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Posts Tagged ‘writer’s block’

I finally broke through. Out of all that anxiety, fear, whatever you want to call it. It was after Liz and I went to see Jean Shinoda Bolen, the Jungian psychologist, writer, feminist, at Amazon Bookstore last Friday. After that evening, everything cracked open.

It wasn’t so much what she said – as what she reminded me of – to go back and tap places of strength. And give what I have away. It will come back to me in countless measure. I don’t have to be so fearful.

It’s good. Because I was beginning to wonder what kind of writer I was if I couldn’t even get a draft down on paper for an essay. I’d better get used to this. It’s going to happen – writer’s block. It’s strange because this is the second year I’ve written on demand for other people. Last year I worked on two book projects and a bevy of presentation pieces. People want to pay writers for this kind of work because they want a fresh angle in the case of the presentation pieces, and another set of eyes, organizational skills, and editing on the books.

I had worked steadily, pushing my way through all that. Then when it came to writing my own essay – stuck. I couldn’t even get out of the gate. It was really getting me down on Saturday. Some ideas running through the mind. But then I wouldn’t write them down. It’s like a form of self sabotage. Finally, I sat down to write a piece for the blog on Sunday and out poured the essay. Boy, was I relieved. Liz was making smoothies in the kitchen and I tap, tap, tapped away for an hour.

I kept working all day yesterday. I got up to work on my consulting and writing projects and got sidetracked by looking at the essay again. I decided to give in, made a conscious decision. I called Liz and bookended, told her I was going to take the day, Monday, to work on my essay. Then Tuesday, I would do my business work, and Wednesday, go back to my 27 hour a week bread and butter job through Friday of this week. I called in this morning and told them my plan.

I ended up bumping the whole week forward so I could take a solid day to write yesterday. And write I did. I worked on the essay until Liz walked through the door at 5pm. And it was even hard to pull myself away then. She was hardly in the door before I was reading it out loud to her. She took time for me. She laughed in the right parts. She’s one of the people who is most supportive of my writing – and me taking space for my writing.

The reading out loud reminded me what John Williams, author of Stoner, said about finished pieces. He said in an interview with Dan Wakefield that what helps a writer most is to have her piece read out loud to her – without comment. You can see right away where the gaps are.

I’ve been doing this quite a while now. And it works. I read my first draft out loud to myself. Then to another trusted person. I make changes, write the second and third drafts. Then I usually reverse it, ask Liz if she will read the piece out loud to me. The gaps stand out like the jagged spaces between my crooked front teeth.

Yesterday, I worked on editing a little more while Liz shook off the day, changed out of her work clothes, and put something on for dinner. Then I realized my eyes were completely fried. And the day long writing high was over. The doubt started to pour in. I wondered if what I had spent the last 6 hours solid doing was even any good. This is how my mind works. Full bore into a piece – riding high – then all that doubt and self loathing.

Maybe it’s part of the writing process. And I will battle with it the rest of my life. If a piece is short enough, I know when it’s tight, crisp, and flowing. This essay is about 6000 words. I plan to hone it down to less than that. I might take some parts out, crop others. I know it won’t get any longer. I’ve said what I want to say, made my points with what I have. If anything, I’ve got too much, am trying to pull in too many different ideas. And that will be the next edit.

What do I really want to say? Have I said it? Do these other parts fit in? Or are they another essay? All good questions. I want to learn to write tighter. I can tell where the essay is tight and where it starts to ramble. I’m getting better at editing. I’m still learning how to completely whack off paragraphs or sentences or parts where I like what I’ve written but know it doesn’t fit into this piece.

Writing is so process oriented. It’s different than art that way. Art is process oriented, too. But there are visual points along the way where you can check in with other students, get feedback, know if you are headed down the wrong path. Or in the case of photography, I tried a lot of alternative photographic processes like cyanotyping, mural printing, and brushing developer on slabs of red clay from Georgia that I formed into tiles. So I often had to go back to the drawing board if my formulas didn’t work. I could see it visually – back to the drawing board.

Writing? A whole different animal. The abstracts are playing out all in the mind. And my mind can try to kill me. I do my best writing when I have uninterrupted periods, 4-7 hours where I write and edit solid. Then I need to step away and come back to it a few days later. This is something I’ve learned from writing on demand for a year – write intensely. Step away. That’s my process. I’m not one for two hours here, two hours there. It doesn’t work for me.

That’s why I planned my weeks around taking a whole day to write, usually Fridays. Those are supposed to be the days where I structure in my creative time. But the tail end of this year, it hasn’t worked that way. My 27 hour a week bread and butter job falls in the middle of the week over three days, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. So I work 9 hour days and don’t feel like doing much when I get home. Mondays are the day I work on my writing and consulting business. And most weeks, I find I need two days to do this when I filter in the administrative and invoicing pieces.

Guess where that leaves my Friday creative day? Down the toilet. This week I decided to take the day anyway, though I couldn’t really afford it, and get the first draft of my essay done. If that’s all I show up in Taos with, I’ll be happy. But I’m sure I will try to do at least one more draft. I want to start collecting pieces I can submit to magazines. It doesn’t even matter if I get rejected at this point. I just want to get my work out there, floating around in the world. That’s why I write.

