Medically Proven Cure For Writer’s Block

Medically Proven Cure For Writer’s Block

Summers in Santa Barbara are or have been blissfully mild, allowing every sort of diversion or recreation.  I spent two as a Teaching Fellow at the South Coast Writing Project working with teachers who hoped to teach writing.  The Director, Sheridan Blau, brought in a host of writers, some nationally celebrated, some academic, some amateur, all of whom described the processes by which they got words on the page.  He’d build on their comments, set the class a set of assignments and wait for the inevitable throat clearing and, yes, dare I say, whining. “Why is this like opening a vein?” Sheridan inevitably barked.  The bark was delivered frequently enough that the class pitched in for a t shirt emblazoning the phrase surrounded by blood spatter.

Fetching.

So, Writer’s Block.  It’s a real thing. I’ve seen it for years and have had an occasional bout of blockage myself.  Over many, many years of reading the work that came from blocked imaginations, I devised and borrowed assignments that were intended to liberate the writer.  My colleagues may have insisted on quality; I wanted fluency. Revision is a separate and exceedingly helpful skill, but one that can only follow fluency. There has to be something to revise.  I won’t trot out every stratagem in one tip sheet, but I will explain one of the most effective and provide live footage (on paper) of a writer galloping down the path I suggest.

Borrowing from those who compose music, I’ve called this, “Writing In The Key Of And…” , by which I mean asking the writer to summon up a memory of any sort, any subject as long as there is some immediacy to it, then describe the event without using any punctuation – no capitalization,no pauses, ellipses, periods, question marks.  Nada. However, every separate thought or description has to be introduced by the word “and”. There’s some resistance at the outset, and many questions, but then the magic often happens.

There is something about a headlong rush through the describing of a moment that can bring breathless urgency to a piece.  Part of the process is that it shoves together the essential and the transitory, the observed and the imagined, self-reflection and the emotion of the moment.  I say, “Throw attentive self-editing to the winds. No room for doubt. Keep the pace. Go wherever your mind takes you. Then let’s see what you’ve got.”

My car’s battery died last week.  Not a particularly notable event. As it must to all batteries, last week death came to mine.  Here’s my Key of And:

“What the hell the car is just not working and lights are flashing and then not flashing and then nothing at all and I am supposed to be going to volunteer at the Hospice Boutique and I like volunteering and I hate being late and I hate ditching even more and I have ditched many many too many things in the course of my life and what the hell is the course of my life and is it a course as in path or is a course as in academic course and that’s exactly the sort of question that serves absolutely no purpose and the expression that comes to mind is tits on a bull and that is a vile expression and how do I get things out of my head that I do not want in my head and songs are among those things and I have a song in my head literally around the clock and I don’t know actually if I do when I sleep and I do know it’s there when I wake up and many of them are from God knows where or when and that put the song who knows where or when in my head and that’s not one I want in my head and I have to do a quick recasting of songs and I’m trying as hard as I can and come with que sera sera and that’s not much better in terms of existential panic and I do like the tune though and I can keep that on in the background and think about other things and one of those things is death and dying and that’s two things and maybe one after all and I won’t know until I know and that’s if I know and what am I doing spilling my guts here and where am I supposed to spill my guts and I wish I had a guru or master who welcomed gut spill and I actually really don’t want a guru or master foraging through my guts and I have to get out of this assignment and this will be the end.”

Cautionary note.  I am remembering how hard it is to return to a crafted sentence after having enjoyed the literary wind in my hair, and, of course, I am tempted to go off on a riff about my hair or lack thereof.  So there are some issues with fluency that will need attention. On the other hand, I am reading Anna Burns Milkman, a book that won the Mann Booker Prize and one that I find fascinating.  It’s not quite written in the key advertised above, but there are moments that come close.

From page 200, randomly selected:

“ ‘It’s creepy, perverse, obstinately determined’ went on longest friend, she said, ‘It’s not as if , friend,’ she said, ‘glancing at some newspaper as this were a case of a person glancing at some newspaper, as they’re walking along to get the latest headlines or something.  It’s the way you do it- reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea beside you, essays being penned – your discourses, your lubrications.  It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical illusion. Not public spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why – with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pull together – would anyone want to call attention to themselves here’.  

Why indeed?

Some readers will have arrived at this point having read both passages, and some may come away with an appreciation of fluency as an end itself.  Others, not so much. All I can offer at the end of this exercise is that no veins were opened in the making of this essay.

