writer’s block

Obligation, Like Mercy

Some author quoted or misquoted on the internet claimed that no true writer needs to be told to write. This makes me feel like crap.

I would like to say that I have been very busy, that my kids keep me running, that my other work overwhelms me, but there are no excuses. I have not put the words to the page, I have not written. It is not writer’s block, it is a drought, a writer’s desert, and I found myself on the fringe of it. Then I sat at the keyboard and noted that I am sick of myself and sick of this age, and with that I wandered from the fringe of the desert to its center, my body becoming like sand.

***

I’ve thought often of Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer:”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I want to sit in front of my window. I want to watch the light shift across my yard until the horizon fills with color, silhouetting the trees. I want to wonder at the moon and not google anything about it at all.

***

I treated the coming winter like I was ocean-bound. Obligations, in these times, feel like stones in the hems of my clothing. I gather so many, and then someone else comes along and needs something. I think, I can’t. I’ll sink. I want to run, or rip out the hems, for fear of drowning.

That’s why I asked someone else to manage the details of my writer’s group. It was a preemptive move; I planned to be absent; I was sharing the weight before the waves broke.

So how was it that I found myself standing before them, unshowered? I confessed. I told them the truth: I need drops of mercy in the form of assignments, assignments in the form of emails, creating an obligation.

What is it about obligation, that it can have the power to both oppress and free us? Maybe it isn’t obligation, maybe that’s not the right word. All I know is that I’m not in the ocean. I’m in the desert, and I need to find water.

I know how I found myself at that meeting. A desert wanderer knows that an area with life can give life.

***

I am blessed with friends. If you met them, you would marvel. One loves football and loves to make her house a beautiful place. When the call comes to hang out with her and learn how to make pretty things, I say yes. I’ve never dreamed of doing this, but in this dry place I have to say yes, I have to embarrass myself. It is time to take that dreaded first step and try something new, be the fool.

The pretty things will be edible. Cakes. We will take classes and decorate cakes. It comes easily to her, mostly, but I stumble along in a cloud of powdered sugar.

She may feel bad for me, but I don’t. I’m happy to do something hard. It’s satisfying to make food, yet food is temporary. A cake will not be my legacy.

It’s good to remember what it’s like to be a learner. I worry about the narrowness of our current culture, the way the internet tries to present me with more, more, more of what I seem to be interested in knowing. It absorbs the bit of me it knows and calculates, offering me days of shoes and sports scores and theatre ads. I will become a micro-market instead of a person, eyes trained by algorithms and SEO, unable to see past what I know.

Our class makes flowers. Roses, lilies, violets, apple blossoms, daffodils, carnations, poppies, daisies formed of buttercream, royal icing, fondant, gum paste. I’m not always pleased with my work. The teacher says no flower is perfect, not in the way you’re thinking.

***

The assignments come. How did I meet my husband? Have I ever written a haibun? Try it. What do I think about this video game theme song? Write a setting that suits the song “Hurt” as performed by Johnny Cash.

From dry ground, shoots of green. Words.

***

It is better to be in a house of mourning than a house of mirth, the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes. I attend a funeral honoring a man I’ve never met. It is Saturday, the day before Easter.

He lived to be 93 years old, the grandfather of another dear friend. This friend has relationships with her parents and grandparents and sister and extended family that spill over onto all of us. She invests. Because of her, because through her I have learned what love of family and friends looks like, I go to the service.

They tell stories of his good humor and his quiet faith. I learn he was in the Navy during World War II. Underneath the surface of his card playing and travel and love for his family, underneath this ordinary life, he had been a part of bigger things.

We stand and watch the men from the VFW hall fire into the afternoon air. Someone plays Taps. A flag is lifted from the casket, folded, and presented. It gets me every time.

Obligation, I realize, is the wrong word. Relationships don’t have to be like that, work doesn’t have to be like that, as if they’re burdens. Being part of the whole, contributing, sacrificing, grasping hope of a future full of people and promise, these are the things I’ve forgotten.

***

I have two assignments yet to fulfill. One will be about my daughter and an imagined holiday. For the other, I will send this, this story written from an oasis in the desert, the air moist and starlit, the sand quickened. He asked me to write about endings.

 

Listening Past a Writer’s Block

At the end of the summer, an old friend asked about the latest writing venture I was working on. The question was nothing out of the ordinary from this man who, for years, has been one to wave a fan at whatever burning embers he saw in my creative hearth before I ever trusted the heat glowing there. I had no answer. I wasn’t writing and I hadn’t for at least a month.

After a pretty steady stream of short stories, various essays, and some novel development, I was in a place that many call Writer’s Block. I’ve driven down that particular block a few times, seen the various shanties and campsites of other lost, muse-abandoned creatives waiting for their purgatorial moment to pass. What I was experiencing looked nothing like this. But in my determination to figure out why I was not inclined to write, I considered that I might be in a different part of the same neighborhood as Writer’s Block. I started to question if I was really a Writer at all.

Photo by Maggie Stein.

Summer turned to autumn. Leaves turned yellow, orange, red just before the first big snowfall. I headed up to the mountains to help a friend split wood for the oncoming winter and expand his deck. It’s a yearly tradition that gets me out of the city, off the technology, and into simple things. It’s a day of pure, high-altitude, manual labor that requires more endurance than thought. Few words are spoken.

We worked from sunrise to sunset, fingers slowly losing feeling as the light disappeared and the cold filled the air.  The following morning, I had nothing to do but keep my coffee warm and listen to that silence that comes when there is no perpetual humming of cars blazing down concrete streets, no semis jake-braking their diesel engines like the gurgling sigh of a dragon, no sirens of emergency or pursuit. The only noise that time of year in those mountains is wind blowing through pine trees, snowing the Aspen leaves in golden blizzards.

As I listened to that silence I still wondered with an almost grievous angst why my writing seemed to be so dead in the water. I was reading Frederick Buechner’s Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. It’s a reminiscence of Buechner’s early days, when he was trying to determine if he was a writer or a minister, or if there was such a place for one who is both:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life is grace.”

Somewhere in the gazing out a massive window on the Collegiate Peaks covered in snow, in letting these words tumble around inside, I “heard” this: “You are a Writer and always will be. You just stepped back to listen for a time before writing again what you hear.”

The anxious questions ceased.

I am like so many: if I spot an interruption on what I believe to be the road to Somewhere, then surely something must be wrong. I will try to force what can’t be forced. In my gazing down the road I expect to see the next key moment, forgetting that they are all key moments.

In all the angst and doubt, all the trying-to-figure-out-where-things-went-awry, it never occurred to me that listening was an option. Listening to hear anew how a story is told, how words play together. Listening to the sound of voice–be it an elderly foreign accent, a little child’s self-musings, a regional dialect with its pauses and short stops. Listening, even, to the noise of everyday life, for that is where texture and characters are shaped. Sometimes there is a legitimate case of Writer’s Block, but what if to simply listen–and not force a thing–is all that is required?

There are plenty of inspirational books and essays out there about the creative process–the kind that make you think you could be the next Wordsworth or Rembrandt. There are even books on the neurological mechanisms of Writer’s Block. There are few that say, “Don’t beat yourself up. Just put the brush, the pen, the camera down…. and listen.” This listening is an art form in itself. How else will the good stories, the kind that speak to the True, ever be heard and, thus, written?

It wasn’t long after that weekend that I ran into the same old friend who asked me again about the latest and greatest words on a page. Instead of conjuring up some frantic cover for anxious unanswered questions, I simply said, “I’m still not writing much if at all. I guess I am listening for a while. Somewhere out of that listening I will write again.”