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.”

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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.

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.