January 9, 2015

The time that John Steinbeck saved my bacon

When people ask my why I no longer blog, I struggle to find an answer I’m willing to give. It’s a little like having someone ask how you are, when you are having a really crap time. Do you tell them that you’re on week three of a cold that won’t go away and your car window got broken in and everything that could go wrong lately has? Or do you shrug and say “oh, I’m fine, how are you?”  The second would be my answer. And so when I’m asked, I shrug and say “oh, I don’t have the time anymore.” Because that’s the easy answer. But the real answer is that I just…cant. I can’t write. I can’t even think about writing without a wave of panic rolling through my body. So I just…don’t.

But that’s not working either, for many reasons. So, if you will indulge me, I’m going to use this sad, neglected blog for a bit of a project, between my (far superior, as you’ll see) writer father and me, to try to push myself, however unwilling I may be, back into writing.

This was supposed to be an essay on writer’s block. But as I have writer’s block, I struggled to get much past the first sentence. Which was “I have writer’s block.”  After some really awful and painful drafts, I gave up and instead, I started reading, and I came across a list of advice famous authors have given on the subject. And much to my surprise, John Steinbeck saved me. I never really liked his books, which I know is sacrilege, and I doubt I ever would have looked to him for advice, but this story, about turning your writing into a letter, got me going.

And so…

Dear Dad,

I have writer’s block. Actually, I’m not sure that “block” is the right word for it. This is more along the lines of a giant wall of ice in my head, which paralyses me and takes my breath away and causes a constricting under my ribs, just to the right of my breastbone, every time I sit down and try to write anything beyond the things that I have to write. I know you understand what I mean when I tell you this affliction physically hurts. Not everyone would.

Because I can write. I’ve been writing papers for grad school and articles and letters and notes to teachers. But I can’t write. I can’t weave words together about a place or a time or a dream. I can write what I have to write, but I can’t write what I want to write. And it feels…hollow. I feel hollow. As if some very vital piece of my soul was left behind somewhere between Vermont and Oregon as we drove across the country to our new life here. As if I’ve had some traumatic injury that has caused me to forget an essential part of myself. Like the victim of a stroke who has to learn again the basics of walking.

I know very well that when I stop writing, I go a little mad. Small things that should not matter become heavy on my mind. Big things become overwhelming. And yet, I cannot make myself write. In fact, knowing that I cannot just sit down and write until my stress levels cease tossing and turning makes it worse. The stress builds on itself. The boat lists to this side and then to that. The waves come over the deck and lap at my toes. I tell myself I just need to jump in. Start again. Write…something. But by now it has become so large and looming that instead, I curl up into myself.

This began as an essay on Writer’s Block, the first in our project of a shared writing space. But even with a deadline and the knowledge that, at the other end, was you, understanding and gentle, I could not make it come. My brain seems to have atrophied, everything seemed halting and stilted.  Even this has been hard, although somehow, the form of a letter makes it slightly less intimidating. I dislike sharing the personal pieces of myself. No, not dislike, shrivel from. I suspect that most people who know me, or who have even met me, think of me as an extrovert.  I have spent my life playing the role of one. I’m the optimist, the chatty one, the non-boat rocker. But actually, I am terribly shy. I read recently about someone who described himself as an introvert disguised as an extrovert and I realized that is me. I act the part of an extrovert so that I don’t have to really, truly, share myself. And this is, perhaps, the very core of me, and therefore the hardest thing to share.

However, I’ve made it this far, through this letter and, if you are reading this, past the terror of clicking “post” and putting it out into the world. Instead of feeling frozen I feel, well, still frozen, but a bit less so. It is still a struggle. I am still unsatisfied that the words do not simply roll out. But chokingly, sputtering and wheezing and I’m sure inelegant, they did come.