when you hit an asymptotic limit and can go no further.  At this point, you need to stop adding minutes to your daily writing session and start living a more normal life.  But don’t worry about that just yet.

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FOOTNOTES:

(1) You know that day, the one where the children are off for a play date, the bills are paid, all the labels are all facing forward in the pantry, and you got laid last night . . .

(2) Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that what used to be called “child rearing” is now called “parenting”?  I find this both odd and troubling.  Why?  Well, with the former term, the child is the focus and, in the latter, the parent is.  Says a lot, doesn’t it?

(3) Usually, I have found that The New Yorker is quickest in its rejections—though The New Republic can also give them a run for their money.  I once submitted a poem to TNR by USPS and received a form letter back (also by USPS) within four days.  I marveled at how one poem could produce such an extreme response from the poetry editor that he marshaled his forces at the speed of light. Looking back, though, I do feel better knowing, however, that he at least read it, judged it, and responded to it its terribleness—something that most search committees in English departments can’t even bring themselves to do when it comes to job applications for assistant professorships.  But I will spare you my rant about their inherent lack of professionalism and common human decency as it would be more appropriately served in a different venue where I could call out by name three particular institutions in the mid-Atlantic region and one in the state of Rhode Island.  Though I guess it serves me right for even pretending to be interested in such a pseudo-discipline like “Rhetoric.”

(4) Like, hello, where did January, February, and most of March 2011 go?

(5) Though, god help you, it would be cool if it happened. I do wish I had access to the same vein of opium Coleridge evidently did . . .

(6) These tend to be very small and unnoticeable at first. In my case, they tended to look like the following kinds of statements: Hey, I succeeded in writing one whole paragraph in eight hours without once thinking of how much I hated the tenured version of Snape who haunted me in graduate school. But, hell, a success is a success. 

(7) And, boy, have I loved a few of those fuck-ups. And this isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with being or dating a brilliant fuck up. You just have to know when to jump off the fuck-up train before it explodes.

(8) I know, I know, this is downright impossible if you live with someone else or if you try to do this at work.  I nearly lost a romance over this one and continue to be flummoxed by my colleagues, many of whom have Ph.D.s from Ivy League institutions, who clearly do not have sufficient linguistic skills to be able to parse the following cryptic phrase: “Do not disturb me.  I’m writing.”  The long and short of it: you have to find a disturbance-proof location or you have to become extremely good at setting boundaries and holding others to them.  (See my future post, “How I Learned to Stop Enabling Them and Love My Writing.”)

(9) I like those nasty wintergreen ones from childhood.  Kinda bad but in a good sorta way–much like break-up sex.

The Addiction of Writer’s Block

As a formerly blocked writer, my real breakthrough came only when I realized that I was addicted to my own mentally-constipated state.

Prone to a rather problematic strain of perfectionism that became pathological during graduate school–think Adrienne Monk crossed with a Soviet-era ladies’ swim coach–I used to pride myself on my ability to spend an entire evening polishing and honing the contours of an opening paragraph.

Even one-page essays–the kind I used to be able to shit out in my undergraduate sleep or dictate over the phone for my brother (who refused to read any novel beyond The Indian in The Cupboard)–became massive, week-long celebrations of their tortured opening sentences.  “Nabokov’s persistent reference to the affective effect on the reader . . . ”  That one once took me four days to create.

As time wore on, I became mired in an increasingly adamantine and esoteric wordscape.  I took longer and longer to write even the most basic of papers. I lost touch with what I was actually trying to do–namely, write something that other people could read–and, instead, became fixated on creating a perfect, luminous document.

Within a matter of months, I retreated into a wordsmithing rapture and became problematically addicted to my own writing process and the vexed mental masturbation that accompanied it.  I would spend days writing in my journal about how much I loved the Uni-Ball Roller Elite Series of gel-filled pens and my Bomber Jacket leather portfolio from The Levenger Catalogue, but I began to fail at actually producing a piece of usable text in “the real world.”

The first time it happened, I was able to beg off and get an extension.  After all, my mom had just had a heart attack and my father had just been diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer.  You’d have to be a heartless bastard not to excuse that double-whammy!