I’m done, and it is probably not necessary to say that the last bit in the last sentence sent me to the exculpatory note at the end of movies in which no animals, they say, have been harmed, and from there …

And Now … From The Sideline

And Now … From The Sideline

Welcome to Premier Sideline and Post Game Sports Academy, the number one institution preparing paying students to break into the exciting world of sideline and post game sports reporting. Right now you’re thinking, ” Heck, I can’t think of anything to ask elite athletes in the few moments they have outside of the mortal combat that is professional sports.” No worries. Before we’re done today, you’ll be slicker than an eel in Vaporub.

The key to effective sideline work is remembering that an athlete or coach gets a huge kick out of being questioned before, during, and after a game. They’ll pretend to be harried or dismissive, but that’s simply their way of inviting a second or third version of the same question asked with increasing urgency. Try to get as physically close to your interview as possible. If you can actually get a microphone to touch the subject’s face, you’ll find rapport almost immediately. Finally, remember that there are four surefire types of questions that never fail to bring a television audience to a deeper understanding of the game.

I, “How does/did you feel …”

There is simply no way the average viewer can imagine the emotion that follows victory or defeat. The more significant the challenge (World Series, Superbowl, Stanley Cup, US Open), the more unexpected the response is likely to be. Who can begin to guess how an athlete feels in the aftermath of being trounced? What might be in a coach’s mind after an expected underdog has blown his team off the field? Viewers need our help in accessing the deepest emotions so that they can more completely understand what motivates players and coaches at the highest level of competition. If you can get to a coach in the first seconds after the final whistle, you’ll be the one to capture the illuminating insights he or she has to share with a disappointed public.

II. “How do you explain…?”

Let’s say you’ve broken into the lucrative ice skating field. A young Olympic hopeful has caught an edge in her final performance, sprawling across the ice at high speed. She’s sustained a nasty abrasion across her face and upper body, her spangled costume is shredded, and her coach has stormed out of the building. The viewer at home is puzzled. Why has she dynamited her chances of reaching fame and fortune? It’s up to you to ask the question, probing beyond whatever response she gives to a more profound admission of her tangled aberrations of personality. Once you’ve opened the floodgates, perhaps suggesting some form of abuse at home, who knows what magical insights might spill past the tears?

III. “Why did you/don’t you …”

Once again, you can’t go wrong in helping the viewer understand the fine points of the game or contest. Coaches are paid enormous sums of money to conceptualize and execute performances that bring victory. Win or lose, they enjoy sharing the thought processes that have resulted in their team’s performance. Don’t be timid. You’re an expert too. Go ahead and ask the question any viewer would ask in your position. For example, a professional basketball game often ends with a final play that decides the outcome of the contest. Go ahead, ask the coach: “Why don’t you guys shoot like the Warriors?” “Why doesn’t your player hauling down eighteen million dollars a year make the open shot” “Why do you always lose the close games?” You are bound to find a warm response and a wealth of information.

IV. “Do you think …”

We have a responsibility to take on the most significant issues of our time, recognizing that athletes in particular have much to say about the world beyond the field or court. Ask a player what he thinks about the professional athlete’s lifestyle in comparison to the experience of a homeless mother camping in an abandoned trailer with her five children. Ask about gender reassignment. Ask about the impact of a jump in interest rate by the Federal Reserve. Almost all professional football players have attended colleges and universities of national repute; they are certainly prepared to contend with the thorniest of questions, and they’ll appreciate your confidence in their intellectual acumen.

Sure, there may be missteps along the way, awkward misunderstandings, but the viewer understands that your intention are good and will easily forgive the occasional gaffe. So you asked Doug Williams how long he’d been a Black quarterback, you asked Shaun Phillips if the Super Bowl was a “must win” game, so you asked Richard Sherman how to stop football players from going to strip clubs, so you congratulated Nicholas Mahut on winning a match he had lost, so you asked Shaquille O’Neal if he would suck snake venom from his mom’s chest in order to win a championship?

Come on! The public has a right to know!

Fortunately they can count on the next generation of sideline and postgame pundits to keep the fans in the game. Here at Premiere Sideline and Post Game Sports Academy, you’ll get the training you need to take your place in the pantheon of great pundits, the next to ask Bill Belichick if he maps out routines for Patriot cheerleaders or Nick Saban if Alabama players can actually read and write. Your future lies ahead and for a mere thousand dollars a week more, you can couple your PSPGSA degree with the certification program offered through the Premiere PGA Hole Description Academy or the Premiere ABA Whispered Bowling PLay-By-Play Academy.

Meanwhile, remember defense wins championships, you can’t coach height, and there is no “I” in team.

It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea …

It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea …

A good friend is heading back to our college for his fiftieth reunion, and, in a misguided attempt to gather stories which might animate  conversation around the beer tent, asked me to recall one of the more unlikely decisions I reached somewhere in the middle of my sophomore or junior year.  As might be inferred by the uncertainty with which I date this classic tale, many of my decisions were far more regrettable than unlikely, and in the spirit of bonhomie, I figured this one was probably not going to cause my children to divorce me.  After all, they have a pretty good grasp of my decision-making skills.

