Tag Archives: Writers Block

There’s Always One

wrenchToday in the car I was behind a school bus. The kids looked young – maybe 4th graders – probably off to day camp. A bunch of boys were in the back seats. Aren’t they always? These are the kids that want to feel older, cooler. At the stop light one of them peeked around his seat and waved at me. I smiled back and they all started elbowing each other and laughing and pointing to him and who knows what they were saying.

This reminded me of a time when I was in grad school in the 80s and I was walking towards a pack of middle school boys who were murmuring and kind of circling and then one of them pulled away from the group and came walking towards me with a wrench fastened onto his crotch. He was swaggering and thrusting his hips out and the rest of the bunch were laughing and saying things like, Oh man and Holy shit! And when we got close to each other I looked at the kid and without batting an eyelash said, If you ever want to have children you might not want to do that. He look shocked and thrilled and embarrassed and in love. And he swaggered back to his posse and they were grunting and hooting and shuffling around like a herd of buffalo.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time around adolescent boys. I worked in a residential treatment center for emotionally troubled youth ages 12-16. I taught at an all boys high school. I grew up with 3 brothers. Boys individually are completely different than boys in a group. And in a group there is always one kid who will do the ridiculous or stupid or scary thing that all the rest of them may want to do or not want to do or hope no one does.

I wonder about those kids. Do they grow up to be CEOs or bank robbers? Rebels just for kicks? Are they dads with boys just like them? Do they become the ones who make all the social plans? Or do they get tired of being The One. Do they become quiet and drink a lot? Are they just average, rarely noticed, unrecognizable at class reunions?

I know there are girls like this too, but it’s more obvious with boys. I was never The One. But I remember in Middle School a girl who was in a much cooler crowd than me wrote in my autograph book (yes, we had autograph books – why I don’t know – maybe I’m so old the Yearbook hadn’t been invented), you are a blast at sleepovers.

Why in the world would she write that? First, I think I went to one sleepover that she was at and I can’t imagine how I even got invited. And secondly, I was not a risk taker, wore ugly glasses, had old lady pajamas, and never made it up past 11:00. If anything, I was the one trying to fly under the radar. Just smart enough, just funny enough, just enough friends, without being noticed too much. Certainly not The One and not even The Two or The Three.

And that hasn’t changed much. It’s probably why this writing thing is so damn hard. Those of you flying under the radar for a lifetime know what I mean. You have to be The One when you write. And when you publish, you have to come out of hiding (and by this I mean hiding in plain sight as in your day job or family  or common citizen type-stuff) and move your plane right into the line of fire.

This is the struggle – part of it at least. The other part, well that’s just getting my butt in the chair and doing the daily work. Maybe after enough days at it, enough hard work, you just morph into The One. I should try to find out.

Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now
I been feeling it since 1966, now
Might’ve had your fill, but you feel it still
Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now
Let me kick it like it’s 1986, now
Might be over now, but I feel it still
-Portugal the Man

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Babel

blog-1483685851bookThis happens to me now and then. Instead of writers block I get readers block. There are a million beach reading lists out there and I blink at them and don’t know where to start. I read the NY Times Book Review and wonder, who are all these people writing? I look through books on my bookshelf and feel overwhelmed by them. Which ones did I read? Which one should I pick?

When I’m on a roll there’s no stopping me. I am in love with reading and will go through stacks of books. But when I sputter and stall out and find myself circling the bookstore in a daze, well it’s bad.

Maybe I’m trying to tell myself something. Doesn’t our behavior often proceed our cognition? Maybe I’m trying to say, self, you should be writing – you should get your name on one of these books, in one of these book stores, on one of these lists. That would certainly cause paralysis.

You have to work hard at anything you want. You have to pay attention. You have to make mistakes and face rejection and not care about things you might normally care about.