The second time it happened, I was scheduled to lead a three-hour graduate seminar based on a ten-page paper and a set of pre-circulated readings.  At 2 a.m. the night before, I had exactly one page.

Eventually, I got to the point where I could produce no pages at all.  I would just sit, paralyzed in a vast expanse of nothingness, listening to my own interior monologue:  “How could you write this piece of crap you super-fucking idiot!  Try that last sentence again.  You can do a lot better than that.”

“OK,” my wise reader rightly asserts, “I get that you were blocked.  But was it really an addiction?  I mean, people get addicted to coke–not stuff that makes them feel like shit!  Nobody gets addicted to writer’s block; it just happens!”

Mais, au contraire, mon fraire. Just as that embarrassing crush I once had on Shaun Cassidy demonstrates, addictions to negative things are always possible and, given the right cirumstances, can become culturally endemic.

Why do I know this?  I know this because I am certain that if I polled 95% of the population right now, chances are they would not say, “I’m doing great!  Fabulous.  Never better.  I’m 42, working 60 hours a week, and loving my life!”

No, most of us, I think, would admit to feeling like a version of shit–even if we couch it in politer language.  And if we were really honest, we would admit that we are driving cars we don’t like, working at jobs we loathe, and buying the $14.95 chocolate fountain we don’t need at 3 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving on the small remainder left on the VISA card.

No, I think if we were really feeling good about ourselves, we might manage to do something more interesting with our lives–like solve the hunger crisis, build a vertical farm, or take the time to walk the dog without talking on the cell phone the whole time.

But instead, I think that most of us–myself fully included in this diatribe–are far more inclined to tap into our inner Angelina Jolie and, you know, cut ourselves just for the fuck of it.  But, the problem with this cultural self-cutting, this negative addiction to feeling like shit, is that, over time, it creates a numbing situation where we unconsciously start to seek out shit-amplifying scenarios in a perverse attempt to feel more and more alive.

So, even though American Express already has our nuts in a vise with its rapidly escalating interest rate on the Blue Card, we begin to experiment with even higher levels of debt.  Even though we know our coworker likes to explode about any trivial breakdown of the copier, we fail to alert the admin staff when the toner runs out and wait to see what happens.  And, even though we know we shouldn’t flirt with our under-aged creative writing student and violate the “moral turpitude” clause in our teaching contract, we do it anyway just for the thrills, chills, and excitement.

In my view, we, as a human culture, have become a quieter version of Tyler Durden–the glycerin-manufacturing terrorist of Fight Club.  We are mostly rubber-neckers who get our rocks off by setting train wrecks in motion and then watching everything blow up.

And for those of us who are writers, this trainwrecking often takes a very socially acceptable form and quite personal form called “writer’s block.”

For some, it starts out slowly and morphs into nothing more than inability to write except on deadline.   For others, it gets over-engineered into a massive literary constipation that threatens to tank graduate careers, eliminate jobs, produce personal humiliation, and sever our connection to the one and only thing we truly love to do:  write.

Looking back at my life, it is easy to see the unconscious need that created my own trainwreck of a blockage:  I was bored to tears with everything.  I was bored with my marriage.  I was bored with my cats.  I was bored with my muffin-top mid-section.   And I was certainly bored with my graduate program that had totally failed to live up to my impossibly idealistic notions of what an Ivy League education ought to be:  a kind of great mind sex where great ideas got discussed by great thinkers who drank copious amounts of espresso in wood-paneled rooms with paisley chairs.

It never once occurred to me that English graduate school was a rigorous and competitive job training program with a lot of other smart people who were willing to work way harder than I was at a field where no one, outside of its 2000 specialist-insiders, can understand it.  And, rather than acting like an adult and modifying my massively stupid expectations that didn’t match reality, what did I decide to do to rectify the situation?  I decided to create a little train wreck of writer’s block and watch what happened.

And when that minor blockage wasn’t enough of a fix for me, I upped the dose and became totally, massively, and awesomely blocked.  And the intensely-negative, emotional rewards were rich:  fear, anxiety, depression, panic, anger, disgust, guilt, and every other dark emotion you can dream up.  They kept me dosed-up for years.

