Q: SO, WHY HAVEN’T YOU BEEN WRITING?
It’s so sweet of my attention-starved psyche to pretend someone’s actually been wondering this. You see—
NOT SO MUCH A QUESTION AS BERATING YOU FOR WHATEVER THIS AIMLESS, FRUITLESS, SPINELESS PERIOD OF YOURS IS.
Do you think you could at least let me finish?
You’re right: This is—hands-down—the least productive period of writing I’ve had since I was probably 14 years old. For 30-plus years I wrote my way into and out of every incident, no matter what was going on or how little time I had. And now we’re at a point when this should be getting easier, only I’m like a clear-cut forest trying to understand quantum physics: stumped. A fundamental aspect of who I am vanished with no explanation and no note. Of course no note: that would’ve required writing something. And sure, technically I can still do it—my fingers remain intact, and even if they weren’t there’s voice dictation now; we could get pretty close. But not if my brain keeps the creativity hose kinked.
It stands to reason that the trick to undoing this is to figure out what’s causing it in the first place. And while my brain definitely doesn’t want me sleuthing out its intentions, I have managed to uncover a few possibilities that, while not amounting to much in isolation, may combine—Oceans 11 style—into a force powerful enough to pull this job off:
- EVERY TIME I OPEN MY LAPTOP, MY CAT SITS ON IT. O’Malley Thunderpaws wants nothing to do with me 23 hours and 37 minutes a day. I can’t get near him without him getting spooked and tearing ass for the highest, most precarious ledge in our house. He’ll bring a wounded mouse onto our back porch and bat it to death, staring me dead in the eyes as he does so, like a warning. But if I deign to get up early in the morning and crack this Macbook open just a hair, that JD Salinger of cats suddenly becomes the neediest damn feline alive. I can’t type around a nine-pound furball circling the keys and howling at me, so I toss him to the end of the couch. Next thing I know, he’s clawing the rug, damaging furniture like some jilted ex-lover (I assume; no woman I’ve dated has ever had strong enough feelings about me to damage perfectly good property, even if it was mine). I get up, toss him outside; by then, like clockwork, the appetite to write has vanished.
- THE EDUCATION OF MY CHILD BEGINS ASS-CRACKINGLY EARLY. My daughter’s in fifth grade, and the elementary school to which she’s assigned has decided, for reasons that must have to do with the Vice Principal’s standing tee time, that a respectable school day begins at 7:45. As in AM, an hour that should be reserved for coffee, pooping, and Wordle. Her previous school started a full hour later, which meant that I could get up at 5:30, write for a couple of hours, THEN wake her up. Here, getting up that early yields about an hour, and not a very quality hour at that; I’m groggy, I’m kicking things in the dark, my vocabulary is fuzzy and limp like an arm that’s fallen asleep. I’ve maybe pecked a dozen words out before the alarm goes off to wake her up; forget about getting in a flow state. And yes, I could wake up another hour earlier, limiting myself to about four hours of sleep (my better half’s a night owl with insomnia issues; if she’s awake, i have to be awake). I could also drive roofing nails into my kneecaps. Both acts would be about as painful, and equally conducive to cranking out pages.
- I HAVE NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT. Okay: technically this isn’t true. We moved from Oregon to New Mexico on little more than a coin flip, to take care of my ailing father-in-law. That’s not “nothing.” The culture shock alone of going from waterlogged hipster food capital to high-desert muscle car Mecca is notable, at the very least. And the immersion into a bizzarro family dynamic is more raw material than I’ve had on hand in a while. But the proximity to some very tender feelings and the potential damage I fear one miswritten phrase might cause has given me serious pause. So while I catalog all of these thoughts surrounding this very landmark-laden moment in our lives, I am terribly reluctant to share those thoughts flippantly on a blog that just about no one reads but that, were the wrong person read something, might cause an in-law or two to write my wife out of their will.
- I HAVE BEEN GRINDING MYSELF TO A PASTE ON A SINGLE PROJECT FOR A VERY LONG TIME. AND NOW THAT IT’S DONE, AND I’M SENDING IT OUT TO AGENTS AND HEARING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, IT MAY HAVE BROKEN ME INSIDE. I can handle the fact that it took me four years to complete a middle-grade sci-fi novel that any half-well-read sixth-grader could polish off in a rainy long weekend. I was fine working and reworking it on the edges of every day until it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written and the type of book I’d love to read to my kid. (I’d say “kids,” but the older three are hopefully a bit past this.) What’s gnawing on my will to do pretty much anything is the soul-wrenching method one apparently has to subscribe to in hopes of getting the damn thing published. Sending these queries out to agents who did not ask for it makes me feel like a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman in 2022. And their terse, delayed and impersonal-as-possible replies, if they show up at all, do nothing but reconfirm my own fears that this is all a bit pointless. They’re reading no more than 10 pages of a 218-page novel; it takes them (or their assistants) no more than 20 minutes to do so. Their reply is never more than “I’m afraid I’m not as interested in this as I’d need to be.” Dispiriting fails to cover it; getting a handful of these letters with no real feedback plucks at the feathers of confidence until you can no longer get airborne. Like I said, this is my favorite thing I’ve ever written. And now, thanks to this process, I have no idea whether it’s any good. Do I keep plugging away at stuff like this, or do I need to completely shift gears? How about I quit entirely, is that what I should do? WHO KNOWS? NO ONE’S TELLING ME ANYTHING. You try writing anything while mucking around in this kind of literary purgatory. Seriously: Come to my house, sit down at my laptop, and see if you can get “us” kickstarted. I’ll pay you $100 if it’s decent and gets me out of this deep, dark hole I’ve dug for myself. And if it’s not, I’ll pay you $100 to dig a deep, dark hole we can bury my laptop in.
Look, I don’t want to be writing about this stuff. There’s nothing more insufferable than a lowercase-w writer writing about how they can’t write. Which means it’s up to me to figure out hot to undo the paralytics that have created this unfortunate scenario. The first couple are easy: the O’Malley can go “live” out the rest of his cat “lives” on a “farm” somewhere just a little too far for us to regularly visit, and my daughter can drop out of school and go work at Arby’s. She’ll have an 11-year jump on the college grads shaving beef alongside her.
The last factor is largely out of my hands. I can keep submitting, keep pretending not to care—only I do care, very much. It would be ludicrous not to after four years. If a high jumper spent four years getting ready for the Olympics, then failed to clear the bar on their first three attempts and was disqualified, you couldn’t ask them not to feel disappointed. Same thing applies here—so until someone decides that it’s worth a damn, I’m going to struggle with my own self-worth, which is very much wrapped up in those 80,000 words.
Which means preserving my sanity and identity depends on #3, and whether I’m able to walk around that cinderblock wall of rejection and on to something new. Whether I can find something to write about, and then actually sit down and write it. I mean, it’s been done before, right? All I need to do is force myself to confront the discomfort, to prod the void with a ball point pen until something bursts. Easy enough.
But just in case it isn’t, I might need you to hold me accountable. So if you don’t hear anything from me in a week or so, could you—
DON’T YOU DARE DUMP YOUR BULLSHIT PROBLEMS ON US.
One thought on “ASK A STRAY DAD: BLOCKED”
The writers block seems to be going around this fall. https://stephenmetcalfewords.com/2022/10/11/blocked/. I’ve got no miracle cures for writers block. But I find tequila with friends helps…
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