Tag Archives: writer’s block

A Spring Thaw (Okay it’s not Spring yet but it feels like it shut up)


I have devised a method for a budding author to stop himself cold, lose all momentum, and give up the thing he loves over the course of just a few months. To freeze his writer’s soul in ice like a caveman out for his morning wee, caught in a blizzard and entombed until the 90s.

Actual image of me

Evidence? Not only have I ground to a halt on the novel(s), but I’ve run out of steam on the blarg too. For that matter, I’ve barely given a thought to myself as a storyteller in that time. And it’s all — probably — or at least partially — well, fine, there may be many reasons, but a not-insignificant one is — that over the last year or so, I went and did a dumb thing.

I learned too much.

It started when I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing and a lovely little tome called Wonderbook. Enjoying those, and thinking I was really doing myself some favors, I added a bunch of other reads about character arcs and storytelling generally and characters and motivations and basically anything else you could think of. Great stuff, really. Hard to over-recommend On Writing and Wonderbook especially.

Add to that a heavy dose of writing podcasts, chock full of helpful tidbits and discussions about all the hidden gems tucked away in the dark crevices of the literary caves. (Writing Excuses is my perennial favorite.)

Sprinkle with a series of savvy, snarky and OTHERWISE youtube channels dedicated to dissecting masterworks of film and literature and illuminating how they get it right and wrong.

Then, top with a really crushing sense of inadequacy.

This step is crucial, and it can’t be overlooked. It helps that I had a natural tendency to doubt myself to begin with, but I imagine it would work for anybody. All you have to do is read a lot of excellent books by excellent authors and allow it to sink in that the odds are you will never be as prolific or successful as them. It’s simple math, really. It can’t work for everybody who tries it — it can’t even work for most people who try it — it probably won’t even work for a quarter of the people who try it. (“Work”, here, is subjective, but let’s be broad and say that it means writing books — or for that matter, creating any sort of art — that’s well received and financially worthwhile.)

This is the feeling, that “how is it even possible” sense one gets from standing at the foot of a gargantuan skyscraper, looking up toward where its apex stretches into the seemingly endless sky. Or the mind-shattering smallness you come by while staring up at the multitude of stars in the heavens on a clear night.

Too much looking up, too much contemplation, too much analysis.

Yoda always knows.

The end result of all this is that I’ve felt like writing — creating — is something I just can’t do, or at least can’t do well. And because I can’t do it, I shouldn’t do it. And because I shouldn’t do it, I don’t do it. (I’m nothing if not a follower of rules, after all, even — if not especially — when the rules in question come from the authorial seat of dubious legitimacy, i.e., my own particular brand of non-expertise.)

Which has meant a creative drought quickly turning to desert. Even the cacti are withering up or folding in the doldrums. (Okay, yes, doldrums are a sea phenomenon while cacti are decidedly not, but whatever, it rhymed.)

And, then, it’s comforting not trying to write everyday. Certainly it’s easy. Leaves more time in the day for other things that aren’t as taxing, aren’t as stressful. Like disappearing down a video game hole for a month or two. Or endlessly hate-watching the news.

But it also feels empty. Like I should be doing something and I’m just stubbornly not doing it, like a kindergartner refusing to eat her vegetables. Except that analogy doesn’t work, because the kid doesn’t innately want to eat vegetables; the kid wants to eat grilled cheese and pizza and french fries at every meal. So it’s more like a kid refusing to eat pizza because she’s not the best pizza eater in the world, as if pizza eating were a thing that could be done well or poorly (the only way to eat pizza wrong, and this is scientific, is to NOT eat it until you’re sick). A dereliction of duty, if only to myself. A failure of the natural order.

I feel better when I write. It cleans out the mental pathways like running a Neti-Pot through your sinuses. It gives that sense of accomplishment, like waking up early and doing the dishes before your wife is awake so she doesn’t have to worry about Tuesday’s lasagna turning to red, craggy concrete in the pan.

And then, also additionally too, I look back at the catalog of this site and the stories I’ve written and the novels I’ve finished and partially finished, and dammit, I did those things. However inexpertly and imperfectly, I did them, and surely I was less expert when I did them than I am now while I’m not doing them because I’ve read and learned so much. And, if I may say so myself, I don’t think it was all that bad. So who am I to tell myself I can’t or shouldn’t spend my time doing these things,that I don’t deserve them, that they are a waste of my time?