It was a gothic delight, and it was far easier than eliminating the cause of my boredom and dealing with the consequences of my addiction–a long path to recovery which has required getting a divorce, finding a new career, and reinventing myself as a lover while my ovaries approach the end of their shelf-life.  But it’s been worth it.

However, lest I create panic in any of my loyal readers who see a shred of themselves in my story and fear that they, too, will need to do a massive life-overhaul–something like leaving their breadwinners to go forth into the STD-ridden world of Match.com–in order to cure their blockage, I want to assure them that there are plenty of less-drastic steps they can take to begin working with their negative addiction and regain some sense of release with respect to their writing.

Step #1:  Notice when you feel bored but keep writing. This is not as easy as it might appear and is frequently undermined by trips to the refrigerator, object fetishization, errant surfing on the Internet, or begging your partner for sex.

Step #2:  Realize when you are trying to set up a train wreck but don’t do it. Often, the easiest way to do this is to begin noticing other peoples’ train-wreck-inducing behavior–which is frequently appalling and much easier to detect than your own.  Once you have become adept at spotting train-wrecks-at-large, turn your phenomenological gaze back home and notice when you are tempted to “spice” or “juice” things up. This often comes in the form of working too hard, starting new and useless projects, advising your children or friends about the ever-efficient ways in which they could be organizing their lives, or purchasing yet-another black cashmere sweater.  At this point, become a total Reaganite and “Just say no!”

Step #3:  Commit to stopping a runaway train in its tracks. While it’s easiest and best to stymie train wrecks before they begin, much of your rehabilitation will necessitate working with the train wrecks you already have in progress.  These can be a bitch to stop, but it’s important to do so as they have the potential to derail both your life and the lives of those around you.  Therefore, it’s important to commit yourself to detecting the potential for train wreck as early as possible and doing the unthinkable:  throwing yourself in front of the train, refusing to budge, and accepting the fact that you may end up with major tracks on your backside.  If you find yourself on a runaway express, deploy template statements such as these:  “I really do hate to do this, but I am not able to make 500 tea sandwiches by Saturday” or “You know how much I love your mother and have supported her Children’s Project in the past, but my bipolar sister probably would not make a great addition to its board of directors.”

Step #4:  Tap into a support group. After you have begun noticing your own train-wreck-making ability and ferret out the invasiveness of its fractal-like growth throughout most of your adult life, you might be tempted to spiral off the deep end.  Because these revelations can be overwhelming, I encourage you to create a support group of other writers who are willing to do their own train-wrecking observations and provide support to you throughout this process.  This often requires food, wine, and a group gathering at a writer’s home.  (Make sure you DO NOT include any literary critics who have been tenured as they have, in effect, committed themselves to the biggest train wreck of all:  a job in the Humanities.)

Step #5:  Learn to live within a culture of train wrecking and keep writing. As you become sensitive to the train-wrecking way of life, you’ll soon see that the entire history of English literature–and, indeed, every other literature on the planet–is filled with nothing more train-wreck-inducing behavior.  Humbert Humbert, Emma, Romeo & Juliet, the Wife of Bath–they are all train-wreckers par excellence!  And we love them for it!  As far back as you can go, all you’ll ever be able to see again are Adults Behaving Badly and Then Acting Surprised at the Consequences!  As you will have surmised by this point, train wrecks are everywhere and, therefore, not really escapable.  In fact, train wrecks are all around us and, therefore, need to be leveraged if they are to be survived.  The best way to do this is to understand that train wrecks can be a great gift–often in the form of fresh, new material for your latest novel–provided you are not the one handcuffed behind the wheel and begging for Keanu Reeves to come to your rescue.

The Curious Case of the Unblocked Writer

One of the weirder forms of writer’s block I’ve encountered occurs in writers who do not believe themselves to be blocked.

Indeed, these writers often appear to be massively productive, write on a regular schedule, and have loads of high opinions about the quality of their “exciting” work. The problem is:  they often produce tedious piles of crap that no one else wants to read.

As a writing teacher, I see scenarios like this all the time:  a highly confident student who traumatizes his blocked peers by writing an extra ten pages on the history of the solar cell but is later “puzzled” and “stunned” when he earns only a gentleman’s “C” (1).

