Writer’s Block

May 18, 2009 § 5 Comments

I haven’t written anything in weeks. For awhile there, the writing was a daily ritual, and missing a day left me feeling like I’d done something dreadful: forgotten the baby in the shopping cart, or neglected to feed the dog, or change my undies. It was as regular as breathing.

Then I missed a day. Or two. Or three. Nothing awful happened. Occasionally kind people rang up and said, “Where are your stories?” It was nice to know they cared. I wrote some more. Then I went on a trip most of the way across the country. I packed the laptop, thought I’d carve out time for myself to scratch out a few thousand words each day. Who was I kidding? I wrote not a thing.

One of the worst fights I ever had with my father was ostensibly about writer’s block. We were sitting in a wonderful restaurant (now gone) in Livingston, Montana. It was the former Bucket of Blood Saloon that had been carefully and lovingly made over into an establishment of the highest order by the esteemed writer and painter Russell Chatham.

It was my favorite restaurant ever, anywhere. It was a folded linen napkin sort of place, but not stuffy. This piece is not about the restaurant, though. I am wandering. My father, an English professor, was in town for a visit, and we’d gone to the Bar and Grille and had a wonderful dinner: carpaccio, salad caprese, roast duck and a really good Cabernet, or two. 

He is telling us that he thinks my 6-year-old son should take lessons in the martial arts. My husband and I look at each other and smile a bit. This is a topic we’ve discussed.

“Well,” say I, “we’ve talked about it but we think it would just give Julian an excuse to kick people.”  My father, out of the blue, quietly explodes in front of us.

“Well, it would give him some self-discipline,” he hisses. “Something you never had.”

It wouldn’t have surprised me more if he’d reached across the table and slapped me. In those days I wrote copiously for a local weekly, turning out all manner of stuff from investigative reports on murders to groundbreaking ceremonies for new bank branches, a survey of Thanksgiving traditions to the nitty gritty of the police blotter, with book reviews and a personal column thrown in for good measure.

“I write more than 5000 words a week for publication,” I tell my father, tears welling in my eyes. “That takes a little self-discipline.”

“I want some respect!” he roars back. And so I get up and walk out, trying to get out the door before I start sobbing.

It was my mother who unraveled the mystery for me. She understood that I was defending myself with my declaration of  weekly achievement. She also saw that my father, from whom she was long divorced, saw my statement as a dig. “He has a hard time finishing anything—articles, essays, the Berryman book,” she said. “He thought you were throwing that in his face.”

My father is gone now. We never really discussed what happened in the Livingston Bar and Grille that night, though I did address it once in an email in the last months of his life. I told him that I was just trying to defend myself and that there was no insult, subtle or otherwise, intended for him. He didn’t respond to that, perhaps he didn’t even remember the incident.

But when I was sorting through his office at the University, I saw why he had never finished the book on John Berryman. He began in 1970. Berryman leapt to his death from a Minneapolis bridge in January of 1972; it would have been an ideal time to publish a book about the poet. In Dad’s office there were two filing cabinet drawers filled with material about Berryman: poems analyzed down to their last syllable. I asked Dad, then speechless from laryngeal cancer, what to do with the files. “Pitch them,” he scribbled on a legal pad. I did pitch some of them, but I packed up just as many and carried them home.

They stand in their boxes, not just in homage, but also as a cautionary tale. I, too, fall so easily into the research trap.  The research is fun, the quest for the unknown, the thrill of discovery. I have my own 20-year-old book project in file folders. At some point you have to stop researching and start writing, but by then, you’re so deep into the research that you don’t even know where to start.

But that’s not exactly the kind of block I’ve had lately. You know how it is when you wake up in the morning after strenuous activity the day before and you don’t even really want to move, because you know its going to hurt? It’s more like that. That famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining where Jack Nicholson has typed the same sentence thousands of times onto reams of manuscript paper, that made my heart ache. Not because it was showing that he was losing his mind, or that he was about to become a murderous killer, but because I understood. It is the ultimate spinning of wheels: All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.

It isn’t that I don’t have anything to write about. I have a list of stuff I want to write about, plan to write about. I interviewed a local figure here a few weeks ago—no, it’s at least a month. He’s running for City Council. He’s a fan of my work and I know he’s been wondering where the hell the piece is. But I couldn’t write it. Not in these last weeks, it would have read like it was written with a stubby crayon. I was like a literary drunk, couldn’t put one word in front of the other.

Opening lines come to me in dreams. And closing lines. But I never even open up the word processing application on the printer—the modern equivalent to rolling the paper under the platen of a typewriter. I’ve had no blank sheet to stare at, because I have simply looked away. I’ve played hours of Snood (one of Dad’s favorite pastimes too, as it happened) I list stuff on eBay and track it from hour to hour, minute to minute. I read the news from many different major papers from different corners of the globe. I participate in forums. I wander around the kitchen looking for something to nosh on and then I come back, sit down and log on to Facebook.

