Some Things I've Thought About and Observed About Not Writing and Writing:
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA., Thursday Nov. 11, 2004
Part I: Let Your Writer Self Be With You
"Issues of productivity," "sitting still with loneliness and boredom," "compartments of time." I mulled these phrases over. A close writing colleague was suffering from writer's block and had written them to me in a letter. As I thought about what I consider the source of writer's block, I dialed my cousin. I often make phone calls while I am thinking about things that I don't have answers for.
She was busy--"I have twelve cakes in the oven," she said, "Can you believe it?" In addition, her two single young adult children were visiting from other cities, and needing to move, she was looking for a new apartment. Wow, I thought, that's a lot.
Then I considered my husband, who was busy writing two articles at once for a technical journal. He had taken me to a movie the evening before because he couldn't get anywhere in his writing. Mulling over both my husband and my cousin's projects, I realized something about my own approach to creating. I had made six kinds of soup from scratch in the last two weeks since I started teaching several days a week because I need to do something while I worry about what I will say to my students.
Each of us bakes our creative cakes so differently. My husband walks away from the cakes, hoping that once he is away from them, they'll continue to cook somewhere deep inside of him. Sure enough, after we'd eaten a quick teriyaki meal and drunk a cup of coffee and taken our seats in the theater, the "aha hit." Not only did he know what was at the root of his articles' problems, he realized his new understanding meant he wouldn't have to start over. Boy, he enjoyed that movie! But he would have anyway, even if the "aha" was delayed. He counts on it arriving sometime. There's always HBO waiting at home until the moment strikes.
My cousin--well her cakes are for real--she's a health food chef and teacher and an allergy free dessert specialist. She'll keep right on putting those babies in and out of the oven and publishing her recipes in Vegetarian Times. Sometimes she makes mistakes that lead to treasured discoveries. Recently, when she reached for rice cereal instead of flour, she decided to bake the cake using it! Later, she watched her guests put their first forkfuls into their mouths. They thought the cake was delicious and she had a new wheat-free dessert.
I group things. I was teaching so the writing was on the back burner and I got into my domestic chores between classes. After the quarter, when the courses were done for a stretch, I'd be writing up a storm, the frozen food I'd stored in my freezer decreasing daily.
I am a user of "compartments of time," but my cousin and my husband use "currents of time" and notice the little surprises that bob up and down in them.
I don't know, if you are like them or me or someone else, dear reader, but let me propose something for those of you who need to get over writer's block, severe or mild. My suggestion comes from reading Who's Writing This?, edited by Anteaus literary magazine editor Daniel Halpern. It is a collection of essays by 50 writers and poets on writing and writers block published by The Ecco Press in 1994. Halpern had entreated contributors to respond to Jorge Luis Borges' statement, "It is to my other self, to Borges, that things happen."
Reading this, I began to imagine the writer in me as a separate being from the me who has been going, doing, bitching, wishing to own things and making plans. If Bender is my self to whom things happen, then maybe my writing voice, which is the self to whom things don't happen, has some nice insight as an observer on what is happening to Bender and whatever it is that distracts her from the writer's work and voice.
But how does this writer person, the one to whom things have not happened, the one that doesn't have cakes in the oven, the one who chooses the batter of the written word over and over again, get through to me, the one who owns the computer?
I continued mulling this over for a few days as I taught and did chores. When my husband again asked me to go see a movie, I said no because I was going to make soup. While I chopped, I found that the rhythm of chopping all those vegetables occupied the Bender to whom things happen and made the writer inside of her, the one to whom things do not happen, think about things. She was remembering a lot. She remembered events like the time her mother cut a finger badly just as her dad came home from a week on the road as a traveling salesman and planting a vegetable garden one summer. She remembered her son's quails laying eggs in a cage just to the side of the garden. The one to whom things does not happen remembered the way Bender's husband buys beets of many colors and roasts them in the oven. She thought of the way Bender's daughter stuffs artichokes with cloves of garlic and puts lemon juice in the pot of water she boils them in, thereby refining a family delight. As Bender chopped vegetables, the one to whom things do not happen was chopping the events of Bender's life into images that delight or concern or make Bender cry. She thought of the day the quail were eaten by a raccoon and a friend said, "Of course, they were helpless prey, unable to escape the cage. She thought of how she could use this newly surfaced thought to write about something important to find out about, something about how what nourished Bender's son with its eggs and beauty was lost because it was captive to a family that didn't know how to protect it. She will learn how much sorrow Bender holds knowing this is true for so much besides the quail of long ago. As the soup simmered, she was writing.
My idea is that if or when you experience a writing block, you will adopt a rhythmic action like running, shooting baskets, cooking, dancing, swimming, or bicycle riding and let the writer in you separate from your life's doings and burst into words! As you concentrate on what you are doing, the one inside to whom things do not happen, the writing and observing person, will find that images surface. If the one who is doing allows the images to register, that one who is doing will sit down and let the one who is writing write!
Part II: Commit to pushing through the prickly leaves of doubt and keep on writing
My grandson Toby turned 17 months old this October 1. He has been talking for months and he loves words. "All done Mommy phone," he says when my daughter Emily is talking with me and he wants her full attention. "All done Mommy bed," he says when he wants her to wake up in the morning. "All done elephants," he says when he is at the zoo and ready to move on to the hippopotamuses. His mom taught him sign language for this phrase very early and he has been communicating with it for quite awhile. At first, the gesture she taught him, which requires lifting and shaking both hands, proved most wonderful as an expedient way to be sure he didn't touch the soiled area of his diaper when she was removing it. "All done, Toby," she'd say, "We're all done with your dirty diaper," and Toby would shake his hands while Emily quickly pulled the dirty diaper away from his body, happy to have kept him talking with his fingers so he couldn't put them into the mess.
