Essay: Writer's Block
Some nights, after I've finished my Uber/Lyft shift, I sit down and type on my laptop between sips of beer. I write until that bottle is empty and there are three or four paragraphs in front of me. I pry the cap off another bottle of beer, I read those sentences I've strung together, and I realize they aren't worth a damn, much less anyone else's time. And I guess what a person does next is what separates the writers from the people who just like to drink beer.
I've started an essay about recently attending the funeral of my mother's father, my grandfather, that I had hoped to share with you today, the day before I turn thirty-two years old. But it's not ready. It needs more time, and I need to live a little longer before I understand what all those sentences I've strung together mean. There is something to be said for that, knowing when the words are ready and when they aren't, knowing when you're ready for the world to read them and how that will change the world's perception of you and all that will come after. Sort of like an amateur chef who has the restraint not to take a knife to a tenderloin fresh off the grill, lest all those juices still marinating in the middle flow out too soon.
We could argue that should tomorrow not come for us, then our words might never be read, and there is a sadness in that, even a fear, certainly for a writer. But there is also a peace in knowing that the words we have shared with the world were ready, tender and well-seasoned, that they were the best we could make them, in that time and in that place.
I wanted to write to you today because it has been exactly a year since I learned that my first published short story, "The Devil You Know," was available in Minetta Review, the student-run literary journal at New York University. That was also the day I officially (finally?) joined Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. I was the rare pre-smartphone Millennial who'd never bothered to put his life or his random thoughts on the internet. It was also the day of my first "Uber Nights" posts, a couple of innocuous drunken jokes from college kids below a couple of Instagram-filtered pictures of downtown Knoxville. I didn't really believe then that I was a writer, nor did I have any clue how I fit into this new digital community, seeing as how I don't have a child or a dog or a cat.
Maybe I was a storyteller then, but not a writer. And there is a difference. You can tell plenty of good stories over too many beers, but try writing them down and making any sense of them in the morning. Not too many of the 365 mornings since I joined this social stratosphere have gone by without me at least jotting something down, whether on my smart phone or my laptop or on an actual piece of pulpwood. That doesn't necessarily make me a writer, not at all. But claiming to be a writer without waking up and writing every day is akin to a president attempting to learn the mechanics of D.C. politics from a golf course in Mar-a-Lago.
After reading my previous post, my "Ode to Alcohol," a close friend texted and asked, among other things, if that was my last essay. He'd sensed the longing and regret for a past that I can't return to, but one that I now have the hindsight to grapple with, to comprehend how my actions have reverberated into the present and have inevitably altered my future. I told him that I didn't plan to ever stop writing again, whether it be in the form of an essay or a short story or a poem, or just three or four paragraphs on my Facebook page.
I'd like to publish a collection of short stories between two covers, maybe a collection of essays, maybe even a novel or a memoir. Some day, anyway. I figure that goes without saying. There even seems to be some interest in me doing that, people who say they'd give me a few dollars for my efforts. Yet I can't say that I ever set out to do that, publish a book, or that I ever set out to be an author, at least not in the traditional sense, a person with an agent who negotiates contracts and appearance fees, or a person with a website, or a person with a Ph.D. Although now I have a website, and I'm moving to Atlanta in August to pursue a third degree. Never say never, I guess.
This began as an unscientific social experiment, really, a way for me to reconnect with a world that I had been hiding from, a physical and digital world that seemed to have spun out of my reach. I wasn't proud of the man I'd become. I wasn't proud of my infidelity, nor was I proud of the fact that I was wallowing in my unhappiness, too full of self-pity and self-doubt to get out of bed and simply take the first step toward finding purpose in this existence of mine. My heart needed a jump start, and in my experience, the only way to jump start a heart is to use people as jumper cables, people out here just living, some of them succeeding and some of them doing the best they can to get by. Sometimes you feed off them, and sometimes they feed off you. Sometimes being the jumper cable yourself is the jolt, revving your own engine and remembering the energy that lies inside you.