I reached for a pen this morning while sitting in my classroom waiting for my students to arrive and all this came pouring out. Like the evil flowing out your other nostril as you inhale the witches’ brew in your Neti-Pot.


(Who’s creepily obsessed with Neti-Pots? Not me. Nope. Thanks for that horrific image, The Onion.)

Which means, at the very least, that there’s still something like a drive to create stowed down in the depths of my whatever, somewhere.

I mean, it’s February after all, and we’re already getting seventy-degree days here outside Atlanta. Maybe a spring thaw is on order.

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It’s Like This


It’s like this.

I have this jacket.

It’s a lovely jacket. Feels good on me, looks good on. Dapper, sharp, all the good things. I feel comfortable in it. More myself, maybe. I try it on and I like it so much I start wearing it all the time.

Til it happens; I get this spot on the jacket. Not sure what the spot is. It’s orangish, brownish, reddish, blackish. Just a spot, but one I can’t ignore. Given all the things I’m into, it could be poop. Or dirt. Or blood. Or just a slimy speck of something that may once have been, but is definitely no longer, food.

And well, it’s in this really conspicuous spot. Very, very obvious to anybody looking in my general direction. Like a tiny martian on my sleeve singing Glory Hallelujah at the top of its little green lungs.And I don’t have a way to clean it. I first try to fold up my arms just so, which works to cover it, but I can’t keep my arms crossed forever, not to mention I look like a standoffish SOB. And I assure myself (because it’s true, and this I know inwardly even if I have to convince my lizard brain) that nobody will actually notice it if I do uncross my arms, it being tiny and inconsequential and all.

So I uncross, and nope, it’s there, and there’s absolutely no denying it’s there. I rub and pick at it in a futile attempt to clean it, but it’s well and truly sunk into the fiber like blood into a shag carpet. Also I’m drawing even more attention to it with all the rubbing and picking, so it’s time to take it off. Into the corner it goes, fhthump.

Except now, see, there’s a new problem, because the whole outfit I created? This entire look, entire ensemble? It doesn’t work without the jacket. I mean, shirt, pants, shoes, belt — it’s all doing a job, but the jacket was central. And now it’s not only stained, it’s also crumpled up and hoovering dust off the floor. And worse than that, now I feel like a heel because what was a simple stain is compounding thanks to my neglect and frustration. And worse than that, this is all just ridiculous. This is all because of a stain. A tiny one. A pinprick of an imperfection. A rounding error compared to the jacket as a whole. Honestly, it’s probably not even visible if you didn’t already know it was there.

But there’s the rub, innit? I see the speck. And the wrinkles. And now, the dust. And how long has that speck been there, anyway? For that matter, is the color of this jacket really as bright as I thought it was to begin with? Does it even tie the outfit together like I thought? Maybe the thing looked terrible all around and I didn’t know it. Chroist, probably it’s just as well the jacket got ruined. Now it looks outwardly like crap, to go with the fact that it was always crap from the get-go.

I should probably just chuck it. It’s ruined now anyway. Can’t believe I ever thought I looked good in it, to be honest.

All that?

That’s what my particular flavor of depression looks like … or anxiety or malaise or seasonal affective disorder or whatever the hell it is that’s going on with me. Except substitute for the jacket my job, my role within the family, my creativity, my entire sense of self.

So… um.

I’m taking Lexapro now, so there’s that. Have been for about two weeks.

And I know I’m being a little bit silly. Even a lot silly. And I know that the jacket can be cleaned. And even if it can’t, there are other jackets.

But that stain is still pretty large in my vision right now.


Normality Will Resume


Things I didn’t write about in the past several weeks:

Our vacation. Which was lovely, really, just what the doctor ordered, and not a moment too soon. Lots of ocean, lots of beaches, lots of pools, and hardly any sunburn. What more could you ask?

My daughter’s horrible Mondays. She can be a delight, she really can, but of late, every Monday is a nightmare. It’s like the weekend causes her to forget entirely the concept of school and that it’s a thing she has to do, so when we’re getting her ready to go on a Monday morning it’s like explaining death to her again and again and again. (We haven’t yet had to explain death to either of our children, but I’m sure it will not be fun.) Inconsolable.