Soon, he was signing "all done" when he didn't want any more food or when he was tired of sitting in a lap or when his interest in looking at a particular book expired. And not long after that, he was saying, "All done."
One evening, when he was 14 months old, I took him outside his parents' third story apartment to play with the toy car they kept parked under the apartment building stairwell so his mommy could cook without interruption. He could hear her chopping through the open window, and he looked up from the courtyard toward the window. "All done. Mommy. All done. Mommy," he chanted, communicating to his grandma that he most certainly did not want to be outside another second without his mommy.
Not wanting to fail in my mission of occupying Toby for a little bit, I suggested that we look for a rock for Mommy. Toby's eyes lit up. We walked around and around the raised beds of the landscaped courtyard, but we couldn't find a rock. As we walked to the next building, Toby looked back toward his mommy's window and then reluctantly continued the search. When I spied a solitary rock, I balanced Toby on the ledge of the masonry bed that held several shrubs, a tree and flowers, and held onto him as I pointed to the rock. He eagerly reached for it, but he managed to put his hand on a shrub that had prickly thorns at the end of each leaf. He burst into tears. I kissed that hand and reached for the rock myself. "All done," I said, no longer wanting to keep him away from the woman who lit up his life. "Let's go see Mommy."
When we came in the door, Toby toddled over to his mom and held out the rock.
"Thank you," Emily said. "Is that for Mommy? Let's put it up here on the book shelf."
The rock was more than a gift. It carried Toby's feelings about being apart from Emily. Received by her, the rock healed the small wound. The world was right again.
As writers, we are in the position of being outside looking up at a window behind which those we love are busy. We want to hang around with them and tell them our deepest truest perceptions and feelings, but they often need for us not to talk so intimately. And so we go into exile for a little while to write our stories and poems, to share our impressions, yearnings, and discoveries. If we are lucky, we find the rock--the subject of our writing or the form that allows us to say what we need to. However, reaching for the words, we may lose our balance and fall into prickly plants. Then we must keep on writing; we must call up the lessons of writers who have been our teachers. We must stay immersed in the process of writing. If we do, a force greater than ourselves seems to pull the rock toward us or even hands it to us.
When people in the world, even people quite different than those we thought we were writing for, accept our gift, they also accept our sadness at having to be apart from the world that we love in order to write about it. And for the moment we are home and can say, "All done sadness." And then more perceptions come and we will write our way into and out of exile, again and again.
Those of us compelled to write, understand these lines by the poet Theodore Roethke in "The Waking": "This shaking keeps me steady. I should know." We understand what poet Philip Levine meant when he said, "Why do I write? Because I don't feel well if I don't."
When you feel the prickly leaves of doubt hurting your confidence in authoring, remember these words from Lorca, "As for me, I can explain nothing, but stammer with the fire that burns inside me, and the life that has been bestowed on me." Then keep writing from direct experience. Don't worry about what the head wants to puzzle out--report your experience through your senses. Write down what you heard, saw, touched, tasted and smelled. Before you know it, you will be absorbed in writing the experience, rather than explaining it. You will be putting fire on the page.
When you feel the prickly leaves of grief pulled up by your words, remember Ring Lardner said, "How can you write if you can't cry?" Write through your tears. There will come a time in the process when you are so at one that your tears dry. And when you have written the full experience of your grief, you will feel peace. When grief resides on the page, its residence is love.
When you feel the prickly leaves of fear because you cannot control your writing but must abandon yourself to what you have called up, think about Toby's rock, about the gift you are making. Imagine even one person receiving it, feeling thanks for it, and placing it among their treasured things.
When you feel the prickly leaves of distress at saying the truth and imagining others hearing you say it, remember writer Rita Mae Brown's words, "Writers are the moral purifiers of the culture. We may not be pure ourselves, but we must tell the truth, which is a purifying act." Write what you have in you to write. You can decide later what to do about those for whom this writing would not be a gift. Many times you will be surprised when the work is finished. Those you were most afraid would shun the work, may love it.
When you feel the prickly leaves of thinking you never have enough time to write because writing requires a special mood, write something down--any thought or image will do. Soon you will notice that you have five minutes to write, then ten minutes and then you will find twenty. You will have words to get back to if you write something down. You will gain dexterity in altering your state of being to the writing state. You will begin to work on the projects you have inside yourself. Your practice will be writing rather than wishing you were writing. You might find yourself chanting, "All done not writing. All done."
Sheila Bender's most recent book is : Writing and Publishing Personal Essays, Silver Threads, San Diego, CA. For many years she wrote instructional books and articles for Writer's Digest Books and other presses including Delta and Blue Heron. Her books include: The Writer's Journal: 40 Writers and Their Journals ,Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down (co-authored with Christi Killien), Keeping a Journal You Love, Writing Personal Essays: Shaping Your Life Experiences for the Page and Writing Personal Poetry: How to Create Poems from Your Life Experience. Sheila publishes the popular and helpful online magazine, Writing it Real , for those who write from personal experience, whether essays, poems, journals or fiction. As a student of David Wagner, she took his advice seriously, that is, if you are a poet you must always learn to write in another genre. The personal essay became her favorite genre outside of poetry. Today Sheila writes and regularly publishes both poetry and personal essays. Her work is forthcoming in the Washington State Poets Association's upcoming anthology. Her work appears in Tiny Lights, Seattle Review, Poetry Northwest, The World and Bellingham Review, among other journals. Sheila is a graduate of the University of Washington with an MA in Creative Writing. She teaches at writers workshops in the western US and Mexico. She conducts online workshops and tutorials and maintains an adjunct faculty position at Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ. She lives in Port Townsend, WA.