Saturday, June 17, 2006

Let's speak about the unspeakable. (Yay! Let's!)

There's a thing that writers won't talk about because the very mention of it might bring it on. We're a superstitious bunch. Like baseball players, but without a tan.

I'd never heard anyone admit to having writer's block until I was in college, when I was waiting for office hours with my favorite professor and the woman before me, whom I could hear through an open door, was explaining that she couldn't do her paper on time because she was "suffering from terrible writer's block." I can't remember what Professor Tayler said in response -- he was never insulting, unfailingly polite -- but I remember thinking, "You asshole. Do the effing work. Writer's block, my ass." Which is undoubtedly what Tayler was also thinking, but he didn't get to be Mr. Super Favorite Professor of Everybody by nakedly speaking his mind. A skill I could stand to learn. But I digress.

I remember hearing someone -- maybe Toni Morrison -- but definitely on WNYC -- who was asked about writer's block, and she said, "I disavow that term." Oh, I loved that, and I used it. Her point was that even when you feel blocked, your brain is working, and it'll all come out in a big blob at some point, sort of like when you plateau on Weight Watchers for like three weeks and then all of a sudden, kaboom, you lose like 6 pounds all at once. It was a nice notion, but I've never actually experienced the -- what. The diarrhea of prose? The torrent of backed-up verbiage? I never got a spurt of creative payoff after a dry spell.

I've had few dry spells, knock wood. But the one I'm in is a doozy. I've owed book proposals to my agent for over a year at this point, and I can't make myself do them because then I'll have to write them. In addition, a very nice woman with a very cool project has asked me to write a series proposal for her (yes, for pay). When we were discussing it, I knew exactly what she wanted, and I got really excited about it... but I've been cravenly dodging her calls for weeks. Why?

I tell myself because I wouldn't have ownership of the series, and I know in my heart I don't want to be a writer-for-hire anymore. But that's not true, and I know it. The fact is I just can't face the prospect of sitting down, inhabiting these characters, and writing them. It feels like death to me. Death! Writing! How could this be?

So given that knowledge, I should call her and say "I can't do this project because I need to work on my own series proposal." But guess what? That feels like even more death!! It's the weirdest thing: I crave working on these books, yet there's something in me that equally, or more powerfully, is repulsed by the idea of them. When I think of South Jersey, I feel a pull to go there and immerse myself in research, and a simultaneous soul-level core of knowledge that I can not, will not do that. It feels like an illness. It feels like something bigger than me, that I can't understand, is working in mysterious ways. It feels horrible.

This is why people invented the idea of muses, capricious creatures who strike or don't strike, and thereby explain days when you can't produce. This is why people blame writer's block when the culprit is surely a more complex cocktail of depression, fear, and irritation. This is why people invented the Internet: so they'd have a reason not to throw their laptops out the window when they can't write.

Muse! Oh, Mu-use! If you're out there, could you slap me? Soon? Thanks.

4 comments:

the beige one said...

may your muse grace you with its benevolent presence in the very very near future.

twobuyfour said...

I thought all the good writers just drank when they couldn't write. Have you tried that? Get good and loopy.

I have not had what I think of as writer's block, but I've definitely had periods when everything flows easily, and periods when getting ideas out of my brain is like pulling my own teeth.

I wish you luck.

Madfoot said...

Eyuw, pulling teeth out of your brain! I'm serious, Daddy. Stop it.

the beige one said...

speaking of unspeakables...