I’m trying to punch a hole in what some would call writer’s block. Normally, I would sit down to a computer and write whatever came to mind. In my recent state of lethargy, I find that a keyboard yields up little in the way of exciting material. Nothing’s exploded recently. Little vulgar or profane comes to mind. Sex as a subject doesn’t move me. As a matter of fact, I find it trite and typical of middle-aged men when they write about sex, as if wishing for revivified virility and describing lack of interest in sex was something new to them.
I also find myself at a loss to find the phantasmagorical in my thinking. No longer do people in the college hallways melt into fantastic shapes. Their telephones do not take them over and transform them into unknowing and clumsy beasts. The headlights bending into interstate are just that, headlights.
It’s as if my creative powers have taken a break. I’m sure that every writer goes through these phases. The only way I can figure a way out of them is to write about them.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsigdescribes a way past writer’s block for students. Instead of writing about a brick wall, he recommends, one should write about an individual brick, and then another, and then another until the individual bricks turn themselves into wall. That, in a sense, is what this letter is all about. One brick, then another.
It may be that the lack of creative energy has a lot to do with my recent lack of physical energy. I don’t wake up in the morning ready to move rocks like I once did. Hoisting myself from bed or from a chair strikes me as an impossible task. Under the intellectual and psychic weight of middle age, male writers resort to writing about themselves rather than making up new stories. I have gotten though depressive episodes by sheer force of will. I can carry the burden of middle age just the same way. I want to make up stories and take readers for rides along the track of my imagination. In the meantime, the drive to deal with issues affecting me in life—a difficult childhood, a history of alcoholism and mental illness, the restlessness that drives me to travel—live out their existences in the written word.
Writing is all I ever wanted to do. When I was in the second grade, I wrote my first book. It was a tawdry second-grader boy’s fantasy of being official, wielding a gun, and working to a specific, male-oriented purpose. The story concerned Secret Service and Treasury agents on the trail of some masked evil-doers. I can’t remember the details but there were guns involved.
The story with its themes of crime fighting, guns, and violence set Mrs. Gilbert’s teeth on edge, I guess. She called my parents, who, duly concerned about their seven-year-old’s productive imagination and seeming obsession with guns, sat down at the school with Mrs. Gilbert and discouraged me from ever writing another book ever. The prohibition didn’t stick, of course, but the disappointment was something I carried for a long time. The rejection dissuaded me from getting too creative in the public, i.e., my parents eyes. It took years out of my writing life. (The whole episode also confused me. My dad was a gun freak.)
I remember writing that story and the kinds of joy the writing process brought. I had worked out a story directly from my own imagination. Granted, I watched a television story about Secret Service agents, but that’s as far as I was influenced. I wrote and rewrote the way authors do. I illustrated the story, utilizing my nascent talent for drawing things poorly. I remember getting to the end and wanting the affirmation of my favorite teacher to that time. What I got, however, was a pot of shit and the message that writers never make any money, that they struggle alone in dark rooms, and that I should strive to become a complacent factory worker.
The second-grade writing story pertains to this discussion. That feeling of accomplishment I had and the drive to do something creative stuck. As I grew up, I wrote for myself well, I think, and for school poorly. The difference between having to write as a creative act and having to write for an assignment was so clear to me. Writing as a creative act always worked for me, and it’s something I’m struggling to do today.
Granted, I write what comes to me. Often it isn’t what’s fashionable in the moment. My time passes quickly and my storytelling is increasingly irrelevant. Story writers today write for audiences whose attention spans are illimitably short. But I like a book. I like a story that develops and takes time to work out, like a trip. There doesn’t always need to be brash action, bold ideas, and bombs exploding. In fact, most of travel is waiting. When I write, I have to paddle faster when the river flows slowly. I have to get the reader past the obstacles and the boring parts of a trip. A reader ought not have to endure. A reader ought to be swept along in the intricacies of a story like a stick on a river.
I take heart that some book readers still favor the novel. A novel, if it is a good one, takes time to develop characters. They are not born but live like a painting, first in outlines that gather flesh and bones. The plot starts one way and leads another. There are often surprises but many time not. The novel, like a good travel book, allows the reader to see themselves, either as they are or as the want to be. It gives me hope that my little chips of books find a large ocean on which to float. I worry less than I used to about fashion. In fact, I like the idea that I’m creating my own fashion.
One brick at a time makes a wall. That’s me today, breaking through the wall by describing on brick at a time. I hope that you find my small narrative here something to think about. If not, we will talk again next week. I might be over the hump by then.