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July 10, 2017


The concept of suffering writer’s block is an absolute crock. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. I am saying the writer who allows herself to sit there being “blocked” is not really much of a writer, in the same way the swimmer who allows herself to drown is not much of a swimmer.


If a writer is blocked, then that is a sign. It’s just like when a rockslide blocks a road and they put up a sign. The sign literally means go another way. Change course, this way is going nowhere for you. When people drive and progress is blocked they turn and find another path. When people write and their progress is blocked they pop up on social media to bitch about it or blog advice about curbing other people's writer’s block. I say, phooey!


If your romance novel about 18th century Prussian lovers has hit the wall and you don’t know what Gretchen will do next or how Leopold will react then put down your romance novel about 18th century Prussian lovers. You’re going the wrong way. This isn’t the path at this time. Change course. That may mean resuming your duties as the Night Auditor at the Red Lion Inn or it may mean writing something else instead. Maybe a series of haikus about flatulent pets?


This is not to say that I’m always poised to pour something brilliant out into a Word doc. I stop writing sometimes for weeks at a time. But it’s not because I feel “blocked.” The sensations usually run more toward frustration, anger, outrage or defeat. Yes, feeling defeated is a part of my process. I take a break, go on a bender, fish for black marlin in Bimini, shoot my wife in Mexico and call myself George and wear a white suit and join the communist party. In other words I do the things writers do when they’re not writing.  Most important among all these activities is reading. I read more when I’ve hit the wall and then miracles happen. The prose on the page inspires me to write.


Case in point, I was reading this review of the brilliant writer Ursula K. Le Guin and the blog’s author had the good sense to indulge the reader with lots of Ursula’s quotes. One of my favorites was this one:


I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon. -From The Wave in the Mind: Thoughts and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination


Here, Le Guin is discussing sexism, the crude imposition of gender roles, and the ways she’s come to terms with being a woman in the male dominated world of literature, especially sci-fi. Can you name another female sci-fi writer? I doubt it. The topic of gender identity interests me but the funny line about the humble fish stick speaks to me. It inspires. The minute I finished reading the post I had to write this:


"Dinner was a block of frozen chopped spinach and a tasteless, skinless chicken breast. Seasonings were for minorities. All our meals were three ingredients or less, stuff like Stouffer’s Lasagna or the dreaded Chipped Beef, things Mother could nuke in our new microwave. We owned a Sharp Carousel that sat there like our countertop Gorgon—no one could look directly at it. But how could you not? The thing took up half the counter. Then to my surprise my mother made fried chicken and mashed potatoes with homemade gravy. I watched her coat the leg and thigh pieces by shaking them in a plastic bag filled with flour. She dropped each piece in sizzling Wesson oil. Where do orphan chickens go, she asked. I don’t know, I said. The grease popped under the glass lid of the electric fryer. Foster Farms, she answered. The meal tasted delicious, every bite, including the little burnt parts. I licked the last bits of juice off my fingers and wondered why we ate microwaved fish sticks so often."


Ursula Le Guin's one-liner about being a poor version of a man triggered all these associations and memories of my mother’s poor version of food. Then I realized that Ursula had no choice, she would always be a poor excuse for a man, as she readily admits. But my mother could really cook. Instead, she chose to microwave Van de Kamp’s fish sticks. These themes of gender role and potential and expectation exploded into my own narrative and it was all because of something I'd read about fish sticks.


Social media juggernaut and blogger, Rachel Thompson gives remedies to would-be writers for overcoming fear. Let’s face it, feeling fearful is the polar opposite of feeling inspired. Really hers is a post about feeling blocked and what to do. She lists the reasons a memoirist might be fearful of writing her book: What will friends and family think, will people judge me, will anybody believe me, will I loose my job? All excellent questions. But she excludes the most important question of all.


Will my writing suck?


If a writer is paralyzed by the mundane then she will never find courage to ask the nuanced questions. Questions like do the themes resonate, is the voice sympathetic, is the narrative moving at a desirable pace. Does my writing suck?


Like a lot of people, Rachel says just write. Don’t self-edit. Work it out first. But I say keep living in fear. Keep your head down and stay silent and marinate in your fear. Live in fear for years and years if you have to, until at last, you steam with anger and intensity and outrage and cause. Live in fear until there is no way that you’re willing to live another day unless you are writing. That is inspiration, my friends. And that is how we keep writing, through the blocks and the frustrations and the terror to become great and not suck.


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