So, whenever this took place, I had established a thriving enterprise, selling my typing “skills” for cash back in the days in which my stereo, camera, and guitar had all been pawned; I had probably been over generous in supporting charities or may have sent funds to a child in Uzbekistan. In any case, I could type reasonably well and was willing to work at any hour with short notice.  Clients lined up, usually around ten thirty in the evening. Did I make mistakes? Sure, but I had a jug of White Out and perfection was rarely demanded. Just get the thing done, they’d say, shoving a yellow legal pad or wad of lined paper under my door.

In the year in question, I had  contracted with a the captain of the football team, a behemoth who may have had but one eye,  to transcribe his handwritten essay on “The Mating Habits of the Bering Seal”. The singularity of eye is not central to the story, but the more I think about who I was dealing with, the more unlikely my decision seems in hindsight.   To be fair,there were so many errors of judgment made before I even got my paws on the paper; Bering Seals? Delivering the paper into my hands?

I started the job sometime after the general hubbub died down, and the fraternity lounge had emptied.  The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson had ended, and I had the peace and quiet I needed to give the task my complete attention.  The first two pages were a snap, done quickly. Somewhere in the middle of the third, right after the description of the flora and fauna of the Pribilof Islands and its unique position as seal rookery (“The Galapagos of the North”), somewhere after the endless factoids about Callorhinus ursinus ( their fur contains approximately 46,500 hairs per centimeter.  The male weighs in at about 600 pounds, the svelte female a trim 160 pounds), that fancy kicked in.

How, I wondered did that sleek female entice the bull from the sea?  What configurations of fur and fin could allow, much less enhance, their romance?  To be clear, these were speculations outside the range of the author’s intent, but the hour was late, brain cells were dying, the avalanche of facts allowed no clear narrative, and besides, Prof Burns was unlikely to read beyond the first two pages and the last.  I had a slew of Pribilof Island facts to dish out at the end, and I just could not go on without allowing myself a slight diversion from the text.

And so, rhapsody began.

“The aroused female bathes in the pounding surf, tendrils of foam cover her tingling whiskers.  She slides to a flat rock near the water’s edge, knowing that the bull of her choice will surface momentarily.  She curls one flipper behind what would have been her ear had she been a Sea Lion, waving slowly in time with ocean’s tidal roar.  Her tail, ordinarily flat against the stone is raised and tilted. It too moves with measured allure. She allows a husky bark to welcome the bull as his massive head breaks the surface.  The bark of the Bering Seal can alert to danger or signal distress, but deep in the heaving bosom of this female, the cry was clearly, “Come to me, take me, make me your slave!”

Or something pretty close to that.

Paper delivered, payment rendered, happy days.

Prof. Burns, however, was apparently unaware of the skim-the-paper convention, finding my superbly crafted prose a detriment to the student’s work.  My memory of those days is hazy at best, so I can’t tell you why I am alive. I probably retyped the dreadful thing and sent an apology to Burns. I hope that was the resolution of the ugly affair.

The open market, is a cruel mistress; it was this essay that ended my career as a round-the-clock typist.  Word traveled quickly when the professor read the offending paragraph to the Animal Biology class, failing to credit the author, but suggesting that some typists were not to be trusted with Bering Seals.

What has taunted me over the decades is the knowledge that I could knock out seal porn by  the carload, but could never find a voice as an author of Romance novels, the market that never shrinks, the only sort of publishing with the exception of the Young Adult novel, still in demand.  I’ve tried, simply substituting the name Ramona for the seal, but it gets tangled somewhere between the foam and the tilted tail. The mind boggles. Or, more unfortunately, my mind boggles.

Should a market for Romance humor emerge,I might have a shot, but until I am contracted to write Fifty Shades of Seal Fur, my best work is behind me.

A Perfect Day

A Perfect Day

Sometimes the writing gods are on duty, and extraordinary conversations overheard fall into my lap without any effort on my part.  I’m not one who sees writing as an “open the vein” sort of exercise in frustration and pain anyway, probably because I have avoided editing, self-editing, or corrective opinion of any kind as I present myself in print.  Those of you familiar with my work (?)  know that I court the spontaneous, serendipitous, shapeless reflection; I woo the slightly goofy muse, and she obliges by the pound.