The trend is even more pronounced in the creative writing classroom where the depressed, yet beglittered, student who likes faeries writes about graphic sex in a community of Smurf-like creatures but fails to understand why her work wasn’t accepted into the school’s literary magazine.  “But, professor, the rapist’s sweater really was a cerrulean blue that exactly matched the crystal-clear, glacial pond to which wisdom still clung by its long, banyanesque roots.”

So why are these otherwise well-intentioned writers so deeply unaware of the emetic-like effect of their writing?  Why is it that they are so quick to point out the Limburger in someone else’s writing and yet totally unable to apply the “sniff test” to their own mountains of verbal diarrhea?

My sense is that, in their overly ambitious quest to produce something great, they have learned to question or distrust their own instincts and, instead, to substitute someone else’s ideas about what’s great. In effect, they have lost their way by caving in to a kind of vile, Junior-High-like thinking that goes like this: if I just do what everybody else wants me to do, everything will be all right and I’ll be popular!  And if I do it to excess, I’ll be really popular!

But, as my uneven reputation at Hillside Junior High can indubitably attest, what we think is cool and what is actually cool are two entirely different things.

Stuck in a hell realm of trying to be too cool, these writers continue to make this same pubescent mis-calculation: they think that other peoples’ beliefs or ideas about the world are actually true.  And, in this case, they think that those beliefs count as manifestations of their own creative insight.

Like the mullet, this mistaken thinking creates a schizophrenic effect: the more the writer tries up-front to write something interesting, the more repulsive and tasteless it becomes in the end.

You see, as readers, we just want the goods–nothing more and nothing less.  And, more importantly, we want the goods with just a modicum of suggestion from the author.  Being the narcissistic souls we all are, we like the idea of “an author” but we don’t really want to occupy all of his or her geeky world in excruciating detail.

We just want him to sketch it out so that we can color the rest in for ourselves. Putting all the goody-two-shoes reasons for reading aside, most of us love to read because we love putting our two cents into something.  And, by reading, we get to build somebody else’s world the way we want it to look–not the way the author intended.  That’s why we always prefer the book over the movie.

And we like the book even more when it’s real and flawed–not perfect, overly decorated, and spectacularly adjectivalized.  So, as much as we all wanted to be Jaclyn Smith growing up, nobody really likes spending her time reading about a smart, sassy character who manages to kick gluteus maximus in burgundy-colored Joan and Davids and a downy-soft, mohair monk’s sweater in Creme Freche from Eileen Fischer (2).

No, we like somebody like ourselves–you know, somebody who spills Starbucks in the crotch of her camel-hair trousers as she’s dashing in to the scheduling meeting where she will have to face Tom and pretend for the next 30 minutes that that little pink “YES!” didn’t show up this morning.

And this kind of character can emerge only if the writer learns how to listen to her own inner voice and not the one that sounds an awful lot like Shauntel Sanders and those other tween fashionistas who suggested that your pink-polka-dot-tie and wide-wale cords “worked well” with the saddle shoes and the green argyle socks (3).

“OK,” you say, “So I need to listen to the voice.  I get it.  But where the fuck is it?”

Don’t worry, it hasn’t gone anywhere.  It’s still right there inside of you. You just probably haven’t listened to it for a while because, the last time you did, it suggested that you eat something other than brownies and posited that Steve–or was it Dylan?–wasn’t worth the 50 ensuing years of Valtrex.

Yeah, that one.  You have to start listening to her.

Now, a lot of really smart and successful people like to jump in at this point and complexify this situation with a whole lot of religious strategery (4).  They will give you very different, high-falutin’ names for that voice:  God, the Divine, Buddha Nature, The Self, Spirit, Being, Nothingness, or, my all-time fave, Supreme Enlightened Consciousness.

Hello! Why don’t we just strap ourselves to the bed and cry out other for another injection of Dilotid to stop the insanity.

My recommendation:  bring it down a notch.  A serious notch.  You don’t need to go all Buddhist and shit to find that voice.  Really.  If you want to hear it, you just have to do one thing:  shut the fuck up.

But a word of warning:  after shutting the fuck up, you have to listen closely and carefully.  It’s not loud.  OK, my voice is not loud. Yours may be entirely different.  Yours may be obnoxiously robust and Pushcart-Prize-ready regardless of whom you blew last night.

