Are You Stuck at Start?

Check out the one simple thing William Gibson does to get his ideas rolling . . .

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–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 Dangers of the Imagination

Although responsible for most of humanity’s greatest ideas, the imagination can actually be one of the most destructive forces in a writer if left unchecked. C’est de la merde, you suggest? Mais, c’est vrai.

Consider the following case study:  a tender young writer—lost in grad school limbo—is forced to choose between writing another piece of her amorphous dissertation, arguing with her alcoholic partner who last spoke to her three days ago, or sitting at her desk soaked in an endorphin rush and letting her imagination run wild about the fabulously hot New Zealander who began guest lecturing on fuzzy logic in her artificial intelligence class (1). Which option do you think she will choose?

And, having once chosen a juicy imaginary tryst over the grittier reality of the dissertation, what’s to prevent her from choosing it over and over again unless her situation as a whole changes?  Flash forward several weeks:   the daydreams have become less titillating and the hottie professor with his even hottier girlfriend have gone on an extended hottie sabbatical together.  The result:  our little writer is utterly dejected.  And, when she casts a more critical eye toward her work habits and realizes that she has been left with nary a page to show for her imaginative wanderings, she reaches for the Prozac.  Sound familiar?

Of course, you may cavil that it’s completely unfair of me to suggest that the writer’s bout of depression is her fault.  But it did feel a bit like déjà vu, right?  You may also cavil that it’s totally stupid of me to equate “sexual daydreams” with “the imagination” since the imagination has, after all, bequeathed us such great works as Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” the pyramids at Giza, and, more recently, The Hangover (2). However, I would retort that most people’s imaginative prowess falls far short of that of a Blake or a Goethe and, instead, more closely resembles their cousin Dougie from West Virginia, who often shows up to the party uninvited and with two fewer teeth than last time.

Why?  Because instead of letting the imagination have free roam, most people try to push it in a closet and repress it.  Again, why?  Fear.  Fear of what it might show them about themselves–i.e. that they really are a West Virginia hick–or where it might lead them–straight to a place that specializes in applying egg to the face.

At heart, I think we all intuitively sense that the imagination is a deeply universal and impersonal force that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the people it uses to channel its vision.  Indeed, the imagination only cares about expressing itself.  And it can be a rough, albeit totally interesting, ride for those who willingly choose to become its fountain pens.  So, while we can certainly gush over Coleridge’s cushy gig with respect to the imagination—after all, he got to smoke opium, hang around really cool people, and write one of the most famous poems of all time—most of us worry that, when the imagination calls, it will ask us to trade in our Honda Civic to go live with a fat hippie on a pot farm in Marin County where we will get arrested within six months and never manage to publish a word.

Don’t get me wrong:  we all have an infinite capacity to experience the imagination.  However, most of us just choose to use it so that we stay stuck at the Judge Judy level of life rather than becoming the next Nabokov or Picasso.  Personally, I know I have clocked countless hours flirting with Jon Stewart over my imaginary bestseller, making an imaginary guest appearance on Oprah’s now-defunct Book Club, and building a dream house on the Sonoma Coast with all my imaginary royalties instead of putting all that imaginative energy to use penning my brilliant TV series (3).

And these fanciful meanderings don’t even include the time I’ve wasted indulging in more of the dreary, negative versions of the imagination that look and feel real:  tallying up the list of household chores that I simply must do before I sit down to write, worrying about how to pay off my rapidly escalating AMEX Blue Card, and exploring what the end of the Mayan calendar might mean to me personally.

Thus, rather than using my imagination to produce your average Western Civ Blockbuster, I mostly seem to use my imagination to create an engrossing Reality TV program called “Extreme Self Makeover.” Instead of soaring the heights with Blake et. al., I use my imagination to claustrophobically upgrade my own personal situation because most days I don’t really like who I am or where I am at in my life.  I use it like a crutch to make life better (or, perversely, worse) rather than use it to create an innovative product from a life well-lived.  And, I suspect this is true for others.

But, as an artist, this is truly debilitating because, if I want to say anything real at all, I have to be able to look reality squarely in the face and record what I see–not what I want to see.  If my source of inspiration is my own narcissistic drama and I can only look at the world with my own version of Blake’s “mind-forged manacles,” I will only be capable of creating something that I am interested in, something static–not something that will help others see differently.

However, on those rare days when I can actually manage to turn the TV show off, I start to notice that the imagination that’s all around me–the twisted elm on my street, the muddled student essay in front of me, or the triple-installment poop that my dog needs to make in front of two lovers who keep trying to kiss and not laugh–is way more interesting than my own personal soap opera.  I also discover quite quickly that I have much more energy to write and that the writing often surprises me.  It lets me know what it wants. And, the things that emanate forth seem more honest, more interesting, more warts-and-all real.

So, for what it’s worth, I’ve learned to stop trying to get my rocks off with my imagination. Instead, I practice just shutting up and listening to it.  Try it.  I’m sure it will be a thin, hot hippie . . .

