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Four Writers in Search of a Story
Writers’s block plagues writers of all kinds: the seasoned professional working on his seventh bestseller, the freelance columnist funding her shoe obsession with lifestyle editorials, the college-bound high school student writing and rewriting to please his parents and teachers. Each faces a unique set of problems. All, however, experience panicky moments as they stare at blinking cursors on blank Word documents. Or Word documents closer to blank than filled. Something like now. Awkward.
Deadlines flash through the writers’s heads in big, bold, red letters. They pulse dramatically in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for reasoning and problem solving. Then, in a stroke of brilliance, the writer decides to fill a few lines of that blindingly white Word document by defining a scientific term and integrating it into her (or his, to be sure) work. The literary device performs beautifully. If your readers love you enough, perhaps they will even tolerate your lecturing on the odd fact or two about the cerebral cortex.
The strongest among these writers push through the block by constructing a tentative outline. Often incoherent and futile, outlines of this forced nature serve as a jumping-off point. Jumping-off points come in all shapes and sizes, however. In a world of shiny, springy diving boards, off which one can dive gracefully into a sea of genius, these outlines protrude as jagged rocks from shaky ground. Jumpers splash gracelessly into a swamp of mucky banality, forced to climb out and start again.
The remaining, and perhaps wiser, writers delete their blank, or nearly-blank Word documents and walk away, resolving to try again another time when inspiration strikes. People who experience writers’s block on a regular basis tend to have clean floors and cupboards, glistening counter tops, organized attics, and no dust bunnies under their beds. Their checkbooks are balanced, their taxes are finished, and they call their mothers every day. They bake and decorate Christmas cookies, load and empty the dishwasher more frequently than the average human being, and match socks with the utmost patience and precision. Then, when inspiration creeps up, these writers will be all set to create, munching on holiday treats off floors clean enough to eat on, wearing proper pairs of matching socks.
The bestselling author wakes each morning, intent upon writing the next great American novel, which, of course, he has written six times before. His stress arises from his editor, a high-strung woman in red lipstick and clackety heels. She calls him as much as she can without appearing too pushy, because, of course, his bestselling books pay for her Soho loft’s outrageous monthly rent, her Bikram yoga classes, and her green tea (infused with extra caffeine). She “checks in” around 9:00 each morning to make sure he’s awake and plugging away in his Upper West Side high rise. Often, he’s already up, sipping a cappuccino from a machine he operates only on an elementary level. He stares out his panoramic windows onto the city’s skyline, unfolding the Times, but ignoring the headlines and sports section, heading straight to the crossword. He pulls a black ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket, and sets to work. He can finish Monday’s crossword in four minutes. Sunday’s takes closer to twenty-seven. Around 10:00, the bestselling author settles into his plush leather office chair to get to know his characters. He learns about them, lets them determine their own trajectories. When they decide to be silent, however, he beats his writers’s block with a variety of engaging activities. First, he pulls tiny magnets from his top desk drawer. He clinks them together, regaling in the tiny plinking noises. When he tires of forming hexagons and little men, he turns to his boxed sets of 30 Rock (all five seasons). He argues there is nothing like a healthy dose of Tina Fey to get his creative juices flowing. He laughs until 1:00, when he decides he is starving and trots off to the kitchen to prepare himself a panini. The panini-maker: another useful kitchen gadget he uses in only the most basic of ways.
After lunch, he practices his putting in the living room. Next, he cracks open his main competitor’s book. Garbage. At 4:30, after investing the majority of the day, he pours himself a dash of scotch. Several healthy scotches later, he dials his editor on the shiny phone she bought for him. He whines until she is forced to put down her yoga mat and hurry over to the West Side to tuck him into bed. He sleeps it off, but has colorful and inspirational dreams. The next morning, he forgoes the crossword and knocks out six lovely pages. His editor breathes deeply and contentedly into her downward dog.
The freelancer climbs out from under her trendy patchwork quilt and wakes with the sun. She stumbles into the tiny, sun-streaked kitchen of her San Francisco apartment and brews herself a strong cup of Fair Trade coffee. She warms her hands on her Berkeley mug, remembering fondly her days in Kappa Kappa Gamma at Cal. She majored in Journalism (with a minor in Russian) and spent lazy Sundays writing for The Daily Californian.
