writer’s block

If i had a hammer: or, that opinionated bitch, my muse


Heather Renee (click to go to her Flickr page) seems to be my muse’s photographer.

If I had a hammer, maybe I’d be a carpenter and maybe I’d work for somebody else, and maybe I’d have a time card. That would be good, because I could make bookshelves and cabinets. But really, it’s the time card part that appeals. Because with a time card, you have to be someplace, you have solid goals and the tools to achieve them. If you’ve got a time card, you don’t need to depend on a muse.

Because muses are not easy. A muse can be generous, yes, and shower you with ideas and images and words. A few authors have muses who won’t shut up. My personal muse is more of a bitch. Now, I often use the word bitch in a positive way, but here I mean it the other way: cranky, fussy, willful, stubborn, self-absorbed, possessive, opinionated. Sometimes I want to throttle her, but then the joke would be on me.

My muse and I have had a tough year. For a while there I thought she was going to walk out on me and never come back, but I had neither time nor energy to deal with her moods. When your kid is in danger or sick or lost, everything else becomes very small, and the Girlchild was in a perilous spot. Even a six foot tall, broad shouldered, chain-smoking transvestite bitch of a Muse has no power over the Mother-you. Writing? What’s that? Oh yeah, that contract thing. Would you move? You’re in my way, and I have a call to make.

As the crisis (or I should say, long string of crises) slowly resolved, other things began to impose on my conscious mind. Hey! Look at the size of that cobweb! Um, what is this … thing in the fridge? Oh, I guess we forgot about the propane bill. And the big one: wow, imagine that. Already six months behind on book six. When am I contractually obligated to deliver it? Really?

Time for my Muse to come back. I knew it would take some wooing, but I forgot how vindictive she can be.

Here is her rule, inviolate: Ignore me, and I will pay you back in kind. If you really piss me off, I will turn my back on you for a very long time. You may beg and grovel, but from me? Crumbs. Dribbles. Until I’m feeling generous again, which if I may be frank, don’t hold your breath.

During this whole period I regularly sat down to write. I suppose I was hoping my Muse would be understanding, as she likes the Girlchild; but no luck there. I did beg and grovel, and all I got were the promised crumbs. I’d look at the manuscript and force myself to write while she cackled in the next room. Book Six crawled along, dribble by dribble.

And not good dribbles, either. Nothing felt right. Then one day I printed out the ms to read it (something I do very rarely) and I realized that all those words I had put down in the hard times, words extracted one by one like slivers, stank. The story lines stank, the rhythm stank, the dialog stank. Muse sat in the next room affing her lass off while the truth dawned on me: For the first time in my writing career, I had to dump thousands of words and start over again.

Muse was satisfied with this sacrifice. She came back to sit across from me and keep me moving along. Of course, the usual nitpicking and snarky comments also came back, but the story was moving and shaping up. Carpenters have to put up with a lot of sawdust. I’ve got the Muse’s moods and her cigar smoke.

I’ve been writing pretty well for the last two months, but it’s all very tenuous. My muse is ultra-sensitive to any kind of external emotional interference. For example: earlier this afternoon I made the mistake of checking my email. She told me not to. Another irritating thing about the bitch, my muse: she’s always right, she always announces she’s right, and not in a whisper, either.

Today we got some not-so-great news that will require some time and energy, and the minute I closed the email the Muse got up and went to the door looking very indignant and put-out.

I said: Wait! I need to get another 1,400 words down today!

She snorted, stormed out and slammed the door shut behind herself. Maybe if I’m lucky and if I can get the other problem resolved, she’ll come back later this evening. I’ll be thrilled. I’ll write through the night, if the bitch will let me.

Wish me luck, on all fronts.

shifting strategies

Someplace or another I read an interview with Gabriel García Márquez, the master of modern day magical realism. In that interview he talked about his writing process, and the thing that jumped out at me: sometimes it takes him weeks to get the first paragraph right, but after that, the story moves.

I think probably a lot of authors have this kind of mental process on one level or another. In my own case, I think of it as the subconscious traffic cop holding up one of those stop signs until I’ve got that one paragraph or sentence down in a way that suits the story as it is developing behind the scenes. If you push ahead through the stop sign, you are bound for trouble.

In my experience it can be the worst feeling, being so close to getting it right… but not quite close enough. Every time you look up from the screen, there’s the cop waving that sign in your face. I have lost many hours of sleep over the years arguing with my subconscious traffic cop. I have gone into light hypnotic trances in places where I should have been paying attention, trying to grasp a sentence by the tail.

A few years ago I broke the established pattern. I’m not really sure how it happened. I had been agonizing over a scene that I just couldn’t do without. I’d start and rewrite and restart and rewrite, change pov, change settings, and pretty much stand on my head but it just would not work. My muse, that insufferable bitch, was having a grand old time making me writhe, and using the opportunity to flirt outrageously with the traffic cop.. And then the most outlandish, most revolutionary idea came into my conscious mind. Without allowing myself to really think about it, I wrote these words on the page:

[market scene here]

And I moved on. Later, a few days if I remember correctly, I went back and tried again without any luck. So I just left it. Then one day out of nowhere, the solution came to me and I wrote the damn scene in about an hour flat.

Where was the traffic cop, I asked myself. The one who had held me up so many times for so long, in league with my muse, the sadistic bitch. Was he just… gone? And why am I so sure he’s a he? What’s a male traffic cop doing in the employ of my subconscious? Dad, is that you?

Never mind, I told myself. Let’s just pretend for the moment that the cop and the stop sign are both gone, and you will never again be blocked by that one sentence or paragraph or scene. From now on you’ll just put the pesky thing in brackets and move on. For example: [civil war here] or [destruction of the solar system here] or [the meaning of life here].

But of course the cop wasn’t gone for good. He’s there, but he’s not quite so ruthlessly by-the-rules as he once was. Once in a while I can pull out the brackets without his whistle rattling my eardrums. As I did just yesterday. This time it was:

[what she notices about the birds in the woods beyond the strawberry fields on this early spring evening]

The traffic cop grumbled a little, and then settled down. So maybe he’s getting more mellow as he gets older. Which is odd, because I most certainly am not.

really deep water, and pencils

Sometimes a scene is so important that I find myself afraid to jump in. I’ve been dealing with a scene like that for two days, dipping my toe in the water and drawing back in panic. Just how deep is this water, and what if it’s too deep?

A short side trip to make clear how serious an analogy this really is.

On a hot Chicago summer day when I was nine years old, and hadn’t yet learned to swim, a bully who shall remain nameless (but his initials were Jimmy Malone) pushed me into the deep end of the very crowded public pool at Horner Park at California Avenue and Irving Park Road. I remember trying to reach the side of the pool, and failing. I remember the going down for the third time, and how pretty the sunshine was on the water. Then I remember throwing up on the lifeguard who pulled me out. He was shaking, and he had very bad acne, and that’s all I remember about him. So you see, when I talk about jumping into the deep end, I know whereof I speak.

So this morning I did something drastic. I went out to write at Starbucks (please, no commentary on writers at Starbucks) and accidentally on purpose I left my laptop at home. Thus I was left with a notebook and a pencil, and two hours of time. So I wrote long hand. And now the scene is out, and pretty good, I think, after all my agonizing. Once in a while, I can float with the help of a number two pencil.