July 13, 2022 § 18 Comments
By Deborah Sosin
I learned Transcendental Meditation just before entering college. As part of the training, my teacher assigned me a mantra, a one-syllable Sanskrit word. She instructed me to say my mantra out loud, then repeat it silently with my eyes closed.
It’s been fifty years, and I still meditate twice a day. And I still return to my mantra as a touchpoint when my mind wanders off, which it inevitably does. After so long, the process happens smoothly, with no conscious thought. And, often, worries float away and clarity and wisdom emerge.
Lately, I’ve been recommending mantras to my writing students and editorial clients. Not the Sanskrit kind, but those reminders that bear learning, practicing, and repeating until they become more internalized, more automatic.
Invoking mantras is particularly useful late in the revision process—that stage when we might think we’re done; when we’re eager (desperate?) for objective feedback, possibly from a professional editor.
But before you hit send, hit pause first. Then try a round or two of self-editing, starting with this pithy quote as your anchor:
“Fiction is the art of invention; nonfiction is the art of selection.”
Naturally, we’re emotionally attached to the events, characters, plot twists, and outcomes of our life experiences, whether we’re writing essays or memoir. So, how do we choose which ones “count”? How do we shape a story that readers will not only enjoy but one they can connect with, delight in, learn from? Then ask yourself:
What does the reader really need to know?
Becoming a selection expert takes practice and the willingness to let go. We might mourn the loss of a scene or turning point that felt vital in our lives. That’s OK. Mourn away, and when you’re ready, move on.
In answering this question honestly, you’ll recognize that even major milestones or entire relationships can be omitted, or summarized, with nothing lost for the reader. For example, one editing client wrote eight pages about her second marriage, which sounded almost identical to her first marriage—claustrophobic and miserable. As a reader, I’d learned nothing new. Using this mantra, the author later whittled that relationship down to three sentences.
Also ask yourself, “Why should my reader care?” Allison Williams, in Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, discusses the “So What Factor” and urges writers to get beyond the personal and consider the universal. What about my story is important for readers not only to know about but to relate to meaningfully through their own experience?
What is my story, anyway?
You’re probably familiar with Vivian Gornick’s classic craft book The Situation and the Story. As an essayist, I had always written decent scenes and dialogue and did pretty well with the personal-to-universal paradigm. But I tended to favor situation over story, that is, recounting events from my life without delving enough into the underlying meaning. Recently, this mantra helped me elevate what was originally a light, word-nerdy essay about completing my late father’s unfinished New York Times crossword puzzles. Digging in, I discovered something much deeper—a story of loss and love and connection.
If this mantra is challenging (join the club!), try this gem from Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones: “What am I really trying to say?” If you notice flat prose or muddled logic but feel stuck about how to revise, do a free-write (writing without stopping or censoring), exploring any associated memories and insights. If painful emotions arise that interfere with your creative process, flag that part, let it marinate, and come back to it.
Less is more.
An oldie but goodie and always applicable. Go through your draft. Highlight any passages that divert from your core point. Does the remaining text make sense? Does it amplify your story or detract? Cut as much as you can without losing the narrative thread. Do the same for each paragraph and, ultimately, each sentence.
Here’s an excerpt from a manuscript I evaluated:
“Before I go on with the California saga, let me just say that I love California. I wouldn’t have spent so many years there if I didn’t. But, like many people who keep going back, trying to spend as much time there as possible, my first emotion toward it is one of loathing.”
After invoking the “less is more” mantra, the author wrote: “I have a love-hate relationship with California.” Aha! The author then used the same technique with other wordy, weighty sections. The revised manuscript sparkles.
Toss extraneous words.
Sometimes it’s hard to notice our own quirks and writerly habits. Try a “micro” pass to catch specific words or phrases that you overuse. I once flagged multiple instances of “So,” “Well,” “In fact,” “Of course,” and “That said” for a client who thought she was done. Rather than paying me to clean them up, she took a turn at self-editing before resubmitting a tighter version. Reading your work aloud is also a great way to catch excess verbiage.
If you try these mantras as you revise, there’s a good chance that new insights will arise from deep inside—and clarity and wisdom will emerge.