I had to give up alcohol because of my RA meds. I miss it once in awhile when I’m out for dinner or cooking at home, but not enough to really bother me. I had to give up coffee because it gave me horrible heartburn. That was harder, but I drink tea. I manage. I smell good coffee and feel longing and regret and I salivate unconditionally. But I don’t go back. I can manage. I have to give up cheese and ice cream and most dairy because my RA meds sent my cholesterol into orbit. But I can’t do it. I’m eating even more than usual. Out of spite? In fear it will be gone? To give myself a heart attack?

To write I have to give up time and get organized. I have to stop watching stupid TV and looking up recipes and reading Real Simple magazines. I have to feel crappy and stupid facing the blank page day after day. I have to feel worthy of finishing something good, something people will want to read. I have to open up this calcified area inside where I store all the ugly, tender, raw, dangerous memories and feelings.

I guess it’s time to cut the crap and get over whatever it is I have to get over. Do what the doctor says. Put my ass in the chair and write. Stop whining. Start listening. Get reading.

Growing up is hard.

‘Cause I know my weakness, know my voice,
And I’ll believe in grace and choice
And I know perhaps my heart is farce,
But I’ll be born without a mask

Mumford & Sons

 

 

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Decisions Decisions

monkey

Every day there are thousands of decisions to make. Do I pick through these old blueberries for breakfast or get a greasy egg sandwich from Dunkin Donuts? Do I bend down and pick up that ball of dog fur or walk past it again? Do I write to my Congressman or watch reruns of Parks and Recreation? Do I sort through this Mount Washington pile of mail or stuff it in an old shopping bag for later? Should I let my 17 year-old newly licensed daughter take the car tonight to see a movie with her friends -because there is construction around the theater and it might rain and it will definitely get dark and it’s a 10:00 PM movie so I’ll have to stay up way past my bedtime until she gets home and if she’s late it will take at least 2 weeks off my life from the stress and terror.

A lot of decision making is automatic (I just keep walking past that dog fur), and a lot of it seems small but is big (that damn movie), but a lot of it also takes energy and focus and time. And I am not always great with this. I get distracted or I use up all my decision making powers at work so I make poor decisions at home (pizza again for dinner) or none at all (let me just sit on this couch for 20 minutes in a fugue state). You have to decide what to eat and wear and buy and say. You have to decide whether to cook or clean or get an oil change or go for a walk or call a friend. You have to decide how to parent and treat colleagues and support your spouse.

You have to decide whether to write.

Perhaps I could be the person I want to be if I was better at decisions. Perhaps I could take greater risks and do the things that would ultimately, to use a horrid self-help statement, bring me joy. There are multitudes of books on how to do the things I want to do. How to magically change my life by tidying up or create 7 habits for myself to be highly successful or dare greatly or rise strongly or master self-love. How to write a novel in 90 days or loose weight, gain more energy and never diet again, or have pain free posture, or do the ultimate memory exercises to keep my brain from crapping out. But these books aren’t magic. You have to decide to do the things they talk about. You can’t take action until you decide to take action. You can’t change until you – uhg – decide.

And thus the rub. How do I get better at deciding? I’ve had a lot of therapy and that hasn’t worked. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions and didn’t learn enough from them to make me a better decider. I’ve certainly aged a lot, and that doesn’t seem to be helping.

There’s a tiny voice inside me that’s reacting to all of this as I’m writing it. A whisper of a voice I can barely hear. She’s saying, you have to be worthy. You have to feel you are worthy of these decisions.

And I must be listening to her today because I’m writing. But if this is going to last she’s going to have to speak up. Shout even. And then I have to decide to listen.

I am learning a little—never to be sure—
To be positive only with what is past,
And to peer sometimes at the things to come
As a wanderer treading the night
When the mazy stars neither point nor beckon,
And of all the roads, no road is sure.
Carl Sandburg

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And It Stoned Me To My Soul

writer

Today I have a day off and I want to write.