(1) Really, I couldn’t help myself!  Of course, it helped that he took off his fisherman’s sandals in class, ran his hand through his hair, and inadvertently left a chalk print on his right butt cheek.

(2) This is really a straw man cavil, though, because as anybody who has ever met, known, dated, or lived with a writer will attest, we are the fucking horniest lot of humanity that exists.  And, if a writer were being truly honest, he would freely admit that he hasn’t been stewing over how to incorporate Kant’s noumena into his latest novel for the last two hours so as much as he has been plotting ways to get the bimbo sipping her double-shot to reach over and grab her pen.

(3) Actually, to be fair, she re-opened it just for me because she loved my book, Chasing Tail, so much.

Do You Suffer from Praise-itis?

Unlike traditional writer’s block—well known for its symptoms of hollow eyes, a preference for loose black clothing, and a propensity to alphabetize one’s spice drawer at midnight—many lesser-known forms of writer’s block exist and can unexpectedly wreak havoc in seemingly unblocked, well adjusted writers.

One of the most deleterious forms of blockage is Praise-itis, or the inability to write without an external source of validation.  Frequently mis-diagnosed as the fruit of good parenting, Praise-itis can seemingly come out of nowhere and induce partial writing paralysis or, worse, zombify the writer to such an extent that he or she is capable only of spouting clichés or tired tracts of recycled narcissism.

At its worst, severe Praise-itis can lead to the stoppage of writing altogether with such ersatz activities as marrying, baby making, house buying, navel gazing, remodeling one’s husband, reinventing oneself, cheating with a better-looking sexual partner, attending writing workshops, and “listening to the direction the universe is trying to take you” (1).

Writers, theorists, and scientists have collaborated to classify three distinct strains of this pernicious disease:

  • Dewordicus: a particularly nasty scenario in which a formerly commended writer becomes a brutally neglected or excoriated writer seemingly over night. For example, meet Greil the brilliant child prodigy whose early musings on the culinary applications of the tufera vulgaris thrilled his gastronomically-inclined parents but whose later work shattered Michiko Kakutani’s hopes for the future of the novel.

  • Overticus Rewardicus: a situation where the magnitude of the reward is inversely proportional to the talent of the writer and forces the writer to question whether or not she is worth it. For example, consider the case of a young, burgeoning writer, Amanda, who pens a saccharine, aren’t-we-blonde-and-lucky graduation speech in Provo, receives a $5000 savings bond from her grandparents, and never writes again.
  • Blackholeism: a somewhat rarer variant where a writer of talent produces something interesting that utterly baffles the audience—usually terrified parents or underpaid, Mormon schoolteachers who barely passed English 101. For example, Julie, an extremely precocious and talented writer of twelve, invokes a Joycean muse, parodies her teacher’s Greek gluteous maximus in Petrarchan sonnet form, and the audience remains silent.

Regardless of the form it takes, Praise-itis is an insidious disease that re-wires the writer’s brain to believe, completely erroneously, that the real measure of the writing is the feeling engendered by the praise (or the lack thereof) that someone else renders upon it—i.e. not the actual pleasure that the writer experiences during the writing process itself (2).

Most scientists now believe that writers become susceptible to this faulty mis-wiring when they try to work on projects that they dislike, that are antithetical to their own personalities, or that are pursued in response to someone else’s agenda—most often familial in provenance.

To date, the only cure for Praise-itis is a drug called, Workis Pleasurablis. Workis Pleasurablis works by re-directing the writer toward a project he or she finds intrinsically pleasing and away from the aggravating project.

After many years of double-blind studies in writing programs and graduate English departments around the country, researchers have discovered that the disease seems to go into remission when writers naturally enjoy the projects they are working on and do not attempt to seek greater and greater levels of titillation in external, artificial sources.

And, while the writer is always vulnerable to a flare-up of the disease whenever shit gets to the fan-hitting stage—say, a problematic graduate thesis or a certain obnoxious and puerile client picked up while freelancing—she can, with enough therapy, begin to self-diagnose at a much earlier stage in the process and choose to work only on projects she wants to do.

(1) Personally, I find “listening” to the universe acceptable provided it is telling you to do something interesting like “diddle the hot fuzzy logic philosophy professor from New Zealand” or “sell off all your shit so that you can move to Japan and teach English for $5.00/week.”  Otherwise, it should be ignored because, as far as I can tell, most of the significant communiqués from the great, big oneness that my writer friends have had usually sound a whole lot more like their mothers telling them to go to a bar mitzvah with their married male friend in Cincinnati rather than sounding like an earth-shaking fiat from Atman or Manjushri.
(2) To my mind, this is somewhat akin to the false belief that talking about sex is just as much fun as having it.  And, unless you are sharing the sheets with one or two of my exes, this will never be a true condition. This is not to suggest that talking about sex can’t be fun.  It certainly can be or, in my case, certainly was fun until a certain talker, who shall remain nameless but who can easily be identified by his idiosyncratically small penis, was caught embezzling money from the company we both contracted for and then had to flee the State of Utah before the authorities were called in.  Then, it became problematic.
(3) This appears to be a valid methodology for bad marriages, low libido, and sexual dysfunction as well.