Deborah Sosin is a Boston-based writer, editor, psychotherapist, and GrubStreet instructor. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Cognoscenti, Writer’s Digest, The Manifest-Station, JMWW Journal, and elsewhere. Her craft essay on the self as antihero in CNF appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle. Debbie authored the picture book Charlotte and the Quiet Place, which won the Gold INDIEFAB and Silver IPPY awards, among several honors. Since 2009, Debbie has led “Write It Like It Is” free-writing groups. Find more on her work at www.deborahsosin.com
December 13, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Sarah Baker
Chief Complaint: Writer’s Block
Subjective: (PMHx: Past Medical History): Childhood hx severe persistent asthma requiring repeated hospital admissions, gradual resolution over adolescence, adult history of mild intermittent asthma. Also, “bunions,” early onset severe bilateral functional hallux valgus, where her hallux (big toes) nestle snugly into their neighbors. Pt denies pain, or impairment of ambulation. Reports rare anxiety-well managed. Pt’s two front teeth are fake, and she’s allergic to cats. Otherwise, Pt is a healthy, 54-year-old female.
HPI (History of present illness): Pt reports 2-day onset persistent inability to perform creative duties related to writing. Denies premonition or precursor. First onset of these symptoms for her, last Monday. Pt reports normal ADLs including: she drank her latte, scanned the headlines, meditated, did a free-write. When Pt sat down to write a Hermit Crab essay, she went blank. Totally blank. She describes a “fortified box-like structure in her brain.” It was “empty,” Pt says, “the sides were made of impenetrable steel.” “No ideas were getting in or coming out.” Pt further describes onset of increased heart rate, shallow and audible breathing, impending sense of doom. Pt denies frank wheezes, chest pain, dizziness, loss of consciousness.
Pt self-assessment and self-care: Pt takes a deep breath and types “Hermit Crab essay” in her browser. She finds an article that mentions the book Tell it Slant, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Pt calls local bookstore to see if they have a copy. No copies. She calls another local bookstore. No copies. Pt tries local library. No copies. Pt describes googling “Hermit Crab essay” again, and finding an article by Miller. Pt reads it, but her inability to perform creative duties related to writing persists. Pt then searches Brevity’s website, and finds an article about Dr. Christine Stewart-Nuñez’s Creative Nonfiction class (where students write hermit crab essays) at South Dakota State University. Virginia Tufte’s book Artful Sentences is mentioned in the article. Pt owns this book. By page 16, Pt reports underlining sentences: Tennessee Williams’s “The Nothingness Continued;” Norman Mailer’s “Harmony settled over the kitchen;” Valerie Boyd’s “John Hurston, however, ached with ambition.”
Pt describes further reading and underlining: Lawrence Durrell’s “They peel the morning like fruit;” Wyndham Lewis’s “Two stripes ornamented the sleeve.” Pt recalls thinking about metaphors, and vows to work on them, the way she works on her net game in tennis.
Pt continues to struggle with Writer’s Block, and wonders if exercise might help. Or maybe psychedelics? She’s been thinking of a Michael Pollen-type journey and ponders if now is the time?
A notification flashes across Pt’s computer screen: iCloud Storage full. She recalls running down the stairs to get her credit card. She remembers turning on the electric kettle, and running to the basement to put in laundry. Pt inputs her credit card, and fixes her iCloud storage.
