The Care and Feeding of a Writer

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[tweetmeme]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.

——————————-

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.”

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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.

———-
(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.

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 . . .

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(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.