It’s gray in Minneapolis. I’m on my second cup of coffee. I missed practicing the last few days. But I elected to work on my essay instead. I also did a lot of work on taking my business to the next level. I’ve met with three people about next steps. And now I have a plan, an income plan, a writing plan. It’s good to have a plan. Clarity should replace vagueness if I’m doing things to take care of myself.

Writer’s block scares me. I can practice all I want. But there are times when I am going to not know what I want a finished piece to be about. I won’t even have a structure. In the end, I have to honor the process. That’s why I refuse to put all my eggs in one basket. I want at least three different avenues available to me to pull income in while I work to be a self-supporting writer.

Life never goes as planned. And that goes double for the writer’s life. I envy the yellow finch that has returned to the feeder outside the winter steamed window. I’m watching her peck her beak into the small holes, grubbing little pieces of thistle, bobbing her head to take them in, bits spewing out the sides of her microscopic tongue. Then she dives in for more and lets the remains of the day fall to the deck, letting go of what drops.

I’m not that good at letting go.

But over time, I see the value in chop, chop, chop. This will be the third day I haven’t been out of the house. Liz has gone to work. I’m sitting on the couch doing my writing practice. Then I will shower and get to work on my business. But I’m being pulled to check out the essay one more time. It’s a dangerous ploy. I know I’ll get sucked in. I can think of worse things than to be knee deep in an essay about change, and being stuck, and writing, and tapping the past but living in the present. But I need to stay disciplined. I have to pull myself out after one peek.

Do you agree? Okay [sigh] reluctantly, I agree. One peek. Then to work. Someone’s got to make the money around here. If I had my druthers, I’d work on my essay all morning, head outside in the afternoon, scrape the ice off the deck and my car, and head over to St. Paul to walk the labyrinth. But I don’t get my way. It’s my work day.

I hate growing up.

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

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I am in la la land this morning. I had such a hard time getting up. The darkness wanted to hold me. I’ve been in hibernate mode. A few weeks now. Maybe since Christmas. The days are short. The nights long.

When I think of writing an essay, I draw a blank. I scare myself. What kind of writer am I if I never finish anything? Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten how to say anything worthwhile. Practices of dribble about the details of the day. But practice keeps me writing. Practice keeps me sane. I am glad that I practice. Practice keeps me connected to other writers.

Writers who struggle, too. Every writer struggles. Comments from famous writers allude to that struggle, time and time again. Still, I believe it’s a worthwhile song. Why else would I still be singing?

Liz and I suffered through the beginning of the 6th season of American Idol last night, mostly because it was in Minneapolis. I remember when the gang of 3 were here and the downtown streets like Hennepin Avenue were crowded with those following dreams. You have to admire their tenacity. Or stupidity. As Liz and I covered our ears a few times, scrunched up our faces and laughed into each other eyes, we wondered who had told some of these people they could sing.

Sometimes I get that feeling about the writing. Like I write in a big vacuum. Because practice, by nature, and the rules, as guidelines, create safety in not commenting, the world would not know if I could write or not. And neither would I. It’s mostly a matter of trust. Faith.

I look back over the last 2 or 3 years – the time I won that contest all the way up until now. I have sent out maybe 2 finished pieces since then. A person in my other writing group thinks I got scared by that little bit of success. And perhaps I did. It was the first thing I ever submitted anywhere. And it was successful by most writing standards. But maybe it sucked me back into my shell.

I did have that stint of going to coffee shops and reading out loud at Open Mic with other fledgling writers. That was good for confidence. And I had that radio show on KFAI with two writers, one I never see anymore. I was actually pretty good on that. I talked about being a writer. But then I just stopped with the out there stuff. Why?

I’m thinking about the time it takes to write. Not just time. Alone time. And I know that living with someone means I have to be hypervigilant about taking alone time to write. If Liz and I are around the same space, unless I say that I’m going to write, her energy will mingle with mine. Sometimes that is distracting. And sometimes it’s supportive.

It’s learning the difference that is my challenge at the moment. And how to get enough space for writing. It’s up to me to take it. Not her. I’m scared to take it. It’s so comfortable being partnered. A Cancer, I am most comfortable in relationships, though I was alone for 14 years. I don’t miss living alone. I love living with Liz, partnering, setting up a home together. I only miss all the space to write that I had created around myself when I lived alone.

But you know what? I hated living there at the end. The place made me lethargic. And I didn’t write anyway. I fretted about how much junk there was around me and my lack of motivation to change it. And I spent a lot of gas, time, and money going back and forth out to Liz’s. Or her coming to my house. I don’t have that anymore.

I fret about different things now – there are still unpacked boxes in the bedroom. When will I go through them? And when should I start looking for a studio space?

I think another small space that Liz and I share rent on will help the smallness of the space we live in now. It’s cozy. And quiet. And I love the house. But it needs one more room. A writing room.

The truth is you do have to hole up to write. And you can’t stop and start. You need to be able to keep going when you are on a roll, at least until you get to a good place to stop. It’s not realistic to have all the time in the world. Unless you are independently wealthy. Most of us have to work.

