The Real Problem with Writing

As a writer, I’ve found that one of the biggest problems I’ve faced is that it’s necessary to actually write. This sounds obvious, but I’ve seen lots of writers–not just me–take a nose-dive in this area.

While we like to talk a lot about writing–the brilliant piece we once wrote, the piece we know we are about to write, or someone else’s not-so-brilliant piece that could only have been vanity published–there seem to be very few of us who can produce pages on a daily basis without killing ourselves in Mocha Latte increments waiting for that evanescent moment of inspiration to hit (1).

Although it’s easy to categorize Stephen King’s output or John Updike’s famous “three pages a day” as miraculous, I don’t think it is. In my own personal experience, I know that I routinely spend more than three pages’ worth of time each day carving out elaborate scenarios about why I can’t write, about why I can’t write right now, and about why I cannot structure the rest of my life in a sane, healthy manner so that I actually would have time to write (2). So the time’s there, I just choose not to use it wisely. But I don’t think I am the only one who does this. Every writer I know has a litany of excuses queued up to explain why she wasn’t on the Booker shortlist this year or why he hasn’t won that first PEN award yet.

And, as a writer, I have to ask, “Why?” Why, instead of hunkering down each morning to work on our beloved prose, are so many of us jet-setting off to the next college destination to read essays written by Forrest Gump and teach adjunct classes at a rate significantly lower than minimum wage (3)? I mean, I know lots of writers like to brag about how they flunked math, but we can’t really be that stupid, can we?

The answer is: yes. We can be that stupid. But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it because we have lots of company in the stupid department. You see, nearly everyone I know is heavily invested in the “let’s not do what we want” way of thinking. The non-writers just do it in the suburbs with a minivan, a rack of man tits, and Bunko parties. In fact, all you need to do is walk outside your average domicile to see a million different examples of people depriving themselves of what they love to do and refusing to be the person they really are inside. Have you witnessed the once-professional woman who loved her job but is now an organic-eco-yuppie supermom who makes all her baby’s food by hand, goes to yoga three days a week, and can barely talk to her husband without baring her teeth? What about the contract postal carrier who purposely bends your Shutterfly envelopes because he can? What about the McDonald’s cashier who can’t be bothered to look you in the face? What about the white-collar dad who has to go into the office on Saturday to “review the figures” rather than sit with his fat wife at the soccer game that their son intentionally tries to lose. Are you seeing a pattern here (4)?

All it takes is one short trip down your own block, and you’ll soon see that your problem with “writing” has nothing whatsoever to do with writing–though it’s immensely popular to think of it as a torture peculiar to those of us afflicted with the bane of literary genius. Really, it has a lot more to do with being human and experiencing our most primal emotion: fear. Fear of what, you ask? Fear of failing at the most important thing: being yourself. It’s a really simple but twisted kind of logic: if you don’t ever let yourself be yourself or do the things you want to do, you can’t be embarrassed or held accountable if you fail (5). But the irony is that, by trying not to fail, you inadvertently end up guaranteeing a total and irrevocable failure that is way worse than, say, the potential embarrassment from the failure of your Polka Dot Emporium or your middling career as a juicy lingerie designer.

So what’s the remedy? You just have to plunge in and be yourself. For writers, that means that you have to write even though society tries to tell you that you’ll never amount to anything more than a cab driver. And, if you are a suburban mom, you take that French class so that you can become an airline attendant on AirFrance and have a romantic interlude with a be-spectacled composer in a black cashmere turtleneck who makes you forget that you previously married a man your mother loved and you only mildly disliked. And if you are a powerful CEO, you realize that it’s OK to build model trains in your basement and go to The Dark Arts Sex Camp every summer for a little pony play.

In short, you let yourself be who you are regardless of what everyone else thinks because life is too short to drink yourself into a margarita-induced coma at a Pampered Chef party or to keep putting that racy sci-fi novel about alien transvestite sex back into the filing cabinet. The brutal reality of the situation is this: whether you enjoy this life or not, you are still going to end up an incontinent old biddy in the Alzheimer’s ward. It’s not like anyone’s getting off this dying train anytime soon. So, you may as well enjoy it while you’ve still got time. And the more you allow yourself to do what you want and the more you can be who you are, the more you’ll realize that you can let other people be who they are and do what they want. And, once you start letting things be, you’ll notice that everything becomes a whole lot more fun–even writing.

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(1) Usually, my moment of inspiration also involves Johnny Depp, a spicy Zinfandel, a ripped set of undies, and a deserted wing of the New York Public Library, but that’s another entry altogether . . .

(2) To be frank, I also spend a lot of time wondering how my walls would look if they were painted a nice celadon color, what I would like to eat for dinner, and how I would respond to Johnny’s invitation to “get to know me in a deeper way.”

(3) I once did the math on my 4/4 teaching gig and discovered that my hourly wage–once you added in prepping, grading, consulting with students, advising, serving on committees, answering emails, and commuting–was approximately $3.35/hour. This was in 2006–not 1976–mind you.

(4) In Utah, where I grew up, it may have been more painfully obvious than in other parts of the country because it grew in multiples of 14 (which means 28 years of dirty diapers), but I have also seen it rampant out here on the East Coast where not being yourself is second in popularity only to pickling your liver with gin and poking an under-age page boy on Capitol Hill.

(5) From the anthropological level, this behavior looks pretty kinky (6). It’s like most of us are content with getting our rocks off on auto-asphyxiating ourselves rather than going in for the actual fuck. But the reality of the situation is this: even though we’re not getting fucked, we’re still getting really fucked in the end.

(6) Which is not to say that there’s anything particularly wrong with kink–especially when it comes in the form of a 6′ 4″ red head sporting a pair of leopard-skin handcuffs . . .

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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.
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(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.