Pt begins to feel an easing of her symptoms. She’s just returned from four days away: Visiting her father, who has Alzheimer’s; dinner with her estranged half-brother; and a weekend of glamping on Governor’s Island for a friend’s birthday. Though Pt loves her view of the Statue of Liberty, she hasn’t planned for the all-night party boats that circle New York harbor. Pt concludes she is exhausted physically and emotionally. Pt reports needing someone to take care of her, and to give her permission for the way she is feeling. Pt recalls feeling relief to be home, and she hadn’t had a steady home growing up, and Pt is so grateful to have one now. Pt starts to cry. And all Pt wants is what she calls “a Doctor’s Note,” one that says it is okay that she has Writer’s Block. That it is understandable given her weekend, her life story, and all the baggage she carries around with her because she lost her mother when she was eight, her father had abandoned her, and she describes herself as a Leave No Trace girl. Pt recounts often performing, and trying to always be a good listener, and trying to make everyone else feel great. And Pt says she just needs “a Doctor’s Note” because she’s putting so much pressure on herself after deciding to leave her last job. And she’s been waiting to hear about a dream job, and has had five long, and what she thinks are successful, interviews, but the director isn’t getting back to her, or returning her emails. And her friends are wondering if this is a bad sign. And Pt describes sadness because she is a new empty nester and her youngest is living in Germany, and she is worried about his safety because that’s what mothers do. And that he is skipping a soccer practice to go to Fridays for Future meetings because he is prioritizing his climate change activism over his soccer, and that he is taking a 23-hour bus to Glasgow for Cop23, and Pt frets over when she will see him next because he doesn’t want to fly anymore, and a boat ride from Germany takes forever, and he doesn’t get that much time off from soccer. And Pt misses him.
Objective: What’s objective about reacting to life, grieving, regaining one’s footing, seeing the world for what it is? Maybe nothing’s objective…
Assessment: Life attack
Plan: Regarding the above note, it seems Pt’s symptoms eased after some distractions, and went away once she lightened up. In the future, when these symptoms appear, I recommend Pt relax, chill out. She’ll be fine. No medication required. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
Sarah Baker is a freelance writer, and has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, CommonHealth on WBUR, and other places. She has been a magazine editor, radio producer, and book editor. Thanks to Phebe Kiryk, MSN-CNP for help with medical terminology. You can follow her work at SarahBakerStories.com.
February 6, 2020 § 33 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
“I miss the joy of words,” I said to my coworker through a mouthful of potato chips while trying to ignore the ping of my inbox. “I miss synonyms and antonyms and the thrill of reworking a sentence until it sounds like music.” I had been trying to write on my lunch break, and everything felt wrong. Nothing I wrote sounded like me. Well – not like the old me, anyway.
After years of writing for joy and pleasure and occasionally, publication, for the last 10 months, writing has meant one single, terrible thing – dealing with my grief.
My father – arguably the most (positively and negatively) influential person in my entire life – died unexpectedly in his sleep last May. He was only 65, so it was a shock. He was also recently retired, happier than he’d ever been, and finally getting used to sobriety, which had been a pretty bumpy ride for the first 9 years he had been doing it. He was, for all intents and purposes, the best he had ever been. And then he was gone.
Since then, when I write, it feels like this: I am a jug overflowing with shitty feelings, confusion, and pain. When my pen hits paper (or more often, my fingers hit keyboard), the little faucet on the jug is turned, and suddenly, all of the grief comes spilling out. It gets everywhere. There’s very little I can do to control the flow. The only thing I can do to regain a sense of control is to stop writing. Which I hate doing. Because I’m a writer.
When the mess comes out of me, it’s self-indulgent and disorganized and weird and full of convoluted allusions and references to things no one would understand. It’s basically a few steps below what my journal looked like in the 7th grade.
When I try to revise what I’ve written, dreaming perhaps of placing my poignant, heart-wrenching piece in a top-tier publication, and later, being asked to give a talk on grief at some exclusive writing retreat (hey, it could happen), it feels impossible. Like trying to put a person with no bones into a prom dress. (Wow. I can’t even come up with a good simile anymore.)
So now I’m left with these pages and pages of brain-dump. These floppy, uncooperative words that do no one any good, least of all me. Because I want them, more than anything, to serve a purpose. I want them to reach people, maybe even help people. I miss the craft. I miss the hunt for the perfect phrase. I miss the art of writing, and the pay-off when it’s really, really good.
I sit in coffee shops and stare at the blank screen of my laptop, the cursor blinking at me in Morse code – Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t sit here and whine about things you can’t change. Don’t feel a million feelings instead of finding meaning. Don’t forget what it feels like to create something good. Don’t let this grief last too much longer. Don’t let this year go by without a byline. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
For whatever reason, even though it’s only been 10 short months since this huge, life-changing loss, writing just to get the grief out of me – just to keep emptying that big, way-too-full jug over and over again – isn’t good enough. Perhaps what I need more than anything is a way to forgive myself for being full to the brim with this strange new sadness.