But the carving of space – carving it out, up, around the writing – that takes courage. And guts.  You have to want it pretty bad. And drop everything to write. Knowing it’s not going to give you everything. No, it’s not. But it sure gives a lot.

I have a lot of fear around writing this essay. And I don’t know why. I am fearless in almost every area of my life right now. I roll swiftly along in the blog work. I’m putting a lot of energy into my business and relationship. My recovery is going well. But this damned essay? Why am I letting it get the best of me?

It’s become my Achilles heel. And I am letting it. At some point, I will also let it turn. The energy. But it might be too late to get it done before the first week of February. I’m going to carve out some time this weekend to seriously see if I have anything to offer in terms of an essay. I will tell Liz I am going to work on it. And I will honor my commitment to myself.

Saturday is almost shot. Friday I have to do client work. That leaves Saturday night. Maybe that’s a good ploy. Liz has to study anyway. Maybe I can pull an all night thing – work my tail off, get as far as I can. What do I have to lose?

My dignity. Or some idea that I can’t write. Okay, I’m humble. I’m willing to sacrifice those two things for a day. Pride doesn’t help in the great effort to write. And neither does ego. I have to leave them swimming at the bottom of the spittoon at the door. That’s a good place to start. A spittoon. That gives me an idea. Okay. I’m off.

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

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I was making a second cup of Earl Gray tea, waiting for the water to boil. Thinking about my essay. How I feel stuck. How yesterday I thought it might help to go back to the compilation of Best American Essays from 2005. How that only served to make me feel like there’s no way in hell I can ever write an essay.

Something about those essays’ voice. The people who wrote those essays. I notice the voice is calm. I notice that right away. I flip to the essays I especially liked. Ted Kooser’s Small Rooms in Time. Melancholy, I wonder if one always gets melancholy for first wives and homes and places we had our children. I can’t imagine starting life over with a new spouse and thinking back to these homes. Anyway.

Then I flip over to the baseball guy, Roger Angell. How he starts out with a memory of peeing in the garden of a wealthy famous person, a baron or something. I flipped to the essays I didn’t read, just to see how they start. The ones about cooking. The one about a dog. The about David Sedaris’ boil.

They’re all so concrete. That’s the other thing about them. Their voice and their, what’s the word I’m looking for? The first paragraph immediately grounds you in reality. Is there a word for that?

Then I’m thrown into a tizzy. I’m thinking now of my essay. Do I have a voice?

Ese, pronounced just like Essay. Ese, dude. Ese is what the vatos say to each other, or used to when I was in high school. Oye, ese. It means you, hey you. Ese vato. You, vato. Hey you, vato. Orale. I like those words. I like that I know what they mean, how to use them. Orale ese, you sapo’d out.

I remember this guy Charlie who worked behind the desk of Fort Marcy rec center in Santa Fe. He wore thick, thick glasses, had reddish hair, one of those light-skinned vatos. He poured all his energy into his body.

Fitness. You could tell he wasn’t used to female attention. I realize now I gave my attentions to anyone, I didn’t discriminate on the basis of looks. What was I looking for? Friendship, I guess. I never slept with him or even made overtures to sleep with him. But I did glom on to him. I insisted on him riding with me on 20-mile or 40-mile bike rides.

I insisted that we both register for a running/walking race in La Tierra. He was the runner, I’d be the biker. Two-man race. He was so much fitter than me, he must have felt like he was training a novice.

We did eventually do the race together. It rained that day. We did poorly. I blew it on the bike. I still can see rain dripping from his bangs down his face. His glasses completely blurred as he stood there waiting for me. Like he was peering into fog, Where is she?

What made me think of him was how he was an artist and I was an artist. He once told me he wanted to do a show called Sapo Art. Do you know what sapo means, he asked me. Sure, I said, it’s like when you throw a basketball and it swooshes into the hoop without making even a sound. That’s sapo. You’re right, he said.

The Sapo Art show was going to be art that came easily. Graffiti art, art that you just sit down and spout out. Nothing you labor over, just easy art.

I went to Spain before we could do our Sapo Art show. It took me almost the whole year to finish the one drawing I really loved. It’s four small panels, each features an ogre that in hindsight looks like a prototype for Shrek. I wrote a poem to go with it: My Monster Eats Small Children.

I was the monster. I was so lost in Spain. I didn’t know what I was doing, just that I was there. Was I a writer? Was I an artist? Was I a drunk? I didn’t want to be who I was, that’s for sure.

I still think of that ogre drawing as Sapo Art, even if it took me a long time. It came easily, I just couldn’t bring myself to produce. I remember one time Almudena came up to my piso and asked what I was working on. I showed her. Dibujas de puta madre, mujer. “De puta madre” was one of those words that means exactly the opposite of its literal meaning, like “bad” when you want to say “good.” You draw like the mother whore, was the literal meaning.

Ese, dude, I really need to just let this essay come out of me without worrying what David Sedaris says about boils. I guess it’s becoming a little a bit clearer what I want to say. What experience it is I’m trying to recall without coming out and being literal about it. I wonder if I’m just scared that whoever it is I am is not the person I want to be.

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