For the second time in my life—no, wait, third—I’m having a hard time writing. For someone who does not believe in writer’s block, this is a most humbling admission. And when I say I’m having a hard time writing—I should clarify. I’m still writing for money. And I’m practicing in the Morning Pages. But as you’ve seen by the long stretches of time between blog posts, not a lot more than that.
I can’t claim lack of time as the culprit. I blame it in lack of energy—the pandemic, the continuing emotional and financial adjustment to the divorce (I have to make a lot more money now and all transitions, even good ones, are draining), missing my love who moved to Toronto, still adjusting to the demands and rhythms of my new job…
Lots of legit reasons, but, really, they’re also all just excuses. Clearly, right now, I don’t want to write enough… or I don’t know, I can’t sell myself on the purpose of writing.
My five years of trying to make it as a novelist battered me financially and weren’t that great on my ego either. Why should I pour myself into another novel that nobody will notice or read? That thing I did at work yesterday potentially affected 250,000 people, maybe more.
If you write a book and nobody reads it, does it really exist?
(The answer is No. No, it does not.)
I’ve been in this place twice before and what got me out the first time was a lover, Julia Cameron, an encounter with a practicing, hard-working artist, and a story that I HAD to write.
The second time, it was sheer will. The therapist said, “Could you consider that part of your problem is that you identify with your work too much?” And I said, “Fuck you, bitch, if I don’t write, I don’t exist,” and I went home and wrote three novellas.
The third time… well, I’ll keep you posted. I’m leaning on Vladimir Nabokov and Ursula K. LeGuin right now, but that might be a mistake. He’s a genius and she’s brilliant, and I am ordinary. I’m not downplaying my talents: I write well. I’m funny. I’m creative. Other things.
But nothing in my head or soul will ever produce something as ground breaking as Pale Fire or The Left Hand of Darkness.
Maybe it’s time, again, to lean on Julia. Go on a solo artist date, and make that a weekly ritual again.
Write a bad poem, send it to one of my loves.
Julia, she’s a lot like me: talented, insightful, with stories to tell and a deep understanding of the bones of writing and creativity.
But also, ordinary.
Over the past six months, I’ve led an intensely ordinary life. A Monday to Friday job, children, dogs, friends. No grand events, goals or aspirations—no chasing dreams, tearing pockets of time out of life with my teeth and claws for art.
Just doing the everyday, very ordinary things.
I’ve been… content.
Life is much easier this way.
Do you see why I’m reluctant to return to the edge again?
Easier, but, but… if it goes on like this much longer, I will cease to exist.
Get up. No, really. Pull off the covers and get up, get out of bed. Feet into slippers. Aren’t you glad you bought those when you did—these floors are cold and the fur inside the slippers so soft… Pause. Enjoy this first joy of the morning. Yes? Now, dressing gown on. Good. Look at you, almost at the door. Turn on the light. You’re doing it! Open the bedroom door. Look at this space that you love and glory in it. Fine, don’t, too early for glorying. Just don’t crash yet, ok? You’re doing it, you’re moving. Turn on the lights and turn on the heat—don’t think about the darkness and cold of winter, coming relentlessly—don’t think about it. Why are you thinking about it? It’s like you don’t want to be happy, bitch, come on. Pull yourself together and work with me! Yesterday was a sunny, warm day and while the sunset comes well before even your lame early bedtime, wasn’t it beautiful? Don’t think about winter. Think about your fireplace. Actually, don’t think, just get your ass into the kitchen. Fill the kettle with water. Light a burner on the stove. Grind the beans. Why did you wash the Bodum last night, ya’ lazy fuck, you’ve got to do it now. Sigh. Ok, done.
Fuck. You forgot to pee—how is that even a thing? Pee.
The bathroom is cold. Be grateful for your robe and slippers, and that living room fire. How lucky are you that that’s your main heat source and not a hedonistic indulgence? As soon as the kettle boils, you’ll make coffee and sit beside it and be cozy and warm. Will you work today? Don’t think about it until after the coffee is made—but also, why are making that an option, a question? Do you want to pay rent and the credit card bill? Then pull your whiney shit together and work.
Don’t think. The kettle is whistling. Turn off the gas. Pour the boiling water over the ground beans. Inhale the smell. Yessss. Glory in that. Good. Now glory in the gas stove—think about how hot that gas fireplace will be now. Good. Cup, cinnamon and Bodum on tray. Where’s your notebook? Beside the burning fire, with your pens. Perfect. Sit down. Pour coffee.
Every once in a while, a friend or a stranger provides me with an external reality check—a reminder that while I feel that in the last two months, I’ve been treading water (again), doing nothing, writing nothing—I’ve written 40,000 words plus revisions plus queries plus thinking of course—and, course notes and materials—also, of course, these blog posts.
It doesn’t seem like enough; it never seems like enough.
Yesterday’s crop of work: editing one 900-word piece, gratis, for a friend, proofing (really, ghostwriting) a 2000 word article for a client. No proofing of Matilda, and no work on the memoir project. Today, I am afraid, will be the same. Same but different—I will make myself work on one chapter before letting myself eat breakfast. No work—no breakfast. No work—no food. This is the stratagem I am reduced to right now—but at least I have a working strategy left.
I talk with another creative yesterday. He’s taking up singing lessons in an attempt to shake his malaise up, light a fire of motivation, creation, action under this inertia. Induced by the pandemic or other life’s stressors? He doesn’t know and neither do I. Let’s not talk about it. I don’t care about root causes anymore: I just want to DO things.