Now she writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, contributing on a monthly or bimonthly basis to the Sunday pink section. She attends local arts events, scopes out new restaurants, and bar hops…for research purposes, of course. When she isn't pulling together a lighthearted piece on Jen Aniston's latest flick, the freelancer devotes her time to weightier work. Between articles, she pens evocative political commentaries and reads Russian novels. Her Marina apartment has two bedrooms. The first contains the usual suspects: an unmade bed, a worn chair, a too-small closet overflowing with footwear of all varieties. The second is packed with all of the issues of The New Yorker, Time magazine, and National Geographic since 1996. She aspires to write for any and all of these magazines someday. For now, however, she contributes to the Chronicle and works at a boutique on Chestnut Street.
When the time comes for her to submit a column, she first selects a topic. This month, she writes about a trendy bar downtown. She contacts a few of her sorority sisters in the area and they arrange to frequent the bar over the weekend. The freelancer pulls on black tights and a black dress, pairing her no-frills ensemble with spikey heels. Last month's column on emerging couture cupcakeries funded the purchase. She cabs it downtown to meet her gals, and they arrange themselves in the center of the establishment, primed for an eventful evening. The freelancer intends to take notes and brainstorm for her column, but one too many of the bar's signature pomegranate martinis ruins her chances of productivity. The next morning, with a killer headache and vague memories of a night poorly spent, she sits down to formulate her column. It must be witty and charming, convincing her reader that she is young and hot (which of course, at 24, she is) and completely unattainable to salivating men (which of course, drunk from pomegranate martinis, she isn't), who think they’re in her league. As she struggles to write something, anything of value, she decides fresh air will serve her well. At 11:00 o'clock, she heads outside, new running shoes in hand, to jog down to Crissy Field and to watch the sailboats. Next, she walks across the field to Planet Granite, where she spends a few hours rock climbing. She isn't very good, but she enjoys it. Toward 2:00, the headache comes back in full force, so she walks home, stopping to collect a steaming cup of coffee and four Advils.
In the three blocks between her Starbucks of choice and her apartment, she passes twelve-or-so boutiques. Knowing she cannot afford the time or money that shopping requires, she successfully bypasses the first block's shops. In the second block, however, a smashing pair of creamy leather boots stops her in her tracks. She rushes in, unable to resist, telling herself that she will finish her article that night. She leaves the boutique an hour later, three pairs of shoes in tow. Her headache is nowhere to be found and she practically skips home to write her article. What better way to discuss an up-and-coming bar than by analyzing the different signals a pair of shoes can send to a potential mate? Tangential? Perhaps. Her prose is strong and lucid and the bar receives a complimentary review. She e-mails her article “Anything can happen over a pomegranate martini” right on time, comforted by the knowledge that a paycheck will appear in her mailbox ere long. Her Visa customer service agent is comforted too.
The high school student wakes less peacefully than the bestselling author and the freelancer. His mother yanks him out of his dream world, full of In-N-Out burgers and Playboy bunnies. He shoves his legs into torn jeans and tears a hoodie off its hanger. The plastic hanger snaps, but he’s already downstairs, inhaling breakfast as his mother begs him to brush his hair. He runs out the door within eight minutes of waking up, scowling as he climbs into the red Mini Cooper that was his sister’s before she left for college. Girly, man. With a little luck and several violations of driving laws, he slides into his first period math class just in time, only to discover he has forgotten his homework on the kitchen table. Just as he fumbles for an excuse, his mother barges into the room carrying two binders, a soccer bag, and a box of tenderly prepared muffins for her son’s homeroom. The high school student grins sheepishly, embarrassed by the display, but grateful for his mother’s support.
The day proceeds uneventfully until two o’clock, when the high school student trudges into his creative writing course. He likes it very much, but struggles to select topics more often than not. He shoves the prompt for the week into his binder (brought by his mother) without a glance and hurries off to soccer practice (at which he puts on the cleats his mother was generous enough to transport to school).