It’s not really an acute sadness, the kind that feels like a needle prick or a sharp pain. It’s dull, and it’s everywhere, and yes – it does leave room for other feelings, moments of happiness and enjoyment and delight. But underneath it all is this huge wave of – ugh. When I’m working, I rarely feel it. When I’m hanging out with my friends, I rarely feel it. I have moments of distraction, moments when I’m not just functioning, I’m doing really, really well. But the second I try to write – it’s all that exists. There is nothing else inside me.
I feel productive and useful when I write – specifically, when that writing is fit for public consumption. I assign a lot of personal value to that; meaning, the better my writing is, and the better received it is, the better I feel as a person. I know that I only became a good, useful writer because for years, I filled journal after journal with mindless immature dramatic drivel, the unvarnished messiness of my adolescent brain spilling out uncontrollably – so why now, when I have something legitimately difficult and complicated to work through, can I not give myself a break and just let it flow?
I don’t have an answer, unfortunately, but that’s okay. Through writing, I ask myself hard questions, and sometimes I don’t get to a satisfying end. Sometimes it’s just a way to scream out to the Universe, “Hey – what the hell is going on?!” I know that the Universe is not going to answer me. I do know, however, that the jug of grief inside of me will change shape and become more or less full with every passing day, and the only thing I can do at this point is keep turning the tap and hope for something beautiful to come.
Rae Pagliarulo is the flash nonfiction editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living in the fundraising and resource development sector. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.
August 7, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Alice Lowe
My writing buddy, Jim, is the only person to whom I confess my current impasse. To others I’m taking stock, generating ideas, planning. Whatever I can say in lieu of dried up, empty-headed, in a funk. In lieu of the inadmissible: w______ b____. I shrink from the admission and what it might say about me—that I’m a quitter, lazy, bereft of creativity—just as I would be loath to reveal a sexually-transmitted disease. The most I’m prepared to say is that “I’m struggling a bit.”
Jim and I met in a memoir class eight years ago, both of us recently retired from business careers. We still meet every two weeks and are well acquainted with each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He flags my ample alliterations and excessive em-dashes. I circle his run-on sentences. We celebrated each other’s first published essay and every subsequent success. We’ve withstood times of plenitude and drought.
Me: I’m struggling a bit.
Jim: I’d suggest writing from prompts, but I know you hate it.
Me: I don’t hate it, just have difficulty getting started. I can’t generate anything on cue.
Jim: Try again—what can you lose?
Me: Mmm, maybe so.
Prompts are everywhere, I add, stirred by his challenge. I pick up a book from the end table. Sustainability: A Love Story, by Nicole Walker. I flip to a random page and read: “Everything grows more slowly in Flagstaff.”
We look at each other wide-eyed.
Jim: “Wow. That’s a good one.”
I agree, but it doesn’t help.
Me: I’m still struggling. Actually, I’m stuck.
Jim: Why don’t you write about it?
Me: Everyone writes about … writer’s block. There, I’ve said it.
Jim: And we always read them!
Me: What would I say?
Jim: How about “Everyone writes about writer’s block.”
Everyone writes about writer’s block. Every writer knows it firsthand, whatever they call it, whatever their experience. Carson McCullers was paralyzed by it. Samuel Coleridge resorted to opium. Toni Morrison rejects the term but knows the feeling. Hilary Mantel suggests getting away from your desk. John McPhee says to write your way out of it. Mind over matter. Write. Or take a break. Either way, it’s a phase. It will pass.
I wrote a craft piece several years ago, “How to Become a Writer After Sixty.” I advise: “Be patient but firm with yourself. When you’re not inspired or productive don’t call it writer’s block—bowels and sinuses get blocked, not writers.” But that was when I was flooded with ideas, when life stories queued up in my brain.
But surely I haven’t exhausted the experiences of a long and rich life, esoteric themes ripe for development. I’ve researched and written about baseball and Arctic exploration, maps, noodles, cookbooks, and obscure novelists. What else might I unearth?