Today, a good friend of mine, a writer, a woman with three young daughters who gets up at five in the morning (so she has time to write) told me that she had signed up to Facebook just to keep up with me. I was so ashamed. I know she didn’t mean for me to feel ashamed, but I did. I felt like a fraud. Writer! Feh! Who am I kidding? I am a dabbler, a dilettante, a pretender.

And yet….

When the words come they are like cool water on a tear stained face. The pages fill with word after word that not only march along together in formation, sometimes they dance like Alvin Ailey across the page. Sometimes they lift off like herons rising from the wood. And sometimes they plod along like little tired children, but at least they move. Those are the good hours. Those are the times that I feel light, energetic, even, dare I say it, immortal. This is not to say that the writing is easy. It isn’t. Sometimes you have to wrangle sentences as unruly as broncs and just as dangerous. Sometimes more dangerous. It’s nearly impossible to stop until I’m finished and sometimes the sun has gone down and come up again before the last bit of punctuation hits the page. It’s a weird combination of exhilaration and exhaustion to finish. My poor husband: I’ve woken him up many nights to have him talk me down so that I can sleep.

I don’t think it’s like this for everyone.

It isn’t like this for me every time. The more pedantic pieces don’t consume me so much, but they don’t give so much in return either. Yes, its fun to write about weird McDonald’s commercials, but it’s kind of like eating McDonald’s food, it doesn’t really sustain me. On the other hand, I can no more write every essay from the core of my very being any more than I could survive while bleeding all over the pages, and honestly, who would want to read a steady diet of that?

There’s a funny story about William Faulkner, who before he became a literary lion worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He too suffered from Writer’s Block—spending too many interesting evenings at cocktail parties, screenings, the Brown Derby.  Finally, after a particularly frustrating day trying to write at the studio, he told Howard Hawks that he was having a hard time concentrating and that he was going to go home to write. Hawks said fine, and a few days later he checked in at the hotel to see how Faulkner was coming with the script. “Oh, Mr. Hawks,” the desk clerk said, “Mr. Faulkner checked out on Monday.” He had returned home- to Mississippi- to write.

Maybe that’s my problem. I don’t have a door on my study (a soon to be remedied situation) – and I am more productive late at night when the dogs and cats and child and husband have curled in their respective beds.  The television is silent. But on the other hand I am used to writing in a newspaper office with phones ringing and an offset press running in the next room. I have had private offices, solitude galore, where I did not write a lick.

My friend Rose (not a writer) says I should relax and let it flow and she’s more right than she knows. But it’s easier said than done. On the Internet (oh the wonderful, horrible, fantastic and terrible Internet, waster of time, master of research tools) there are all kinds of helpful people wanting to cure my writer’s block.

Drink coffee. Exercise. Dance. Listen to music. Eat healthy snacks. Yadda yadda yadda. We know all those things, don’t we? I’ve got my coffee cup. I’m listening to the Afro Cuban All Stars, music that can be incredibly conducive to writing, and yet. (Wait, you say, you’re writing this, aren’t you? And yes, but this isn’t really writing. This is like a pianist playing scales or a skater warming up, a painter cleaning brushes. This is the writing you do when you are getting ready to do some writing.) It’s a damn good thing I’m not Scheherazade… a thousand stories indeed, I’d have been dead a month ago.

I know what I have to do, and this is a start. I have to make deadlines for myself and I have to Honor Those Deadlines.  Oh, yes, and that other thing.







And make them dance.


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§ 5 Responses to Writer’s Block

  • David Esrati says:

    It was March 27, 2009 🙂
    Sometimes, words come when they want to.
    And, these danced just fine.

  • Noelle Sullivan says:

    Didn’t mean to embarrass you. You’re a whirlwind, all jig and sweat on a May day. Feel free to sit one out, now and then. We like the show, though….

    • larkinvonalt says:

      No dear, not embarrassed– ashamed. You know I have as much leisure in my life as I choose, and yet I choose to squander so much of it. And I do so often feel like a pretender to the title. I’m not sure if I’m waiting for a thunderbolt from heaven to emblazon “Real Writer” across my forehead or what. It already says “Tell me Your Story” there, so they’ll have to write small. xo

  • Jay says:

    Writers’ Block is rather like the flu. Caused by any one or two or three of innumerable viruses, it strikes each of us differently and is complicated by existing weaknesses.
    I have always worried when you plan a book length project. That seems not to be your forte, any more than it was your father’s. You are, however, a much better writer and less given to over-analysis. Maybe you inherited fewer of his limitations than you choose to think. Books happen one essay, one chapter, one argument at a time. You can do that as well as anyone I know.

  • Merrie says:

    I have artist’s block, and have had for quite a few years now. And to sink my head in the sand about it and other blocks I’ve set up for myself, I read (books written by those who’ve overcome their writer’s block). I suppose all creative souls get blocked sometime, or turn to another creative outlet. I chose not to deal with it…for now anyway. I come up with all sorts of excuses not to create. The cure is — just throw paint around and see what happens — much like putting one word after another…
    See you in a couple of weeks! Love M

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