Tag Archives: writer’s block

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.

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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.)


Metaphor Monday: Imaginary Floods


Metaphor Monday is back on Monday — the planets must be in alignment!

Our washing machine crapped out this weekend.

Well, it seemed like it had crapped out.

One way or another, it looked like it had crapped out, and it gave us a scare for a good hour or so.

It was Sunday, and Sundays are laundry days in our house. So, after the morning shopping run was done and the kids were down for quiet time (they don’t take naps anymore, but we’ve convinced them — mostly — that quiet time is a thing, and thank goodness for it), we took some laundry downstairs, cranked up the machine, and sat back to relax for an episode of Stranger Things. (Sidenote: Now that Stranger Things is over again, what do I do with my life??)

About an hour later, I realized that the washer was still running. Not only was it still running, but there was still water running through the supply lines. You know, that low rush in the walls that’s completely inaudible until it happens when it shouldn’t? Having experienced three pipe blow-outs in our old house, this is a sound that immediately gives me the cold sweats.

So the water is hissing away in the walls, and in the quiet after the episode, suddenly, I hear it. Sweat breaks out all over. I run downstairs expecting to find the entire basement under a couple inches of standing water — but, no. Weird, but welcome. I look at the washer. The dial hasn’t advanced from where I started it an hour ago. Weird. I open the lid. Water is pouring into the machine. Weirder still. I turn off the machine. Water stops. Turn it back on. Water pours. At this rate, it should have flooded long ago, but it hasn’t. I turn the dial to the end of the cycle. The machine spins up, leaves the clothes damp as expected, and all is still.

I start the machine again. It’s an older unit and has some gremlins (occasionally shuts off for no discernible reason, and every few months, like a 99% trained housecat, will leave a gross little puddle in the laundry room), so maybe it just needed a good solid reboot. No dice. The water runs and runs and the cycle won’t advance.

What I’ve learned in my near-decade (help!) of home ownership is that when appliances or plumbing break down, the solution is either really simple or really expensive with not much middle ground, with a decided tendency towards really expensive. So the cold sweat breaks out again. (I was still sweaty. You’re welcome.) I do what any savvy, 21st-century thirty-something homeowner would do and fire up youtube. Within minutes I have twenty browser tabs open describing how to open up my washing machine, how to rewire it, how to drain it, how to rebuild it out of toothpicks, and a third round of cold sweat is starting up (by now I should really have changed my shirt, which wouldn’t be a problem, except that my shirts are in the laundry that is not getting washed). It’s all very involved, very detailed, very time-consuming, and very daunting.

I dive in anyway, take the cover off the machine and expose a nest of wires and motors and dials and tubes. Not much of it looks like what I saw in the videos or the diagrams, which isn’t that big a deal but it starts the panic. I was looking at the wrong video; maybe I’ve got the wrong problem. Maybe this is way out of my league. Maybe I’m making things worse by even tinkering with the machine.

The Howler Monkey of Doubt starts in. You don’t know what you’re doing. Give up. Suck it up and get ready to pay a repair technician. Also, forget about getting laundry done tonight, and start panicking over what your kids are going to wear to school tomorrow. And what you’re going to wear, for that matter. How many days can you last? How much is it gonna cost to get it fixed?  Do you even have a single pair of clean underwear right now? All I want to do is lay down in bed, pull the covers up over my eyelids, and sleep until the problem fixes itself, which is to say, for EVER.

firefighters-808901_1280

How I envision every plumbing project I ever undertake

I sit for ten minutes, doing nothing. Then I return to the problem. I refine my google searches. I think about what the real problem is. I search some more. Within about five more minutes, I’ve got a likely solution that doesn’t even require any tools. The cold sweat is back. It can’t be this simple, can it?

Actually, it can.

I lift the drain hose from its pipe. There’s a wicked gurgling, whooshing sound — I half expect water to explode out of the walls and realize my nightmares — but that’s it. The drain hose was a bit too deep in the pipe, the water level got a titch too high, and a siphon was created — whenever water was poured into the machine, the siphon pulled it right out through the drain. The machine could never get to the proper amount of water, so it could never start its cycle. But there was nothing mechanically wrong with it, so it didn’t shut itself down. Likewise, the drain was functioning properly, so it never overflowed. The very next minute, I restart the machine, watch it fill up with water — and then kick over to the wash cycle.

Problem solved.

Phew. That was a lot to tell. So what’s the metaphor?

There are two, actually. One for me and one for the machine.

Let’s start with the machine. There was nothing mechanically wrong with it, as I pointed out before — just a simple user error that caused it to tall into an actually rather interesting physics loop (it’s called “siphoning,” and it works exactly like extracting gas from your car’s tank). Thing is, the user error that caused the physics problem happened several months ago and the problem never happened until now. Which means that I laid the groundwork for this little headache months ago and spent the intervening time dancing on the edge of disaster, never even knowing what might happen. Like an aneurysm in the brain, the drain pipe in the wall was just hanging there, waiting to form a seal and blow up my Sunday. Maybe the machine getting jostled as I loaded the clothes into it caused it to make that seal; maybe the spin cycle on the machine’s last run knocked it over the edge. There’s no telling, except that whatever it was could have gone wrong at any time.

If that ain’t a perfect metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. Everything, all the time, is hanging by a thread, and everybody is running around with multiple pairs of scissors in their hands. Eventually, one way or another, that thread is gonna get cut, and your washing machine is gonna run for a few hours and (at best) run up your water bill or (at worst) flood your basement.

Which brings me to the human element. What I really wanted to do when the washer broke down was hide from the problem. Think about literally anything else. Hope it would work itself out, or (when that didn’t work) just hire somebody to come in and deal with it. But after taking a few minutes to get my head together and assess the problem like a person who has a brain, I was able to not only discern that the problem wasn’t all that bad, but to fix it myself with almost no strain.

Which is to say that sometimes our problems are not all we make them out to be. Sometimes that crippling writer’s block you’re suffering isn’t the end of your writing career, but just a sign that you need to not focus on that particular character in that particular chapter right this second. Just like my particular appliance issue called for a little less soldering iron and voltmeter, a little more flashlight and paper towel, sometimes the writing life is a little less throw-the-laptop-and-all-you’ve-ever-created-into-the-dumpster-and-set-it-ablaze and a little more maybe-just-go-write-a-vignette-with-talking-cats-holding-office-jobs.

In other words, just go work on something else for a while and let it open your brain up.

Now excuse me while I go draft a scene for my new series. It’s basically Milo & Otis meets The Office.


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