But not mine.  Mine is quiet and ephemeral.  Dazzling.  It’s like an exquisitely sensitive butterfly–very beautiful, totally free to fly anywhere, but very easy to squash with one wrong turn of the wheel.  All I need to do is subject it to a hangover or an emotional trainwreck of a good friend who stops by unexpectedly for tea, and it vanishes instantly.

So, here’s my trick:  I try to lead a quieter life and give myself the space to capture what it says immediately–by pen, by iPhone, smokes signals, or what have you.  If I don’t, it just disappears for all time and eternity. And that’s a brutally sad thing.

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(1) Meanwhile, his peers start shopping for black trenches and a copy of Deadly Doses:  A Writer’s Guide to Poisons.

(2) Psst . . . none of the boys really liked that angel anyway.  They wanted the dumb one whose hair looked like it had been mix-mastered with a gallon of Aqua-Net.  And, if I’m being honest, I really didn’t want to be any of the angels.  I wanted to be a fighter pilot like Athena and have sex with Starbuck on the Galactica–circa 1976.

(3) Not that I’m still bitter about that or anything . . .

(4) Yes, this sentence is an ode to our incompetent former president whose most recent bumper-sticker memorialization has thrilled the cockles of my heart, “Like a Rock, Only Dumber!” Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it?

The Positive Side of Writer's Block

Although this feels somewhat blasphemous to say, I think writer’s block was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me as a writer.  I shit you not.

As a former “victim” of writer’s block for nearly a decade, I can now look back, albeit entirely unfondly, at my moment in the trenches–when I spent a disproportionate number of hours each day contemplating hari kari with my university’s dissertation guidelines framed artistically in the crime scene–and see that it was one of the most helpful moments of my life. Seriously.

Hindsight–that hoary, loathsome beast–has coughed up a nugget of insight so unfortunately true that even I, the naughty and unrepentant scrivener, cannot disregard or make light of it.

And what was this precious ejecta?

It was the deeply unpleasant realization that my bout of writer’s block, painful though it was, was really the smallest tip of a much bigger psychological iceberg that threatened to fubar my whole life: the really crippling notion that I wasn’t good enough and that everybody else seemed to intuit this at first glance.   Thus, had I never endured that period of blockage nor learned how to overcome it, I fear that I might still be living for free in my brother’s basement, dating an anorexic bicyclist, and earning my keep as an online instructor for The University of Phoenix.

You see, where other, saner folks seemed to coast through things like menstruation, dating, and graduate school by using their Jimmy Choos and Ray-Bans to compensate, I could never muster enough internal fortitude to ignore my defective genetic packaging and go full-speed ahead in complete denial or ignorance of my true nature.

Unlike my friend Amanda who could look in the mirror, do a small dance step, and pronounce herself, “Hot shit.”  I, the negative narcissist, would look in the same mirror in the same Banana Republic stall and wonder how in the hell I could have gone out of the house that morning with a blackhead so prominently displayed underneath my bangs.

While this level of personal scrutiny and lack of self-esteem could have been written off as “quirky” and “emo” in high school, it became downright awkward and annoying when it later interfered with my ability to say “no” to things like credit card offers, sex with Mormon boys who were “exploring their sexuality,” or wedding proposals.  And it became totally debilitating when I tried to sit down and write a dissertation for one of the world’s most prestigious English Department–knowing, as I did, that every word I penned would inevitably produce hard-and-fast evidence that I was Dagwood Bumstead incarnate.

So, if I were really that fucked up, you’re thinking, how did I ever manage to become unblocked and hack up that great loogey of transformative insight?  Or, at the least, how did I manage to start writing without spending years in a cave in the Himalayas or listening to a small, bespectacled Jewish man talk to me about my father and his effect on my bowel movements? (1)

It was very simple:  I received a  letter from my department informing me that its patience with me had run out and that I had, essentially, two options:  shit or get off the pot.

