Trusted Friend: Relying on the Promise of Writer’s Block
August 14, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Jennie Burke
I assigned a persona to my writer’s block. He keeps guard over my laptop like a reliable, funny friend. My stuckness is mop-headed Muppet Mr. Don Music: the one who groans “I’ll never finish this song!” when he can’t get past the first stanza of Mary Had a Little Lamb. He bangs his fuzzy rectangle head against the keys in agony. He wails and whines and rubs his gigantic eyebrow with the back of a tethered arm.
The light-hearted comparison was born from a need to survive. I was writing about my brother, a living, breathing, opiate addicted human being. It wasn’t a lack of creativity or motivation that stopped me from doing the work; I was afraid he would sue me, or worse.
In the fall of 2019 I shared the first chapter of my manuscript with a publisher. When she asked to see more, I told her (while wiping a renegade tear… “dang allergies!”) that I couldn’t give it over. I was afraid my brother would burn my house down if he knew I was writing the story. And besides, the saga was ongoing. Matt was still using.
Addiction fulfilled its promise and continued to besiege my brother. He died of an overdose on May 15th. He was a 43-year-old attorney, and a beloved father of five children.
A few hours after I learned of his death, in the middle of the night, I turned to the solace of my familiar. The computer. I pitched a favorite addiction editor who once rejected me. The pitch was more of a letter, since I had developed a one-sided relationship with her. I read her column. I followed her on Twitter. I researched her essays. She had unknowingly been with me on the journey, and I felt an urgency: she needed to know.
She responded immediately, and together we embarked on a two month odyssey to write this essay. Free from the fear of my brother’s aggression, the writing flowed essentially. I persisted for the sake of my own sanity, and the legions of addiction sisters following in my footsteps. My faithful buddy, Don Music, was nowhere to be found. I no longer needed his silly dramatics. I changed old habits to support this new wealth of creativity.
I set routines. Caring for a family of six, and the anxiety of 2020, stole my life’s loose structure. To support the grief writing I committed to a regular bedtime and set an early morning alarm. I vowed to treat my brain to the rest it needed to fire full throttle.
Next, I set boundaries. Not the kind I used to set with my extended family (like: we can’t come to Christmas; he’s using) …the boundaries that would produce work. I told my family when and where I would be writing, then asked them to give me space and peace. They were more than supportive. They were happy to see me writing.
I found mentors and opened myself to criticism. By June I joined two interactive writing classes, and one zoom-style salon. I contacted addiction authors. I applied for workshops. I overcame my fear of Twitter and reached out to editors. Some wrote back, some expressed interest (then ghosted me), some accepted my work.
In a complete reversal from depressive episodes, I adopted health habits. I hike every morning. It clears my mind and shakes off excess energy – I like writing after a brisk walk. I have also stopped drinking. I used to enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings, even though I knew I was in for a night of poor sleep and morning regret. Now, with so much so say, I can’t afford the grogginess. I don’t miss drinking. I feel solidarity with my brother when I consider breaking my fast.
As a writer, and a sister of an addict, I keep an inventory of fear: fear of writing a true story, of my family knowing about it, of being abandoned for sharing The Truth, and most of all, of losing my brother. These things all happened, but they no longer separate me from my words. And that’s something to fear too. What if I say everything there is about losing a brother to opiates? Will I grow bored of my words, my ego, my sorrow? Will everyone else?
It creeps in…Don Music is in another room, pressing one cloying key. He’s not funny anymore. What happens when this burst busts? When I’ll long to play free, know the next line by heart, have it fly from my fingertips. Writing will become hard again. I’ll be patient. I’ll ride it out. If there’s one thing that loving an addict and writing have in common, it’s that both are acts of hope.
Jennie Burke has been featured in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, Scary Mommy, Motherwell and various publications. She has an MFA from Goucher College and is a certified English teacher. Her work in progress is an addiction memoir. She is a married mother of four teenagers, and calls Baltimore and New Orleans home. Follow her on Twitter @jennieburke