On mornings when I sit frustrated in front of my laptop, unable to locate the cadence of my own voice—which is everything to a writer, to actually hear the sound of your own notes—I stop and go to my bookcase and pull out the collected stories of Raymond Carver. Every writer has a muse, that author you don't necessarily emulate but that author who is your jumper cable, who jolts you, even from beyond the grave. My muse, at least for a young white man who likes beer, is rather predictable, almost too obvious for those who have spent any amount of time in the literary world. I don't feel the need to defend my choice, other than to say that I don't believe Carver ever truly thought himself a writer until one day he woke up and he was one. He'd been published and critics were singing his praises. Carver was living, sometimes poorly, a life about as mundane and confounding as a white man who is a tick below middle class could hope for.
In his essay "On Writing," Carver explains his decision to exclusively write short stories by simply saying that his attention span "went out on him," that he couldn't bring himself to concentrate on reading a novel anymore, much less writing one. He says there is more to the story than that, but that it's "too tedious to talk about." He says that his attention span went out on him in his late twenties, around the same time he lost any "great ambition." Carver goes on to quote the late Danish author Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen. She said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Carver says that someday he'll write that on a three-by-five index card and tape it to the wall beside his desk.
To all of that, I can relate. And that isn't to say I've given up on dreaming, or on believing, nor is that what Carver was getting at. But there comes a moment in a life, especially in the life of a writer, of an artist, when the world becomes a tad clearer, like when I was fifteen and put on a pair of prescription glasses and realized all that I didn't know I was missing, how green the leaves can be in springtime. It becomes clear that living as honest as one can is the accomplishment, and whatever bit of notoriety or money that comes from the tinkering you do on a page or on a canvass or with a guitar, well, that's more than most will ever see.
I don't believe in writer's block, not anymore. I believe we writers have created the myth to justify the in-between, the void when we simply live, the empty spaces when we absorb every look and every gesture, asking the unanswerable questions as we move through our mundane day to day. Writer's block is the worry of forgetting how to do this thing we do, the worry of how many days we might actually let go by without doing the painful thing we love, the only thing that sometimes makes the days justifiable. Writer's block is grappling with the fact that we don't have to do this, and whether or not we need to, whether or not it is in fact a necessity for survival. As my brother likes to joke, writer's block is just the spot in town where all the cool writers live.
I've purchased a copy of The Best American Short Stories at a brick-and-mortar book store every year since 2012. (I also own copies of the 1990 and 1984 editions edited by Richard Ford and John Updike, respectively, which I had to buy on Amazon.) In the 2016 edition, edited by Junot Diaz, there is a story by John Edgar Wideman called "Williamsburg Bridge." I won't bother you with the plot, other than to say it was the first one I turned to because of my affinity for that lesser-traversed, graffiti-riddled bridge in lower Manhattan, the days I walked it with a woman who still exists somewhere in that vast city, the bridge that spit us out on the Brooklyn side near our favorite diner car on the East River. But that's another essay. I reference the story here because of what Wideman wrote in his contributor's note, which I always flip to in the back of the book after I'm through reading.
"It doesn't ever get any easier to write," Wideman says, "why should it—the urge/impulse/need/stamina are the gifts as a writer I value most—even readers less important than the good luck to want to write most mornings when I wake up."
I agree very much with Mr. Wideman, but I wonder if the reader isn't inextricably linked to the impulse to write, if I would still write if I were the last person on Earth. That's a chicken-and-egg argument for yet another essay, which I'll probably write, too, in due time. But today, and for the past 365, I have admittedly been writing to you, and in the process have found the impulse to wake up every morning and to write. Admittedly, I would not have written a single word without you, the readers, pushing me to put down my beer and type a few more sentences. Admittedly, I have been driving people around for their stories, and in the process I have found mine.
And for that, I'll be forever grateful.