A lovely stranger tells me to think about adrenal supplements. A less lovely stranger suggests a multi vitamin and more iron. I tell him that he, in turn, could use to lose some weight. That Quarantine 15 looks more like a Quarantine 35, that is, if he had a flat belly beforehand—and also, two or three drinks every night probably does make you an alcoholic, and it’s definitely not good for the complexion. We part in mutual acrimony; ironically, we’re probably both right. Maybe some of this low energy in me is due to an iron deficiency; and eating, generally, is more a chore than a pleasure these days, so a multivitamin might not be a bad idea—but really? Shut the fuck up and don’t provoke me—OMFG, I can’t believe I just told someone to lose weight, not something you should say to stranger, foe or friend, ever. But in my defence, between his “you need to take an iron supplement” and my “and you need to lose 20 or 30 pounds, asshole” retort, came a suggestion that I wax the dark fuzz on my upper lip, and would I consider taking out my lip rings?
Motherfucker is lucky I didn’t bury his body in the gravel of the playground at the local elementary school, at which children lick each other during recess, then wait six feet apart, masks obediently on, before being marched back into the building.
But I digress. What was my point? I want to DO things. Ok, specifically—I want to WANT to DO things. I feel this is probably a positive first step. To desire desire. I am out of bed. I have ranted, emptied myself on the page in my Morning Pages practice. I have closed my eyes for two minutes in a fake meditation and, still feeling resistance instead of desire-to-desire, I’ve started writing anyway.
Start to work, start to write, start to move. Desire comes next, desire comes from action—and even if it doesn’t, the action, once executed, persists.
Also, honey, if you don’t revise that fucking chapter, you get no breakfast and aren’t you hungry? Starving?
Tummy grumbling, I work. The desire doesn’t come. But the words do, anyway.
The mark of a professional; OMFG, I wish I was an amateur, a hobbyist, did not have to get out of bed today—no, I don’t—I… work.
I work. And, finally, five pages in, flow. Not ninety minutes, not hours. Just a few minutes. A taste. But enough, enough, enough to spark a little bit of desire. Enough to remember what the heroin feels like. Enough to chase it onto the next page. And the next one. One more? And one more.
Two more—so hungry—two more, and you can eat. You can eat soon.
You can invoice soon.
The mark of a professional.
Doing the thing, even when you don’t want to.
There are good moments From the first post-COVID GoGo Battles at Dickens
I’m writing in a new place in my new place: the gas fire that’s the primary heating source for my 1913-built “garden flat” (old walk-out basement suite in less pretentious terms). The building has character, and the capricious heating that is the price of it. There’s a massive boiler in the basement proper that’s behind my apartment, which heats most of the building and, through a radiator, my bathroom, and through proximity, my kitchen. My living room and bedroom, however, are radiator-less and far away from the boiler—but equipped with large windows, one of which never closes fully. They rely on warmth from the fireplace, installed in 1996, when the building’s new (and current) owners, bless their hearts, decided that the basement denizens deserved to be warm in the long winter months as much as the upper story tenants.
So here, I am, in the opening fall months that already taste like winter, warming my feet in front of the fireplace as it warms up the apartment from the cold night. The forecast calls for a beautiful, sunny day with near-summer temperatures. But the nights know winter is coming. So do my toes, and they reach out for the fire, which bursts into life with a loud crackle, burns until its heat reaches the sensor on the thermostat that controls it, then disappears… only to come alive with a pop a few minutes later.
I expect there might be a way to make it burn incessantly—cranking the temperature into the 30s, for example—but in some ways, this is better. Intermittent reinforcement always is…
Today will be a chore day and a work day, a long list of tasks to move through, few of which inspire passion or are driven by desire. But, desire-less, I will try to be like my fireplace flame: come alive. Do the task. Burn out—and sit still, drink a cup of coffee. Maybe read some poetry. Explode into a second, third burst of energy.
I can do that—I don’t want to do that—I will do that. Reward myself with heat from the bursts of the flame in the chilly evening—after the almost hot day—and meditate on the mesmerizing quality of fire.
It’s another, “God I don’t want to get out of bed” day. No big deal, we all get them. Except during this pandemic without end, they seem to come more frequently—for me, for you. Sigh. Yawn. Crawl back under the covers, create a little cone of safety around yourself.
Hide from everything.
Deep breath. It’s gonna be ok. There are no monsters under the bed (just in the White House and in the Alberta Legislature Building). And ordinary life goes on even as kings tantrum and empires fall.
I’m sort of re-reading P.D. James’s The Black Tower, and there’s this: “This is the spiritual life: the ordinary things that one does hour from hour.” And it’s true: I don’t fight it. This is life, this is all life is: the things one does, from moment to moment, and this is my life… but I don’t want to do any of the ordinary things.
I just want to stay in bed.
Yawn. Sniff. Hide.
OK, woman. Do it. Deep breath and covers off and feet on the floor and ass in gear—no, this pep talk is definitely not working. Can you find something that you really want to do today, focus on that, grab it with both hands, pul yourself out of bed that way?
And so this is the final test. You don’t want to, I don’t want to. But we do it anyway. Covers off. Feet on the cheap but pretty faux Persian rug. Then into slippers. Pad into the kitchen. Coffee.
Start moving, starting doing, even when you don’t want to. Desire may come. Or not. But once you take the first step, the second one is easier.
Even when you don’t want to.
PS “Retro-posting” because on that particular day, I did manage enough energy to write the post, but not quite enough to transcribe it and upload it. We do what we can, right? Right. Today is a better day.