Book Reviews. I’ve read some doozies. The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins — practically an atheist bible. Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss — a treatise on negotiation from the boardroom to your child’s bedroom. Fascinating stuff that I’ve already used in my work life. How I Killed Pluto (and why it had it coming) by Mike Brown — a surprisingly whimsical look at planetary astronomy and the practical realities of language. Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk — one of my top five movies, but a book I had not, until recently, read. I had heard that the movie was vastly different from the book, but that wasn’t my experience; in fact, I’ll go as far as to say this is one of those rare cases where the movie may in fact be better than the book. And the last chapter was just bizarre. And most recently, Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig — more on this later, as I actually do plan to write about that one.

My car, and how it’s slowly turning back into a pumpkin.

My novel, which — was I even working on a novel? I’d forgotten.

The weather, which is finally turning. My favorite season is upon me, and it seems I can hardly enjoy it.

Running, which is as good (and as good to me) as ever, but I can’t seem to make myself want to do it.

Podcasts, and how I can’t stop listening to them. (The new season of Serial is in progress, and it’s gold. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is always required listening and remains a source of inspiration and curiosity. Revisionist History always surprises me by forcing me to take a fierce interest in the strangest topics for the duration of the episode. And, ’bout freakin’ time, a new season of Limetown is coming down the pike.)

Our cat, and how he stalks me through the house every morning like he thinks I’m about to drop a bucket of treats on his head, even though I hate him the most at these times and would never present him with a single treat, let alone a bucket.

Work, and how it’s simultaneously very fulfilling and more stressful than ever.

And, I dunno, dozens of other topics, at least.

These are all things which it occurred to me to write about, which I thought I ought to write about, which I even wanted to write about. But which I did not write about.

At all. Not here, not on paper, not in my head. I didn’t write the first word about any of these things. What I did instead was stew, and hide, and think about other things, and, in some less dignified moments, panic. Because for all the bootstrapping and “just do it”ing I tend to advocate, I just haven’t been able to make myself do it. Like there’s a missed connection in my head, faulty wiring that — when the switch is thrown — fails to respond. And it’s not a catastrophic, movie-style failure with smoke and explosions and collapsing infrastructure; no, it’s just a quiet, dead click. Static on the airwaves. Snow on the screen.

Most frustrating is that I don’t know what to make of it, because — while this sensation has struck me before — usually I get this for a day or so at a time. But I’m going on several weeks, now, of this wrongness, this ennui, this feeling of inadequacy and dread. My wife keeps asking me what’s wrong, which troubles me as much as the feeling itself. I’m the tough one, the resilient one, the one who never needs help. But here I am, dragging myself through my days, plagued with a silent refrain of “not good enough” in my head.

I always end these posts with a chipper “normality will resume.” And I’m hoping that’s the case.

This can’t be the new normal.


Metaphor Monday: The Snow Field


Our little suburb of Atlanta took on more snow than just about any other part of Georgia this weekend, so we were treated to several days of the white stuff. As a guy who has lived in the South for all his life, this is a treat: we don’t see snow very often, and when we do, it’s usually either a sad little dusting on your grill and the top of your car, or a slushy, icy slurry that freezes roads and locks up traffic for days. But this was the real thing. A bona-fide blanket.

Driving around the neighborhood, we saw a picture-perfect scene, right out of the Christmas movies of your childhood. Entire blocks awash in white, roofs radiantly shining under a brilliant blue sky. Fields sprawling under a soft, silent cover. Treetops bowed and glowing, crowned with frost. A true winter wonderland. Perfect in its completeness, perfect in its simplicity, perfect in its total transformation of the city.

It was so perfect, in fact, that we almost hated to disrupt it — but disrupt it we must. We have kids, after all, and they weren’t about to let such an event slide by without the requisite snowball fights and snowmen and snow angels and the fuzzy blankets and flannel pajamas afterward. And of course we had to move on with daily life, too. The trash must be taken out. The roads must be braved for an emergency trip to the grocery store. And yes, the dog still has to go out (watching her do a dance while neck-deep in snow was beyond satisfying.) So, within very little time at all, our beautiful, snow-blanketed yard became pretty disgusting. Footprints all over the place. Deep divots where the green-brown of grass beneath has stained the snow. Wide swaths of exposed ground, sodden and muddy. An eyesore. Especially next to the neighbors’ yards — neighbors whose kids have either grown up and moved on or who are nonexistent, neighbors who had the good sense to stock up in preparation for the storm, neighbors who hunkered down and hibernated like bears when the first flakes began to fall.