So I emptied and loaded the dishwasher, watched 2 cooking shows, finished the last chapter of Trans Atlantic, looked up recipes for vegan caesar salad dressing which led to trying to find recipes for inspiring lentil casseroles (an oxymoron?), which took me to to a bookcase near the CDs and I wonder how did Van Morrison wind up next to the High School Musical soundtrack? Now I’m thinking about picking up a pair of winter pants that have been at the dry cleaners since January and taking 2 epic fail bras back to the store or buying some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

I’ve been wanting to start a puzzle and I need to find some paperwork for my Flexible Spending Account and I have a couple loads of dirty clothes that are going to solidify into the shape of the laundry basket if I don’t do them soon. Plus, the dogs haven’t barked in over an hour so I should probably put a mirror in front of their muzzles to make sure it fogs up. Or maybe I’ll get lucky and a telemarketer will call.

It’s brutal. The blank page.

Divine inspiration is scarce.  And no matter what they say, just showing up is not 80% of the work. Because you can show up and just stare at that white empty space and feel like you’re going to choke on the saliva that’s turning to dust in your throat. Or you can pull up an old half-started manuscript and watch the words start to cyclone into something indecipherable and you know you are faking this as clearly and truly as you know you will never sky dive or eat a bug. You will be voted off the island before you even get there.

And then after a lot of angst and decay of the soul you just write something. Even if it sucks. Even it it’s offensive or a lie or barely makes sense. You just stop snarling and spitting into the wind and put your gory beat up self out there. It’s not pretty. It’s not as satisfying as Ben & Jerry’s. But it plugs up a hole or two. It makes the day feel like it’s your day. And then you can listen to Van Morrison with a clear heart.

And I shall watch the ferry-boats
And they’ll get high
On a bluer ocean
Against tomorrow’s sky
And I will never grow so old again
-Van Morrison

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This Old House

Fixer Upper
Today we are having some work done on the house.

If you own a home, you know what a scary sentence this is. Strangers invade, banging, sawing, talking in code about things you know will cost more money. Things start, then stop and you’re not sure why. Music you would never listen to is turned up to cover the sarcasm and  pissing contests that ensue. And you have to ride it out. You are at their mercy. You hold your breath, pray to the gods of renovation that in the end it turns out alright. That your bank account is not completely empty and your house settles back to its old self after all the upheaval and violation.

Today I’m surrounded by all the crap in my coat closet so a construction guy can climb into my attic and put in a vent. It’s amazing how much there is in the coat closet besides coats. That’s the other thing that happens when you start these kind of projects. You uncover more. You find something else you’ve been ignoring that really needs attention. Like the hoarding problem you’ve been hiding in the closet. The stockpile of grocery bags you buy so you don’t use plastic but then forget to bring to the store, so you buy more and forget those. The binoculars you thought you would use to look at birds in your yard. The cans of Spray Starch without their tops next to an underutilized iron. And all the board games from the ghost of Christmas Past.

When you write, it’s like this. You are working on something. You bang and saw and go at it. But it just uncovers something else that’s weak or broken or needs attention. And you don’t want to go there. It’s overwhelming. Why can’t you just put the vent in? Why do you need to clean out the closet too? And then fix the leaky faucets and nail in the step into your TV room so no one breaks their neck and figure out why the light over the basement stairs is flickering on and off like Gus the firefly?

Because it’s never finished. Never, ever.

You just keep at it, until, well I don’t know exactly until when. Because I’ve never finished anything. Nothing’s ready to send out. Nothing’s done, or good enough, or safe. I just keep trying to fix the leaky faucet, or more accurately, stick a bucket underneath and leave it for awhile.

OK, enough of this metaphor. But seriously, what do you do when your writing is an endless fixer upper?

 

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You’re Just My Type

images-5A few days ago my car broke down. It was outside a Starbucks near Brown University. I waited for a tow for an hour and a half. Between calls to the dealership, the tow guy, and the vet (Dog Number 3 had her lady parts removed), there was a lot of good old fashioned people watching.