The which is to say that as I drove to town this morning, I stumbled on a story about a the prospective creation of an energy farm in a neighboring county in Oregon.  Yes, yes, renewable energy, responsible stewardship of the planet, high-minded conservation all well and good, but … the proposed hydro-electric system would plant poles and wires smack in the middle of an Edenic chicken farm overlooking the Lost River.  The owner of the farm, Jon Hobbs takes the well-being of his chickens seriously.  As a treat in the deepest months of winter, Hobbs chucks bales of alfalfa next to the chicken houses for his 3000 plus chicks, understanding that even alfalfa gets old after a while.  As reported on NPR, Hobbs admits, ““The chickens love alfalfa, but if it gets a little stemmy, then they’ll come over and say, ‘You gotta do better than this, Jon.’ They’re very spoiled.”

Hydro political cackling aside, Hobbs, concerned about the effect of incursions into chicken heaven, describes the life of the chicken in terms even I can understand.  “For a chicken the perfect day is the day just like the day before.”

I get it, and it brings me to a sudden and unexpected realization:  I’m with the chickens on this one.  In my impetuous youth (until I turned 50), I hungered for endless variety, spontaneity, unexpected twists and turns, the twistier the better.  Then, as it must to all men, the twists started to come  home to roost, forgive me the cheap humor.  I am not currently indicted, I do not have an attorney on retainer, no bracelet on my ankle.  That’s a good thing.  My kids know I’m a phone call away; my wife can plan her life several weeks in advance. We watch different shows on Monday than we do on Wednesday, and I might experiment with new ways of cooking zucchini (sautéed in olive oil with tomatoes and my carefully guarded blend of herbs and spices), but there’s something like a heady blend of gratitude and acceptance in our relatively consistent lives.  Perfect?  No.  The usual responsible adult stuff (taxes, leaking roof, aging dog) comes along, but these are what are called quality problems.  Lots of gratitude.

So, the day began with chicken wisdom, closely followed by a conversation with a friend about her experience growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a region so distinctly itself that it boasts one of the few remaining stop-you-in-the-middle-of-a-sentence accents.  You’ll know a Yooper by his/her/their Yooper English or Yoopanese (look it up if you don’t believe me), and by the words only Yoopers know.  “Ya, dat’s some good swampers, eh?”  My friend was easy to place when she announced that she had lost her “chook” when she “went store”.    Swampers, rubber boots with leather uppers; chooks knitted winter hats.

Not to digress, but words used for the generally knitted, usually woolen hat without brim pretty much indicates where you’re from, i.e. watch cap, ski cap, stocking cap, toboggan, wooly hat, snow hat, beanie, toque, poof ball hat, tossel cap, chook.

Ok, yup, I digress.

So, my friend’s dilemma (no chook) lead to stories about her father, a barber with a sense of style and humor.  Once a year he would offer friends and family a free haircut, sculpt their hair with idiosyncratic care, sending them home with a topknot or bare head with side chops, this back in the 1950’s when uniformity of hair was pretty much demanded of males over the age of thirty.  They came back in a day or two, shaved everything off, and started over in preparation for the next year’s barbering.  Pretty nifty, I replied, only to learn that her dad was even more inventive than I could have possibly imagined.

Those of us who remember the days before credit will remember what a huge deal it was to arrive home with a new car.  Same for this family, and to celebrate, the Yooper barber painted the house the color of the new car, and this back in the days when nobody drove a Vanilla Shake, Tahitian Pearl, or Glacial Glow, essentially white car.  Ambulances were white.  The milk delivery truck.  Mail truck.  We live in a grayscale car universe today, but in 1956, dad might have arrived home with a two-tone red and white car, or a wagon with wood panelling.  Either would have made for a fairly distinctive home decor.

I sat astounded as the story spun out, silently cheering that barber, when it struck me that my days are often exactly like the day before, except for the stories waiting to be told.  There are a bunch of lousy and painful stories out there, of course, and the distress with which many people live is not to be ignored, but there are sustaining and healing stories as well, and not just on mid-afternoon tv.

Traditional stories pull us in with an opening line – “A great while ago, when the world was full of wonders …”, “At a time when men and animals were all the same people and spoke the same language…”, “In a place neither near or far, in a time neither then or now…”.  I spent a few years trying to develop some skill as a storyteller, didn’t get very far, but learned that if I felt the urgency of the opening lines, the story told itself.  The key, as is evident in the lines presented above, is to give the story some space and some time.

My best attempt began in this fashion, “Once in the city of the Sultan, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din a wretched boy was born …”  Pretty good opening and it allowed me all kinds of room to paint pictures, introduce characters, and finally get down to a star-crossed love story with an ironic twist at the end.

I haven’t thought about that story in a while, and it’s brought to mind some others I wouldn’t mind telling again, especially the ones about the selkies and the White Snake.

So, here I am, at the end of a day very much like yesterday, but now brimming with stories.

Perfect.