My father-in-law called up my wife to lament that they don’t have any kids in the house to go out and play in the snow this year. (Their youngest is a college freshman.) They got out in it a little bit — walked a neat line of steps to the sidewalk and around the neighborhood — but left the bulk of it undisturbed. Unenjoyed. Unplayed-with. What a shame.

After a day, our yard was trashed. But then, isn’t a snowy field meant to be trashed? Isn’t it the ragged snowfield, marred by footprints and muddy patches, that has lived up to its full potential? It’s been played in, kicked and thrown around, stuffed into shirts — it’s lived, unlike its slumbering, undisturbed counterpart.

A lovely, but ephemeral, glimpse at a perfect world.

Which of course puts me in mind of the ever-present writer’s paradox: the blank page.

When you start a project — or when you return to a project on a new day — the same lovely, terrible expanse greets you. A perfect blank page, unblemished and interminable. It’s so lovely and so calming and so pristine, it seems like a crime to defile it. Any words we might write upon the blank page are just that — a defilement to its perfection. A crime against its peace. A hurled tomato against its steamed and pressed costume. I look at that blank page, and I think I can’t possibly make it better. Then I start writing, and not only am I not making it better, I’m actively screwing it up. The words never come out right on the first go-round. Some sentences come out as grammatical train-wrecks. My overapplication of modifiers is like so much yellow sprayed across the snow.

But, screw it up we must. Just like my muddy, stomped-in front yard, the blank page’s perfection is just temporary. It’s lovely to look at, but its true function, its best use, is not to just sit there and be perfect. Its calling is to get messed up, to suffer the wordy slings and arrows of our halting, harried advances. The blank page is never so alive as when it’s strewn with ink, letters stamped indelibly into its surface, the heavy plow of purpose and inspiration carving deep furrows across its face. The blank page yearns to be written upon. It begs to be ruined.

The page that you leave blank is the page that never lives up to its full potential. The blinking cursor on your screen is its coy invitation. Go ahead. Type a few words out. Roll up a snowball or two.

ortler-1449017_1280

Pictured: maybe not exactly my backyard. By Simon.

Your yard will be ruined in no time.


Metaphor Monday: Mr. Fix-It (Eventually)


How long does it take to fix a leaky faucet?

The google answer: About thirty minutes.

The real-life answer: Give or take, three to six months.

To elaborate, that’s: roughly a week to even properly notice the thing is leaking. About a month to get well and truly sick of it. An additional month (at least) to decide it matters enough to make time on a weekend to get around to fixing it. Half of a weekend spent watching youtube videos until you have enough confidence that you won’t flood the entire house to even begin the project. About thirty minutes to actually fix it. An additional couple of weeks to finish cleaning up the tools you used. (It might not actually be fixed, after all, and you might have to get back in there and re-fix it — so you might as well keep the tools handy.) And finally, an indeterminate number of months spent testing your repair every time you walk past it to make sure it’s actually fixed.

Or, if you ask my wife, how long does it take your husband to do a household project? Her answer will invariably contain the somewhat snarky, somewhat literal “does that include the six hours he spends watching youtube and staring at the thing to ‘think about it’?”

Okay, so I don’t set speed records for fixing things around the house. You could say I’m methodical. (You could say other things. I’m sticking with methodical.)

But the point is, for me at least, these things take time. Case-in-point: the slow drain in the bathroom. My sink was slow to drain. Had been since we moved in back in July. I noticed it immediately after my first shave in the new house, but it wasn’t that bad. In the intervening weeks, though, it got worse — to the point that the sink was taking close to a full minute to drain. Being the permissive sort, I was generally happy to let that go — it’s easy enough, after all, to just shave, pull the plug, walk away and get dressed, then come back to rinse out the bowl.

As much as I’m happy to let little things like this slide by in the day-to-day, on some basement sub-floor of my lizard brain, it irks me when things don’t work as they should. (Ask my wife how often I point out poor design — a drawer that opens into the path of another, or a cabinet hinged on the wrong side. Of course, I don’t do anything about it when I point it out — but I NOTICE!)

So for months, the piss-offs mount. I shave, it takes forever to drain the sink. Shave, drain. Shave, drain. It gets to the point where I have to rinse the bowl, then re-rinse to catch the stuff that backed up in the little water that was leftover from the rinsing. (Have I strayed into the verboten territory of too much information? I can never tell.)

Finally, something must be done. I get on google. Type in the problem. Read the likely culprits. Best advice: I need to get a plumber’s snake. Okay.