I’m invigorated by beginnings, real or arbitrary—the start of the year, spring equinox, as soon as this (fill-in-the-blank) commitment is over—times of transition, of renewal, of fresh beginnings. This January began to work its magic as I made lists—to do, to read, to write. I looked at notes I’d jotted down but hadn’t followed up. Sentences, paragraphs and pages abandoned to slush files. I started with a few carry-overs; ideas began to bubble to the surface.
My creativity awakened, like a congealed sauce that needs to be stirred and heated to revive its essence.
Or like Flagstaff, where everything grows more slowly, and which, a tantalizing topic, I put at the top of the list.
Alice Lowe writes about life, literature, food and family in San Diego. Recent essays appear in Ascent, Bloom, Hobart, Stonecoast Review, Superstition Review, and Waccamaw Review. She has been cited in the Best American Essays notables and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
April 18, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Sandy Smith
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’re acquainted with the chilly dread of staring at a blank page and coming up dry. So how do you catch yourself a muse? In the old days, you could summon the Muses by traveling to Mount Helicon and performing supplications or having a god intercede on your behalf. Thankfully, modern-day muses (having dropped the pretentious uppercase) are more accessible. They are notoriously picky though, so everything in your arsenal has to be on point if you want to successfully enlist a muse in your battle against writer’s block.
Ideally, your writing will take place in an area with sufficient privacy. You should optimally have an office of your own. If you can’t have an office of your own, have a closet. If you can’t have a closet, sit in your car. If you don’t have a car, sit at your kitchen table, but wear an afghan over your head to discourage interruptions.
You will need a Mac, particularly if you ever venture out to write in public. (Note: appearances matter, especially if you are courting the muse at Starbucks.) If you cannot have a Mac, you can get by with a Windows-based device, but for the love of God, get a laptop. Towers are for accountants. You want to be ready to write in a coffee shop at a moment’s notice. You could get by with a notebook, but then you run the risk of looking like a hobbyist writing in a journal and the muse might not recognize you as a Serious Writer.
At some point, though, you will need to put words down on paper instead of typing them into a computer. This can happen if you write conspicuously (and of course you do) and find yourself somewhere laptops would be considered gauche, e.g., your kid’s ballet studio, a fancy restaurant, church. The muse will not take kindly to waiting, so be prepared with a quality notebook and a very expensive pen. Do not show up with a ninety-nine-cent composition notebook (unless you have decoupaged the cover with attractive vintage postcards, say) or a single-subject spiral-bound pad. If you must choose something with a spiral binding, stick to a 6×8-inch trim or, better yet, choose a steno pad.
Regarding pens, you may have a nostalgic preference for the retro Bic Crystal that you used to scribble down your tenth-grade poetic angst; the muse will not. Woo her instead with a Montblanc or a Waterman. If you really want to make your muse swoon, you’ll need a fountain pen. If you fancy pencils, it’s okay. Just, please, either spend some money on a decent mechanical pencil or get the Blackwing 602, like Steinbeck (a guy the muses clearly dug).
It’s common knowledge that muses love office supplies—have plenty on hand. Stock up on index cards and Post-It notes in all sizes and colors. Buy legal pads large and small, Sharpies bold and fine, and gel pens in every color. If you’re fortunate enough to have a home workspace, decorate it with wall-sized white boards and corkboards. Crowd the corkboards with multicolored index cards featuring pithy writing quotes. Remember, a whiteboard filled with convoluted diagrams of a story outline is like a roadmap that will lead the muse directly to you.
Don’t skimp on arty curios. Station them on bookshelves, on the windowsill over your desk, on your actual desk. Make sure you curate an exhibit of these talismans that is blatantly writer themed. Pencil boxes, antique typewriters, and vintage spectacles do nicely.
Get a cat. Consider what Muriel Spark had to say about this: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp … The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk…” The muse is a cat lady.
If all the above fail to coax and retain a muse, secure a writing assignment with a deadline. That usually does the trick.
Sandy Smith is a New York transplant living in Las Vegas with her family. She’s a freelance editor specializing in YA, and she’s currently working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at UCR/Palm Desert. Her short stories have appeared in The Offbeat, Gravel magazine, and the MacGuffin.
August 15, 2016 § 14 Comments
Some pointed advice channeled through guest blogger Anita Gill:
Dear Ugly Truth,
I want to write a memoir about my childhood, but I can’t seem to do it. Every time I sit down to start writing about it, I freeze up. I can’t put down a single word.
