Writing About Writing and Writer’s Block

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” —Thomas Merton

There’s a stupid food lore that if you throw cooked spaghetti at the wall and if it’s stick it’s done. This is stupid for several reasons of course. Why waste pasta? And why clean up more messes after cooking than you need to? We all know the pot of marinara is going to spit up a hot bubble of tomato-y burp at one point and get little driblets of sauce all over your stovetop. Besides, I highly doubt anyone in this day and age would do anything that dumb, then again we have people believing that they can recreate Minion cookies off Pintrest that come out looking like something else entirely.

My apologies for the tone of the last paragraph. It was written in frustration at a Starbucks in Cambridge after spending over an hour staring at a blank screen. That is of course a lie, I spent most of the hour I should have been writing surfing the Internet. At least 25% of the time was spent “researching” for the short story I’m trying to finish right now. It’s hard to write about what you know, but obviously don’t know as much as the real people in our stories.

This can be frustrating if your character is say an impulsive fighter, from an ancient order and she nearly gets herself killed by rushing into a situation before thinking everything through. You know she should know better, but obviously you have to craft circumstances that circumvent logic and almost twenty years of training. What about a chef frustrated with her profession, even though she is at the top of her career as the story begins? How does one write about crafting the perfect menu that tells a magical, mental narrative if you’ve never been through the rigors of culinary school, let alone years of training and months of recipe testing? How can I make my readers think something like “fresh ricotta, olive oil drizzle, rosemary salt and candied orange zest on crispy olive ‘panettone’” is delicious and well thought out even though it has probably never existed in a restaurant outside the digital pages on Microsoft Word in my iCloud drive?

This is of course the whole purpose of writing—to make a reader experience what you have and to foster this unique osmosis of imagery. This is what I am studying and am trying to quantify for my PhD. All writers eventually figure out what works for them and how they convey this to their readers. Of course when this flow of information seems obstructed, aka writer’s block, this generates the opposite feeling of osmosis. It’s as if the fusion of words is burned up and suddenly our keyboards become dying stars. Except we don’t want a supernova to happen, even though this seems at first like a good idea. (Supernovas eventually become black holes.)

Recently, someone asked me what my writer’s block “looks like.” An interesting question, and one that will likely make every writer pause before they say “a block of course.” This physical manifestation of a literal translation between metaphor and imagery is pervasive. There are even gag gifts for writers of wooden cubes labeled as such. I’ve even seen a thick notebook designed to look like this.

For me, my writer’s block looks like a giant cube of sandstone. This is probably because I am a huge fan of the TV show Futurama. In the episode “A Pharaoh to Remember” the Planet Express delivery crew has to deliver a block of sandstone to a planet resembling Ancient Egypt. When Professor Farnsworth makes this announcement with his usual call of “good news, everyone,” we don’t see it until the camera pans out to show this object being larger than the spaceship that will deliver it, and Fry comments, “I thought something looked different in here.”

Over the past six months since I’ve arrived in the UK, I know I’ve been so focused on pushing this block out of it’s tunnel, that I have forgotten one of the most basic principles of the physics of the mind. We can imagine almost anything if given the linguistic keys to do so. When this person asked me the follow up question of “why can’t I move this block?” my immediate reaction was, “well, maybe I should just pan the camera out?” Instead of moving or chipping away at the gargantuan artifice built up of procrastination and bad habits, I can focus on expanding the cavern it’s stuck in.

So take this advice, even if I don’t as often as I should. Don’t focus on moving, blasting, or chipping away at the obstacle. Maybe instead focus on expanding the cavern around it. Either by panning out, exploding new holes to let the light in, or finding cracks you didn’t realize that were there. This mental exercise can be strengthened with a few other proven tricks of mine, and if they work for me and my screwy brain, they might work for you:

  • “Read a lot. Write a lot.” I wholly believe in Stephen King’s advice from On Writing regarding this mantra. When I don’t read, my writing gets sluggish. This is also true if I read a lot of similar things in a row. If you’re reading too much about food history or on the craft of writing, like I have since starting my PhD program, read something in a completely different genre. Even if it’s just a few articles, short stories, or some poems. Just look at what picking up a biography in an airport did for Lin-Manuel Miranda.
  • Find your space. This can be in a coffee shop, library, or setting up a corner desk in your home. Making a space for writing seems to help your brain center itself and realize it’s time to write or create. This actually is something many writing manuals suggest. The latest one I bought is Organizing for Creative People by Sheila Chandra. It’s something that’s easy to forget, especially if you move to a new country and expect the writing bug to find you again. Doesn’t work like that.
  • Give yourself deadlines, and stick to them. Self explanatory, but even more so is to make yourself excited to see that end goal and not just treating it as a means to an end. Perhaps treat your next project like a travel itinerary. Sure things may change at the last minute and you may have to visit the National Gallery instead of the Tate Modern, but you still have to leave London and go back home eventually. Make the ending (or at least the first draft of a project) your coming home date and then the next step is the next itinerary for your next adventure of creativity.
  • In addition to a space and deadlines, above all you have to treat writing as something between a hobby and as a “real” occupation. It must be nurtured. This can be done with deadlines, a dedicated space, and by feeding it with words read and words written. Time spent writing must be protected and become as much a part of your routine as sleep, bathing, taking prescribed medication, eating well, and exercising. Notice how all of those things in the previous sentence not only contribute to a healthy body, but in turn a healthy mind.

“Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” as John Lennon said but one must make writing part of life, not a plan.

Advice I have been given over and over. Things I know, but often forget to practice. Perhaps we always need re-reminding of the important things as a way to remember to appreciate them.

“If a man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.” —Thomas Merton

 

 

 

© Ginger Lee Thomason and foodandcheerandprose.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and foodandcheerandprose.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Image taken with iPhone 6 in July 2017 at Museum of London, London, England, UK.