Four weeks later, I make the trip to Home Depot to pick it up. Ready to go.

Three weeks after that, on the afternoon of nothing in particular, I put on a pair of rubber gloves and set about it. Clear out the cabinet under the sink. Unscrew the trap thingy. (It doesn’t even take tools — that’s how easy this fix is.) Pull the plug up out of the sink. Send the snake down the drain.

I’m gonna be honest. What comes out of the drain is horrific. It damn near triggered my gag reflex, and that’s saying something — my wife is the sympathetic puker, not me. I’m not going to describe it, except to say that for a clog made of hair, the texture was entirely not what you would expect.

Much gagging and dramatic sealing-of-the-horror-in-multiple-plastic-bags later, I wipe out the sink, replace the plug, screw the trap thingy back in, and that’s that. Sink drains like a dream.

Two days later, I move the snake back down to the workshop where it belongs. About a week after that, I have most of the stuff from under the sink back off the bathroom counter and properly under the sink. (A few lotions and a shaving brush are still on my bedside table.) And now, two weeks after the fact, I’m still checking under the cabinet for leaks from where I re-sealed the trap.

Fixing the problem was easy, it just took me forever.

Or take our downstairs bathroom. We had a suspicion of mold behind the wall in there — a company came in, tore out the drywall, tested and gave us the all-clear. I have to replace the drywall and the sink myself.

Needless to say, that bathroom has been drywall-less and sink-less for the better part of (what month is it now? December?) going on four months.

Well, two weeks ago, it was time to fix it. (Why? Don’t ask silly questions.) Off to Home Depot to buy the panel and the drywall goop, and this time, I actually start the project that day.

Okay, FINE, the next day, but the same weekend.

Problem is, I mix the drywall goop wrong, it comes out too thin, and I have to lay a second coat on. Which means another trip to Home Depot. And you know what that means.

A week and a half later, I get over to the HD and pick up more goop, and finish the job properly.

Well.

One leg of the job.

It still needs to be sanded, then painted, and then I can re-set the sink and … long story short, if we have that bathroom back in order by next summer, it will probably be a victory. (Don’t let my wife read this post. She thinks I’m gonna have it done in another week, tops.) (No, she doesn’t. She knows as well as I do.)

So what’s all this metaphor for?

Writing is kinda like a house sometimes. It does the job it’s supposed to do, albeit often imperfectly. It takes maintenance, it takes some TLC — sometimes it takes putting on some gloves and digging some truly gnarly stuff out of the drains.

Unfortunately, I have the same relationship with my writing issues as I have with my around-the-house issues: I’m happy to let them slide as long as I’m still able to write somewhat. Sink drains slow? No problem, I can work around it. Words aren’t quite coming out the way or speed I want? No problem, I can write bare minimums, cut down on the blog, write something else.

But, in exactly the same way a poorly laid-out parking parking lot gives me a thudding headache, it irks me to my soul when the writing isn’t working. (Okay we don’t have souls, life is meaningless, and all our struggles, triumphs, and heartaches are contained within a blue grain of sand in a bottomless void, but YOU KNOW.)

The bad news is, it took me a series of months to admit to myself that the problem was there and it was worth fixing. And if my 3-6 month timeline to fix a problem holds accurate, it feels like I’m in month 4 or so. It feels — in an abstract way? — like the problem could be fixed, but my tools are still all over the place (in case I need to go back in and operate again), and the confidence that things are fixed is nonexistent.

I’m on the upswing, in other words — I’m writing again, feeling productive, but still in a flimsy, going-through-the-motions kind of way. Like the bottom could drop out at any moment. My sink could drain just fine, in other words, but only because it’s dumping the slurry of water and shaving cream and discarded beard into the cupboard under the sink. Which is, you know. Not precisely ideal.

This stuff takes time to work through, is what I’m getting at, and I’ll come back to that word again: methodical. I’m being methodical in my writing fixes. I’ll allow myself to tell myself that for a little while longer.

And, you know. Maybe you’re in the same boat, be it on something you’re writing or something else. I’ll share two things to close.

First of all is this tweet that landed in my feed today:

Which is the kind of encouragement I thrive on, and it was particularly uplifting today.

And then this:

fix it

So, you know. Fix up your stuff.

Maybe sooner rather than later.

(Yeah, I know. I didn’t even almost make Monday — I almost didn’t make Tuesday. I’m just gonna keep calling it Metaphor Monday. Alliteration trumps reality.)


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