Tag Archives: writer’s block

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.

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Pictured: maybe not exactly my backyard. By Simon.

Your yard will be ruined in no time.

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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.

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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.


Metaphor Monday: The Fly


No, not the 80’s Jeff Goldblum flick, although I could certainly write at length about that one. Talk about scaring the hell out of a kid. I could never look at donuts the same way.

Today’s thought is much more pedestrian than all that, though hardly pedestrian! (Because flies, right? They fly!) Because Mother Nature is apparently just as upside-down and backwards as our wayward country these days, the seasons have reversed themselves and it’s pushing 80 in November for about the third day in a row. Some plants in the yard seem to be blooming again, thinking that Spring has sprung anew, while others haven’t yet finished decomposing from last week’s cold snap. And the bugs are back. Snapped out of hibernation or their winter larval stage or wherever the hell bugs go during the COLD TIMES.

Specifically, a fly flew (it’s hard to communicate how much internal strife I suffered writing such a banal obviosity as “the fly flew”, but there’s not really a better or simpler way to say it, and yeah, obviosity is probably not a word that Merriam or Webster would agree with, but it fits the flavor of the moment for me) into the house a few days ago, and it shows no signs of leaving. It shows interest in leaving, make no mistake. It hurls itself against every window pane, every crook and seam leading to the outdoors that it can find with its millions of tiny fly eyes (that’s flies, right? Millions of eyes? Or did I somehow splice Lovecraft into my memories of intro Biology?). Every apparent egress, that is, this fly bashes up against, again and again, with that strange but unmistakable sound. (zzzzzzzzzzRT zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzRT zzzzRT zzzRT). Every exit, that is, except whichever one it exploited to get inside.

Usually we don’t have to think much about flies. We have four cats in the house, after all, and there’s always at least one of them in a sporting mood, so on the odd chance that a critter, bugger, or somesuch finds its way inside, it doesn’t tend to last very long. But the cats, it seems, have fallen into a faux-winter doldrums themselves, and none of them are interested in bringing down this interloper.

So it buzzes around the house. Buzzing around my head while I fix breakfast. Buzzing just behind the couch while we watch TV. Buzzing under my pillow while I sleep. Buzzing in my brain while I dream. The kind of constant buzzing that you can ignore until the little guy in your brain pipes up, “hey, you’ve been ignoring that fly for a while, and it’s still buzzing around. Don’t flies sleep? Is this, like, the Superman of flies? The SuperFly?” And then you start to obsess. Well, maybe you don’t. I do. Now, when I go home, I’m listening for the little bastard to start buzzing so I can open a door or window for him, or take a swing at him, or throw a cat at him, or SOMETHING to make the buzzing stop.

Of course, the fly doesn’t care about my aversion to his buzzing (unless it’s one of those government-controlled feeding-on-psychic-discord spy-flies, which you know are a thing). And it certainly doesn’t care about actually leaving the house anymore, that’s plain. What it cares about now are the simple things in life. Buzzing at me right after I’ve just sat down and don’t want to get up and chase it around the house. Flying really close to my ear and darting away before I can smack it. Lighting on my sock-clad foot just out of swatting range and just sitting there for a really, really long time. Clattering away in a window on the far side of the room and flitting away to tango with the ceiling fan when I try to open said window.

I haven’t dealt with the fly directly yet — by which I mean, putting on a fire-proof jumpsuit and pursuing it through the house with a lighter and a can of hair spray — because it hasn’t been important enough to me to do so, yet. Taking actual time out of my day is not a thing I’ve yet allowed this fly to move me to do. Just not worth the time.

Yet here I sit, writing about the fly when I could be writing about something more productive.

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Which is where the fly becomes a metaphor. (Did you forget it was metaphor Monday? I forgive you, it’s Tuesday after all.)

The fly is that little idea that gets into your head. You know the one. The one that just sort of nags at the back of your brain while you’re thinking about other stuff, or absentmindedly paying your bills, or wondering what to have for dinner. You distantly hear it banging away at your subconscious, but you don’t want to have to actually deal with it. Maybe the cats will get to it and I won’t have to, you perhaps think. Or — survival of the fittest and all — it found its way in here, so it can find its own way out. Or it’ll eventually starve or cook itself to death in a window: problem solved.

And most of the time? It usually will work itself out. But sometimes it won’t. Sometimes the fly gets stuck in the house and it won’t shut up and it won’t go away until you hunt it down and squash it (or set it on fire, idk how you deal with flies). Sometimes that idea gets into your head and it won’t shut up and it won’t go away until you actually sit down and think about it, hear what it has to say, and deal with the reality that you’re stuck with this thing.

Sometimes that idea is a brand new story that you’ve been secretly dying to tell, and you just didn’t know it. Sometimes it’s a hard truth you’ve been denying yourself. Sometimes it’s that perfect comeback that you could never come up with in the moment (the jerk store called…).

Whatever it is, if it’s stuck in your head and it won’t go away and won’t let you focus on what you’re trying to focus on, there may just be a reason for that, and maybe you need to stop ignoring that little buzz and see what it has to say.

Because something’s been bugging me (I’m sorry). My current project, which is to say, the edit that I started almost a full year ago, is in the ditch. Has been for a while. Maybe it’s the summer move, maybe it’s just lost some of its luster, but it’s only barely creeping along if anything, and I can’t even make myself want to work on it. Muscling through isn’t working, putting my head down and grinding it out ain’t gonna do it. Not right now. The fly in my head is that this isn’t the right project for me right now. I’ve been ignoring that thought and hoping it’ll go away, but it’s clearly going nowhere, so it’s time to face facts.

Maybe I’ll come back to this project. Maybe I won’t. I hear authors of all stripes do this all the time, but it feels like a knife in the gut. The better part of a year to draft it, and over six months again trying to edit it… the sheer amount of time wasted is soul-crushing.

But as the great Kenny Rogers once said, you got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

And right now, it feels like time to fold this one, open the windows, and let this house air out a little bit.

 


How *you* doing?


Me? Over here?

Oh, you know, just having one of those weeks where it feels like every single thing I write or do or even think seems to me like a sentient pile of bear poop that is, itself, shaped like a bear. A bear with sharpened poop claws and poop fangs just waiting to slice into me for the crime of bringing its poopy mass into existence.

You know, a week where anything I create just gloms together into a seething, roiling mass of crapness. So much crap that it begins to collapse under its own weight, swirling and coalescing into a crappy black hole in my backyard; a black hole into which I might gladly toss my laptop, my current project, my other previous projects, and any and all potential future projects I might have thought about conceiving of. An entire alternate universe of projects that never had a chance of existing; those can go, too. Reality and possibility themselves bend around the gravity of my ineptitude.

Drive it all into the ocean and drown the world in the tsunami.

Douse it with gasoline and outshine the sun with the fireball.

Bury it underground and dwarf Everest with the displaced earth.

Ahem.

How am I doing?

Fine. Everything is fine.

How about you?


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