I’m so scared that my family will read my memoir and we will have a falling out. I’ve heard of this happening to many memoirists, and I don’t want to do any damage to my family.
How do I get over this fear and write?
* * *
Dear Writer’s Block,
Ah, the fear before the plunge! There’s so much at stake! You have a story you want to share with the world, and by “world” I’m referring to the 15 sentient beings who still read books. You have a narrator looking back on her past and trying to make sense of everything that happened, and coming to some illuminating reasons.
But what if Aunt Gayle gets upset you mentioned her seventh toe? Or how will your mother feel when you include that one time she forgot to pick you up from school and the Wattersons had to take you to their house and feed you stale crackers from their pantry?
Your paralyzing trepidation is merited. Every nonfiction writer who turns inward must face this. That’s why I’ve made a foolproof plan to help you with the process.
Don’t write the memoir. Ever!
Think about it: no one can get mad at something you never wrote!
Okay, I know my argument might seem extreme, but hear me out. I’m sure you’ve heard Anne Lamott’s quote, “You own everything that happened to you.” A lot of writers like to tote that around as a way to encourage you to write your memoir. The quote might be true, but your parents owned you, too. Cause they made you. Ergo, owning what happened to you means they have to own what happened too. Are you ready to draw out that contract with them? It’s almost as bad as being 30 and signing up with your parents for a Verizon family plan! And you don’t want to get their phone calls at 8 p.m. on a Friday night, complaining that you used up all of their data with photos of dogs in a BabyBjörn. That metaphor might seem drawn out, but I think I made myself clear. Don’t. Write.
You have so much to gain from thwarting your creative faculties. First off, you won’t be thinking about those horrible memories anymore. No sir! Put those away and bury them deep inside. Hold them in like a fart at a business meeting. There will be a time to express those feelings when you’re drunk next Thanksgiving or Kwanzaa. Don’t put your thoughts on paper where the public can read it and relate to the trials you endured.
The second advantage is you will have a lot more free time, so put it to good, productive use. Join a spin class. Learn to bake your own bread. Master a foreign language like Mandarin or Gaelic. Whatever you do, it will be much more rewarding than sitting at home alone all day, eating nothing but dry cereal, staring at a computer screen and writing terrible sentences for a mediocre book that you doubt will ever see the light of day. Why put yourself through all of that torture when Richard Simmons offers aerobics classes at his studio for only 15 dollars. Let me say that again. Fifteen. Dollars. Richard Simmons. Now you have something to talk to your parents about instead of drudging up those harmful memories you’re trying to make sense of.
So don’t write it in the first place! Do what normal people do. Avoid the issue. Binge Netflix. Dress up your cat as historic Civil War generals. That’s so much better than reaching deep down, finding a kernel of truth in this existence and putting it out there. There can’t be any good to come from that.
The Ugly Truth
Anita Gill was given this name when she was born so that her grandparents could pronounce it, but they called her “Annie” instead. She teaches English and writing in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Apeiron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Defenestration, and Eastlit.
June 11, 2015 § 13 Comments
When I was 30 I got a job mentoring public school students. Once a month I was supposed to choose a “Great Story” from my work experience and write it up for my boss, who would send it to his boss and on up the line in order to show that we were doing good things with our grant dollars. I had taught college writing for the previous seven years and have a master’s degree in fiction writing, so the expectation was that I would turn in the best and brightest great stories each month.
I didn’t write the best stories–my experiences were great, but my writing had the bland, brittle flavor of a saltine. Each of my essays was a series of short declarative sentences that summed up events and emotions as though it was a police report. In one staff meeting, my boss lauded a colleague’s colorful prose, commented on the value of a liberal arts education, then looked at me uncomfortably.
My most productive time as a writer was college. I had to write every day. If I didn’t I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake cursing myself for not sleeping, counting the hours until I needed to be awake until I gave in, booted up my computer, and let the words flow until I was able to melt into the pillow, completely at rest. I had stories I had to tell, and my body wouldn’t let me rest until I did.