So, being the deep pragmatist that I am, I decided to shit.  Like Pascal, I made a wager.  I reckoned that it would be way less embarrassing to write a bad dissertation than to, say, write no dissertation whatsoever.  So, I became very stern to my Inner Self-Flagellant and suggested that it didn’t matter how bad, stupid, or otherwise mentally retarded I might be, I still had to finish the dissertation or things would get even worse for the two of us.  I told her she could block me on anything she wished after I had finished the dissertation, but that she had to let me finish that fucking beast no matter what.  If she didn’t, I told her I would stop writing altogether and force her to listen to old recordings of Menudo at gun point.

Surprisingly, this was all the mental laxative my Inner Flagellant needed!  Once I rendered the velvet glove treatment and gave myself permission to write what Anne Lamott calls “a shitty first draft,” my dissertation flowed out of me in nine months (2).

In retrospect, then, it’s easy to see what I hadn’t been able to for nearly a decade:  my writer’s “block” was never really a block about writing.  That is, I wasn’t poised with pen above paper suffering from some invidious neurological virus that manifested as an inability to transmogrify thought into linguistic signification (3).  On the contrary, I could write up a storm about anything and everything–just not the 150-page document that held the very nads of my professional life in its Gollum-like fingers (4).No, my writer’s block was about me blocking myself–nothing more.  And I succeeded in blocking myself by becoming a victim to my own mind and its belligerent mental states.  While I could have just sat down and written the damn thing, I chose, instead, to listen and, ultimately, become addicted to the scenarios–apocalyptic, sexual, or otherwise–that my mind would repeatedly play out for me over and over again (5)

And I think this may actually be quite common for those of us with a literary bent because, being the sensitive and intelligent children we were, we naturally had to turn inward to the more satisfying landscapes of our minds in order to drown out the cicada-like musings of our less interesting peers who, as I far as I could tell, learned mathematics only when it became necessary to further their interest in the lucrative booger trade in third grade or of our parental units who, inevitably, failed to understand why vacuuming the brown shag carpet in the basement wasn’t, necessarily, an edifying task.  And, as we turned older, this phenomenological tendency became even more greatly rewarded if we majored in English–the magical kingdom of mental perversion–or, perhaps, worked for an instructional design firm that housed us in a gray cubicle of death designed by Hermann Miller and asked us to write content for an e-learning program on sexual harassment.

Given the inanity of the post-postmodern world and the increasing difficulty of acquiring tablets of Oxycodone in a legal manner, the option of mentally tuning in, turning on, and dropping daydreams often can appear to be the only way to survive respectably.  However, with repeated use, this mental impulse can concretize over time and even get catalyzed into a greater level of addiction by certain unfortunate experiences involving short male bosses, Asperberger’s-like spouses, or certain unpleasant professors who shall remain nameless (6). Then, this once-nurturing tendency places brilliant and talented writers at risk because our minds–like those young, blonde devils urging the vulnerable children to jump off the bridge to find mummy–may not, ultimately, have our best interests at heart.

So, I think it important for the community of the blocked to begin to question the veracity of at least some of the mental states, notions, and ideas that creep in underneath our radar and, like a bad dose of Glenn Beck, keep speaking way past the time when they should have been institutionalized.  In the end, all it took for me to end my self-imposed writer’s block was to stand up to my own mind and call “bullshit” on it.   Once I looked past my own self-created “dead end” sign, I saw a much bigger horizon in which I could write and operate freely.

——————————–

(1) To be fair, my Zen teacher is both German and Jewish, but he is more Jungian in his approach and more rectangular in his choice of eyewear.

(2) This is true, and I am, somewhat comically, still working off the dissertation “bump” that came along with it.

(3)For the time being, I am leaving aside the question of both Wimsatt and Beardsley’s critique of intentionalism and the whole post-structuralist schtick on linguistic signification because, frankly, they’re annoying and probably responsible for at least half of my moronically constipating mental states.

(4) I was especially good at writing expletive-laced emails to my soon-to-be-ex husband detailing exactly how fucked-up we were and what I thought he needed to do about it.

(5) And let me assure I could concoct some doozies.  While I seemed to specialize in my own personal sado-masochism when it came to my academic life, I could transmute that nastiness into a luscious full-scale porn show involving certain bartenders whose physiognomy seemed delightful and now, sadly, seems rather skinny and unshaven.

(6) OK. If you must know, it begins with a “P” and ends with an “N.”