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.

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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 . . .

The Myth of Genius

You are in the midst of writing an edgy, gripping blog about writer’s block that is sure to be a critical success—really, David Remnik is on the verge of calling you to pinch hit at any moment now.

But you start teaching a course about writer’s block at a prestigious university and paralysis sets in (1). Not the minor kind of procrastination that you can cover up with any number of real-sounding excuses like, “I got hit by a pile of grading” or “I’m feeling guilty because I binged on Murakami over the weekend.” But, rather, the kind that grinds your life down to a total fucking halt.

The kind where you suddenly know all the QVC hostesses by name because of your Starbuck’s-fueled insomnia.  Where you start sobbing in Staples because you can’t find the perfect shredder.  Where you research the largest possible dose of Prozac you can take without unintentionally committing suicide.

Even though this emo behavior was once acceptable—nay, fashionable even—when you were a grad student living on $500 a month and trying to cough up a boring dissertation that no one would ever read, it’s now deeply problematic because, as a self-proclaimed expert of unblockage, you realize that you have, once again, fallen for your own masturbatory fantasies of failure.

And, like the Biggest Fattest Loser falsely minted with a anorexic’s zeal, you never imagined that that 400 lb. block of performance anxiety could re-insert itself back into that same section of your duodenum.  But it just did.

And short of calling on a few deities you don’t believe in or, god forbid, reading a few writer’s magazines “for inspiration,” what do you do?  I mean, it’s one thing to offer condescending advice to the community of the blocked, but what do you actually do if you, the formerly unblocked, find yourself back in the community of the blocked and, it would appear, running for class president?

The one and only possible answer:  you write. (2)

Yes, that’s right:  you write.  You don’t think about writing.  You write.  And you never allow yourself to think about that famous prick who taught your intro to poetry class and felt your poems were merely “solid.”  Instead, you write.  And you especially never  think about your mother’s response to your first story which began “I’m not sure I would have . . .”

No, you don’t think about any of that.  You don’t think about anything at all.  Instead:  you just write.  That is, you somehow force, coax, persuade, cajole, beguile, or otherwise trick yourself into writing no matter how terrible, inadequate, depressed, demoralized, debilitated, or hung over you feel.  And, if need be, you do this by opening up a fresh word processing screen and sullying its clean e-page—replete with Nobel-winning potential if only someone else were writing—with the powerful invective, “I hate…” And then you see what fills itself in as you step aside.

In other words, you let the writing write itself.  Then the next day, you do the same thing.  You become merciless toward that Inner Editor, with his comma fetish, who has somehow managed to hijack the ship.  Day after day, you continue to take a big writing shit in his anal-retentive sandbox until the stink wears him down and he quits.

Then, magically, your Inner Writer—that patchouli-smelling hippie who likes to screw well-acned mathematicians rather than future CEOs and who likes to embarrass you by not wearing a bra—gets sprung from jail.  And then she tells you all about the fabulously messed-up shit that was going on in your psyche that she plans on using as the basis for her next book.

Just fuck the muse!

Your Inner Hippie will help you discover something liberating:  you do not need to be a genius to write.  You just need to be screwed up enough to have lots of juicy stuff rolling around your psyche.   And, as far as I can tell, that’s everyone’s birthright.  So, in fact, you can be a plain old dumb fuck and and your hippie will still be able to write.

This liberating fact also means that you don’t need to wait for the muse—that fickle little brown noser who only seems to drop in on real writers like William Blake or Emily Dickinson.   As your Inner Hippie will tell you, you can just fuck the muse!  You don’t need any ‘help’ or ‘inspiration’ from that stupid-ass little smurfette!  You’re plenty screwed up, so she has reams of material to work with already.  You just need to take a chill pill and let her sit down and write.  Really, she’ll tell you,  “It isn’t about you anymore. You are just along for the ride.” (4) And, if you start to get blocked again, she’ll remind you that you need to stop embracing that Inner Sade because, as much as she gets excited by that “Guilty Slut” paddle you bought last summer, she prefers you would use it on someone else’s ass besides your own.
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(1) Really, it’s the kind of place where even the kids who rode the short bus got Mellon Fellowships.

(2) Yes, as it turns out, those well-wishing philistines from my debut post—the ones who, with all the sensitivity of a fart ripped out loud during chapel, can’t possibly understand why you don’t know that the obvious solution to writer’s block is to “just write”—are, unfortunately, right.

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.

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(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.
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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.