When he gets home that evening, faced with ominous piles of homework, he plows through as much as he can until he reaches his creative writing prompt. “Write about an issue.” The angsty teenage voice inside his head encourages the high schooler to roll his eyes. Be more vague, I dare you. He slowly pulls a piece of paper from his desk drawer, dreading the moment he has to choose a topic and begin writing. He wrenches topics from the depths of his mind. I read an article about a gay dude once. Homophobia? He’s not feeling it. How about racial profiling? My dad has a mustache and he’s been stopped at the airport. His dad also carries a Swiss Army knife, you know, just in case. As an hour goes by, the high schooler’s ideas get progressively less engaging. I hate it when the little white Apple ear buds fall out of my ears. That’s an issue, right? Right up there with starving African orphans. I dropped my iPad today and the screen cracked. Why in the world are they so delicate? Doesn’t Apple realize I’m too busy to keep my iPad perfect 24/7? Screw you, Steve Jobs! He takes back the last part when he remembers Jobs’s recent death.
His ideas become more emotionally charged as the evening plugs along. Finally, he surrenders to Facebook. He logs in, a practice he can do with his eyes closed in fewer than five seconds. He scans his news feed for a hefty total of three minutes before deciding his 993 friends have nothing to offer him tonight. Next, he clicks over to SportsIllustrated.com, where he checks scores for twenty minutes or so. At midnight, he barrels down the stairs to the kitchen, where he prepares himself a nutritious snack of Oreos and leftover steak. His sedulously prepared nosh occupies him until 12:30, when he breaks down and begins to ask himself existential questions. Why do I exist? Would it matter if I didn’t? And why in the world does anyone give a damn whether or not I get into college? In the midst of his complaining, inspiration strikes, and the high schooler knocks out a very rough draft highlighting the injustices of the college admissions process and all of its cruelties. Hyped up on Red Bull, he writes until 3:00, when he slides onto his iPad’s cracked screen and settles in for the evening. His mother nearly has a heart attack when she finds him asleep in her kitchen the next morning.
Writers of all varieties pull their hair out over their work. Though I hesitate to call myself a writer when discussing bestsellers and newspaper journalists, I suffer many of the same failings as do my lovely characters. I don't prepare pressed sandwiches, climb boulders, or follow sports scores to distract myself from impending deadlines, but I am all of these writers, to some extent. Like the seasoned bestselling author, I experience pressure to put out good work. I've done it before, but it's not as easy when people come to expect brilliance based upon only one or two pieces. He's afraid of letting people down, and so am I. When I'm struggling to produce something wonderful, it would be much easier to tune out of life and tune into Tina Fey's extraneous thought process. When I'm wracking my brain for a pertinent thought, I too become tired, and wish I had an assistant to solve my problems. Yes, the bestselling author and I have lots in common, but his putting is perceptibly better than mine.
The freelancer leads a life I would love. She and I share an appreciation for footwear, just as we struggle to scale artificial rocks. We both fancy ourselves important, even indispensable, contributors to the literary landscape of the Bay Area. She’s not quite as driven as she needs to be, however, nor does she have as clear a vision of where she wants to be as is necessary to get there. She is flighty, unreliable, and somewhat immature, but despite all of this, she is amiable and showered with love from those near and dear. Though I hope to warm my hands on a mug boasting an impressive alma mater soon enough, I hope my fondest memories of college will not emanate from years spent Elle Woods-style, as an enthusiastic propagator of Greek life.
The high school student and I have little in common, I assure you. I definitely haven’t considered writing about any of his ridiculous topics. I absolutely do not turn to Facebook for distraction, nor have I ever fallen asleep in my kitchen. And my parents will assure you that I never ask myself existential, unanswerable questions when I get tired and emotional. None of that is me, excepting, perhaps, a lightweight dependence upon Facebook. And the invitingly soft wood of my kitchen table, so primed for snoozing. And just once in a while, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy seems appropriate for my late-night mindset. Perhaps the high schooler and I have more in common than I would like to admit. I can promise, however, that I have never eaten Oreos or steak, separate or together, in the middle of the day or the middle of the night. But hey, writers’s block can cause writers to do unthinkable things.