I came back from summer vacation revving with ideas about writing projects. My mind bubbled with book proposals, blog posts, novel revisions, pitches for magazine articles. Words and ideas tumbled around in my head like socks in the spin cycle. I was on fire, people, on fire.
A Russian composer – Shostakovich, maybe – said you should write everything down because the brain is a fragile vessel (especially if you live in Stalinist Russia), and that’s what I did with all those ideas. I jotted notes and lists and phrases into my new favorite notebook and figured once the fall semester was underway, my jottings would jolt me back into action.
Insert sound of brakes screeching to a halt and maybe add the sound of breaking glass for good measure.
I got nuthin. Oh, I’ve got lists and notes and little phrases; I’ve got pages of those. I’ve got some good photos, some funny photos, some hipsta-insta retro-photos.
But more than that, I ain’t got.
I tease my writing students about the fact that you can’t wait to be “in the mood” to write. Usain Bolt doesn’t wait until he’s “in the mood” to go for a run; baseball players don’t wait until they’re “in the mood” to stroll onto the field. Writing, I say to my students, is a muscle like any other; it needs regular exercise to work fluidly, and that only comes with practice.
You can’t wait for the inspiration fairy to come whack you on the head with an idea, I say, and they laugh, and I laugh, because we all know that ideas don’t come from fairies.
Except right now I am wishing, hope upon hope, that the idea fairy wafts into my apartment on a sandy breeze and whacks me in the head, or at least whacks the thin-lipped, long-nosed, pissyass editor who has taken up residence in my mind. With each of my attempts to start anew, the editor sneers; she scoffs; she shakes her head in dismay at my frivolity, my lack of insight, the complete absence of intellectual heft. She throws up her hands and asks what the hell any of this blogging stuff is good for, anyway?
I have no answer for that last question other than to hang my head and mutter “mumble mumble writing practice….mumble mumble creative outlet…mumble mumble connections with home mumble mumble…” Pissy editor lady is unimpressed. And the longer she reigns, and the longer I go without producing some solid pages of writing, the worse it gets.
To make matters even worse, I teach writing. I spend hours and hours a week talking about writing strategies, about tools and tricks and techniques, about evidence, story, detail; revision and argument and authorial control. You’d think I could cure myself of writer’s block – physician heal thyself, right?
This physician, however, can’t heal herself, but I think I know who can. One of the staples in my writing-teacher bag of tricks is Anne Lamott’s brilliant, hysterical Bird by Bird. I always give students at least a few chapters to read (a frisson of excitement always runs through the classroom when the students notice that one chapter is called “Shitty First Drafts.” You can see them thinking “shitty…oh boy…this is college!). If you’ve not read Lamott’s book, you should, even if you never plan to write anything other than a grocery list.
Lamott would call my Pissy Editor Lady an anti-writing voice–we all have them, whether it’s the impossible teacher you had in eighth grade, an overbearing father who red-lined your every word, or the teacher’s pet in 11th grade who cheated on her essays and always got away with it. Wherever those voices come from, Lamott says, imagine picking them up and dropping them, one by one, into a glass jar. Then clamp on the lid. Then put the jar high on a shelf somewhere, preferably in your next-door-neighbor’s back closet.
Then go to work.
This post, then, is my equivalent of a glass jar and my neighbor’s back closet.
Take that, Pissy Editor Lady. I’m hitting publish right now.