Eight years transpired between my writerly insomnia and my struggle to spit a few sentences onto the page for a work assignment. In the interim, I’d been a not-so-productive MFA student and a writing instructor who drafted one story and one essay in three years. At any time during that era, I’d definitely have qualified for a diagnosis of writer’s block and strong scolding. “Just do it” or “If you really have to be a writer, you will be” are the most common tough-love admonitions for “blocked” writers. For me, tough love was not the solution. I’d taken the advice to “just do it” and I always hated whatever I forced myself to write.
It takes more than free time and discipline to write well. Good writing requires wit and emotional strength. I always understood writer’s block as having the desire to write but no ideas, or having ideas but no discipline to sit and write. No ideas is frustrating, but usually comes to an end. Inability to sit and write, for me, was a form of fear. Fear of not knowing where the story would go or if it would be good, and, more importantly, fear of the emotional depths that the writing would take me to. When we write we live each character’s life. It takes a firm foundation to go to those depths. As a college student, my foundation was as strong as could be. I was a privileged young woman with supportive, high-quality teachers. My parents paid the rent and tuition.
In the last months of my MFA program, anxiety about the future ruled my sleep. I would wake up and find the front door open, or that my shirt was inside out and backwards. That June, my mother had emergency surgery to remove a tumor and spent two weeks in the hospital fighting off infections. For almost four years, she tried chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I made her my first priority in life.
Months into the first round of chemo, I imagined a scene: two sisters climbing a mountain until they came to an orange tree with unusually large, bright fruit. When the fruit fell to the ground, it rotted immediately. When picked directly off the tree, it was perfectly delicious. This, I decided, was the seed of my new novel. I decided to move the scene from a mountain to my current location, eastern Indiana. I told friends about it. I was so excited to get started. But I never did. I wrote few pages of description and thought through the characters and their lives, but I didn’t do the sustained writing that’s required for completing a novel. What I did write during that time: a short story about a young woman living alone in a new town whose mother (a ghost) has come to live with her. It was me imagining my future life. I also participated in a non-fiction exercise with my students, writing an essay based on a list. Mine was a list of all the people who’d died in my life and all the ways my mother had influenced my experience of those deaths.
That’s it. For four years. I wanted desperately to write, beat up on myself for not writing, was humiliated by my lack of output while friends and peers celebrated fresh drafts and publications. That should be the definition of writers block, but it was something other than laziness or plain fear. I simply had nothing to give. I was, during that time, emotionally and physically exhausted. I was an empty husk. I did not go forth into fictions from a secure place. My life was plagued by fear and uncertainty. I felt no impulse to bring more of those things into my life via writing
I kept a journal of my insane dreams. I revised a story I’d written in grad school. None of these projects had the delicious “weight off my shoulders” feeling I’d always had after writing a fresh draft. My best moment came one Friday night alone in my apartment, when I sat on the couch with my laptop. For the first time in years, I wrote new fiction: a pivotal scene in the novel, when the protagonist hears a fall festival storyteller’s tale that leads her to believe she’s cursed. I held that moment and that scene in the back of my mind through the last months of my mother’s life. It was a tiny shred of evidence that I could write again someday.
My experiences in the elementary school and my mother’s death combined into material that I could only address from a non-fiction perspective. I hand wrote on legal pads, more pages of simple declarative sentences piled up on each other like bricks. A dear friend encouraged me to email her a paragraph a day of writing, and wrote back that she was moved, that they were beautiful. I bought a house and began to reestablish the sense of security I’d always found necessary for writing. Eventually I eased myself back into fiction by dabbling in a genre I’d never read much of. I saw it as a folly. It was fun. It got the proper muscles working again and gave me confidence.
I’m still not back to the can’t-sleep-if-I-haven’t-written level of writing practice, but I’ve written pieces to conclusion, published them, and received positive feedback. It is surreal after all those years of feeling writing was lost from my life. I will never again judge or wonder at a writer who has hit a fallow patch, or chosen to focus on another priority. We need a full inner well to write from. Sometimes life empties the well. That’s not failure, or the end. It’s a promise that there will be something new to write about when the well is refilled.
Rachel J. Mack is a fiction writer with an MFA from the University of Alabama. She’s recently published essays with The Billfold and Rappahannock Review.