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.

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(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.”

The Bane of the Personal

One of the worst pieces of advice a writer can ever receive is the age-old adage, “Write what you know.”

Frequently uttered as an exhortation to help a young writer make her work more “interesting” and “real” to her writing teacher or workshop colleagues, this MFA chestnut has, in my opinion, been more successful in debilitating scores of writers than it has in actually helping them.

Why?  Because it suggests that “real writing” must be based in something that is already known and, therefore, safe to the reader—not in something new, interesting, or potentially annoying that accidentally emanates forth from the writer.

Indeed, it suggests that the writer, to be successful, must not create something new but, rather, re-create something old from within the narcissistic aperture of his own self—which is, of course, limited by time, place, means, talent, lack of discipline, and bad DNA.

So, rather than getting the “go ahead” to keep writing about a grueling, but entirely imaginary, escape attempt from an old Soviet prison with an East European hottie who wears boobylicious turtlenecks, the writer is more often encouraged—usually by another writer of middling talent who has yet to sell more than 500 copies of his own indie press book—to plumb his “real” roots in Iowa and reflect upon a particularly poignant moment where his mother fed him a piece of apple pie that flashed him back to a time when his estranged stepsister got whipped for stealing pie by their father (who is, incidentally, lying dead in a field somewhere in Texas right this very minute).

And while I have no doubt that apple pie epiphanies like this happen all the time, I am not at all certain that I ever need to read another one.

In fact, I am quite certain that I could die very happily never having to read another Oprahified tale of the modern dysfunctional family. I mean, we all grew up scarred for life and lacking the love we really needed to be successful.  Get the fuck over it.

In all honesty, I’d rather read deliciously fictionalized accounts of pederasts like Humbert Humbert, king killers like Macbeth, or over-caffeinated chicks with razors for nails who help artificially intelligent entities discover that they are the “stuff” of the universe (1).  And I’m pretty sure none of those writers were writing from what they knew.   At least, I sure as hell hope they weren’t . . .

Really, it makes me shudder to think what the history of literature would have looked like if Bill Shakespeare, MFA, had been writing instead of that lecherous old ass working the curtain at the Avon Theatre.

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,
what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
–Joan Didion

You see, I think the real problem with this type of apple pie advice to “write what you know” is that it turns the writing process—which used to be viewed as a creative art form—into a claustrophobic kind of navel-gazing where the only avenues of innovation left for writers are greater and greater levels of intra-familial perversion or personal narcissism.  That is, it turns creation—an open-ended, exogenous process—into masturbation—an endogenous, closed loop.

And the subtle effect this has across the course of a writer’s lifetime can be soul-killing.  Rather than allowing the writer to tap into that free-flowing, wide universe outside herself, this advice forces her to mine just the limited stretch of her own psyche—often a small, stinky sort of place (2).  And this keeps the writing hobbled or constrained because, in effect, it keeps the writer feeding on herself while, simultaneously, realizing she is pulling from a limited stock of material and having no where else to turn for “inspiration.”

So, while this chestnut might be seem like good advice to give to the young junior who repeatedly turns in orgiastic poems of delight where nymph-like women come, repeatedly, in lustrous waves of ecstasy but never once fart, run out of lube, or get their hair caught in the handcuffs, it can actually create a lot more damage for the writer of talent who, at age 42, has stopped imbibing near-lethal quantities of Almaden Mountain Burgundy from the box and sucking face with other suicidal English majors the night before the big poetry unit is due, but who is still repeating it verbatim in her head every time she sits down to write.
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(1) If you don’t know these, I am going to smack you!  Lolita, Macbeth (duh!), and Neuromancer.

(2) Yes, I am totally contradicting my earlier post espousing that you listen to your Inner Hippie and suggesting that she derives her great power by taking up residence in your same psyche and digging up all kinds of interesting shit.  But, as anyone well-versed in Freud ought to know, the most interesting part of the psyche has always been the Unconscious—a place of massive contradiction.  So, in short, get over it.