Tactics for Handling Well-Wishers

“Do you know what the cure for writer’s block is? Just sit down and write the damn thing!

For every well-wisher in the world who has offered a version of this statement to a struggling writer, I have to say this on behalf of the community of the blocked, “No shit, Sherlock!”

We all know that there is one and only one “solution” to writer’s block: just write.  It’s kind of up there with big important facts like the earth is round, dogs fart, and Play-Doh doesn’t taste nearly as good as it smells.  And so it always makes me wonder why well-wishers don’t realize that it’s also obvious to everyfuckingone else–most especially, writers?  At this point in history, it’s just an existential redundancy that blocked writers, though they know very well the solution for blockage, cannot, for whatever set of reasons, force themselves to take the cure. (1)

As I have discovered in my long tenure as a writer with blockage, there’s nothing quite like sufficient money, free time, or the most well-intended complisults (2) of those around you to turn what ought to be a gushing well of creativity into a Prozac-resistant zone of nothingness. Mind you, not the kind of Zen nothingness that has become recently cool but, rather, the kind of sticky black hole that sucks up your entire afternoon because the rich, interior life of a hangnail you discovered while making the morning coffee becomes profoundly more interesting than, say, discovering the name of the main character in the TV series you have been meaning to write for the last 20 months.

To be fair, my sense is that well wishers genuinely believe that they want to care and help the lesser among them succeed. The problem is: they just don’t understand that they are, most likely, the very people who crafted the problematic psychology the writer is fighting against in the first place. So, the well-wishing, while often well intentioned, seems somewhat equivalent to telling Oedipus to just go “kiss and makeup” with his parents.

Short of acquiring new relatives and friends, then, what should a writer with blockage do when faced with this kind of perverse Vincent Peale-ism?

Tactic #1: Don’t respond emotionally. My data on this suggest that going red in the face and proffering to load sticks of dynamite into their sensitive anal tissues doesn’t really create enough of a distraction or a sufficient train wreck to derail the conversation. More importantly, this strategy can often backfire and lead to deeper levels of penetrating questioning about the depth, density, and angle of insertion of the blockage. Not a win-win situation for anyone unless you’re an emotional Liberace. Avoid this tactic this at all costs.

Tactic #2:  Don’t apologize. This is a particular favorite of Utah writers who are working in academia. To quote my grandma, it’s a “doozy” if actually used because, as my past experience again shows, this merely reifies a certain righteousness in the well-wishers that can, over lengthy periods of time, become large karmic obstacles they will need to remove later. Really, you’re doing them a favor by not doing this.

Tactic #3: Learn to deflect or re-direct. Try offering a counter-intuitive statement that returns the force of the well-wishing back to the well-wisher in terms he or she understands. (See the sample dialogue below.)

The Well-Wisher: “Gee, Julie, how’s your dissertation going?”

Julie: “Good. You know, mostly good. How did Natalie’s pregnancy test turn out? She’s a sophomore, right?”

Tactic #4:  Make up egregious lies. I’ve discovered that no one ever really knows or, actually, cares a whit about what you are writing except you. Mostly, the well-wishing often functions as a kind of bland social nicety delivered by people who ask you about your disability so they don’t have to remember anything important about you or, worse, as a ruse to load you with their recent successes. So, feel free to do some shameless self-promotion and invent wildly about the awesome new directions your work is taking. Use ISO-9001-certified words like “creativity,” “innovation,” and “guerrilla.” The worst it could do is create an unfounded reputation for your greatness in the local community that might help out in a pinch when one of your students catches you in the local grocery store dithering over spending your last $10 on the KY Intrigue or the Kotex Overnight Maxis with Wings.

Tactic #5:  Use guilt to wrangle a free dinner. To any well-wisher who asks, “How are you doing? I hear the project’s not going well.” Just answer, “You’re right. I’m not doing really well. I’ve been having some really dark thoughts lately, and I could really use a shoulder to cry on. Can I come over around 6 p.m. tonight? Remember, I can’t stand Riesling.”

I’ve deployed these tactics for close to a decade now with great success, but, to go all Carolyn Hax on you and point the finger back home, the best tactic is probably just realizing that you are allowing the well-wishers to bug you.  And, if you could stop that, your problem is solved.  If you figure out how to do that, however, I would appreciate a ‘cc on that memo.

(1) Of course, it would help if the cure were easier and, say, involved just a little red wine, a mask, and a safe word.

(2) A complisult, in case you don’t know, is an insult masquerading as a compliment and, most often, delivered with a concomitant smilefrown, the emotional signature of Utah housewives who, while tarrying about under the subtle effects of Valium, cannot muster sufficient energy to fully repress their hatred for you in a socially acceptable way and, therefore, end up producing a mutant hybrid of expression that has a Medusa-like effect on its viewer.