Does anyone out there do this anymore? I think 95% of the folks who passed by were looking at or talking on their phones. Including the adorable young man wearing faded blue overall shorts, his legs sprouting sun-bleached poodle curls, his hair a white David Bowie cut. Same with the portly Lucius Malfoy look-alike in his black pants/shirt/suit jacket. And the minions of pony-tailed students wearing jogging bras and athletic shorts.

Then there was a woman, probably in her late forties or early fifties, dressed to go out for the evening, little black dress, high heels, thick shoulder length tree-bark colored hair. She was pacing back and forth in front of Starbucks, maybe waiting for a Match.com date, a limo, Lucius Malfoy? And under her arm, where I thought she would be holding a stylish clutch, was a package of Oreo cookies.

The next day I was telling my 15-year-old daughter about this woman and she said, “That’s amazing. I want to be her when I grow up.”

And there it was. With that brief description a full-blown character had leapt forth, real enough to be my daughter’s hero.

Right now the writing is killing me. It’s partly because I have to make stuff happen, like, uh, plot. But more than that, I think it is because my main character is boring the crap out of me. And that’s because I don’t know her well enough. So the other day I started one of those exercise things everyone always says will help but I hate them because I think I should already know this stuff (which I don’t) and it makes me feel like I’m wasting time when I should be writing the actual novel (which I’m not). But I was desperate and so I started a list of things about this character:

X is someone who:

Uses humor to deal with complex feelings

Is a little beaten down by the way she thought life would be vs the way life really is

Too vague, I thought. So this:

X tried a lot of outdoor activities because she wants to be an outdoorsy person – loves to go into REI and look at all the cool clothes, gadgets, tents and hiking boots. But nothing sustains her interest long enough to get good at it and in truth she would rather stay at a nice hotel and take a bath

And then, of course, I realized why this character bores the crap out of me. She IS me.

When you are writing a novel (and it truly is a novel – there is a ghost in it for Pete’s sake and a lot of stuff that never happened to me and people who are completely fictional), but you base a character on a lot of what has happened to you, it is hard to make this person his/her own true self.

How do you get this person to break out of your shell?

Maybe more of these exercises? Maybe you get her to do things you would never do and see what happens? Maybe you make an on-line profile and see who she attracts? Maybe you put a package of Oreos under her arm?

This is really stalling out my writing. I probably need to do more people watching – hang out at Starbucks or Roller Derby or go to a lot of yard sales or interview people who think they are vampires. Any of that, of course, would be better than writing.

Character. I love it. I hate it. Time to get some.

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Ashes to Ashes

dusty houseWow. Look at this shabby old blog. I haven’t been here since December last year. When I tried to get on I got kicked off for using the wrong password. It is dusty and rusty around here, let me tell you. How do you add an image? Why is this font so small?

But the hell with it. Today the spirit moved me. In part because Betsy Lerner published her 1,000th blog post today and is writing a new book. I’m a shameless fan. Would bring her bagels every morning and dust the books in her library and walk her cat for her, but not in a creepy way.

And, I have plunged into a new writing program at Grub Street in Boston called The Novel Generator. I meet weekly with fourteen other lost souls to learn craft, to agonize, to workshop pages, and at the end of a nine month gestation period, to pop out a 360 page draft of a novel.

The instructor, Lisa Borders, must have a tool bag of superpowers (or a thermos of dry martinis) to get her through this undertaking. We are like a box of eager, hungry puppies vying for affection and food. Take me, adopt, me, listen to me, read me, love me. And yet we are warm and affable and so damn sincere and cute. We want to please and do this writing thing and be good at it. We can barely contain ourselves with nerves and insecurity and happiness. Thank God I have landed there because I have been in the desert for ages. Believe me, I am choking on sand trying to write around here. Even the computer is like, girl, you think you can just come back and type up on me?

I have no idea if anyone will read this thing – if it will show up again in your email or RSS feed or on Instagram or in some X-ray. But I think it is time. Writing winds are blowing. Shit is stirring up. Just a quick warning. Some of it may land on you.

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