On Writer’s Block, Serendipity, Self-Made Muses, and Jelly Beans
Whenever I sit down to write, I am instantly convinced that I’m washed up. This is it, I think. It’s finally happened: I have used up all my words and have nothing else to say. Time to look for a new job.
It doesn’t matter what type of writing I’m doing: fiction, an academic essay, or something more casual, like this blog post. The ghosts always come. This will amount to nothing, they say. The voices sound a lot like the woman on my GPS when I miss a turn and she tells me she’s “recalculating.” You can almost hear her disdain. You are wasting our time, she says, just not in so many words. She is too polite for that. But I know what she’s really thinking. I told you to turn left .2 miles ago, and you still screwed it up.
I am, in fact, hearing that voice as I write this very sentence. Nothing good will come of this. Do the laundry. Sweep up the cat hair. For the love of God, be useful.
During this stage, writing is excruciating. My entire body itches; I can’t say I know what withdrawal feels like, but I imagine this is a kindler, gentler version of it. I would rather do anything but write. I make really elaborate sandwiches. I organize my bookshelf by author, then by subject, then by author again.
Only one thing gets me through the drudgery of laying sentences like brickwork: I know that eventually it will stop being drudgery. I keep rubbing words together because I’ve seen them spark before. If I keep at it long enough, if I am brave enough to bear the uncertainty and boredom, the words will gain a momentum, and suddenly what felt like the dullest waste of time will have me at least a little hooked.
I am convinced that this belief is what distinguishes writers who write from writers who talk a lot about writing but rarely ever do it. It’s not talent or luck or good schooling, though all those things might help. It’s finding a way to write in spite of the hopelessness and despair.
Increasingly, writing has become for me exactly this sort of act of faith. I tune out the naysaying voice long enough because I believe that if I do, something will get done. Something always gets done if I stick it out. I’m not saying it will be awe-inspiring or jaw-dropping, have you ROFL, or be any good at all. But it will be better than not having written at all. In the end, whatever brought me to the keyboard in the first place will be out of me and no longer in danger of being lost to that endless tide of internal babbling that constantly washes away the few moments of clarity I get in a day. Think how much smart and funny stuff has been lost because someone didn’t think what they had to say was important enough to write down. And then they forgot what it was they wanted to say. And then they forgot that they had something to say in the first place. Tragic.
The other motivation to push on through the drivel is that every once in a while something will pop out that you had no idea even existed in your brain: an insight into the film you’re analyzing, an idea for a story, a connection between, say, a memory of your first attempt to start a fire with two sticks and the writing process. Something so profoundly right that you can almost hear the click of a door unlocking somewhere in your mind. Maybe nobody else gives a shit, but you, at least, are grateful for it.
The scary thing is that you would never have discovered it except in the middle of writing. Who knows why this happens? Maybe you put some words in close enough proximity that synapses that had never fired simultaneously shot off at the same time and your brain saw the connection. Who knows? Does it matter? The point is that it does happen. Once in a while. And the promise of it happening is enough to keep me going.
More accurately: what keeps me going is the fear that every time I don’t write, I am losing one of these opportunities, that it vanishes–poof–into the ether.
I am talking about writing because it’s the creative outlet I know best and do most. But other art forms must be the same. Does the uninspired painter dab color on canvas, then suddenly discover a picture waiting to be painted? Do songwriters strum chords, then find a progression that turns into a song? I bet they do. I wonder how many of our most beloved works of art are accidents.
I know that it’s true of photography. The best pictures I’ve taken (or at least the ones that make me happiest) are not the first or the forty-first of a set. They come later. I set up some shot, take a picture, realize it doesn’t look anything like what I envisioned, try again, fail. Then I notice some detail I never noticed before, some accidental incidental, and THAT becomes the image. For an assignment last semester, I had to take a picture of a “product,” meaning a picture that would promote a certain object as a product, make it desirable to the viewer. I decided to photograph Jelly Belly jellybeans because
I could eat them afterwards I felt their colors and textures would offer interesting subject matter. In my mind, I saw a colorful array spilling out of a bowl. This is one of early pictures I took.
It may not show it, but I spent a lot of time setting up this shot, trying to create, for example, a line of red from front left to back right and attempting to strategically space out the blues and greens so that they would pull your eye around the picture. What I did not plan was the bean with the smudged logo. Looking back, it seems MORONIC that I didn’t think of highlighting the product NAME in a product PHOTO, but there you have it. Here’s the end result:
This photograph isn’t going to get people to join hands across America, but I was happy with it. And I was happy with what it taught me (or reaffirmed) about inspiration: it’s your own doing. Absolutely NO WAY would this picture exist if I hadn’t taken a bunch of really uninspired pictures first.
Experiences like this must be behind the idea of a muse, some lovely but fickle woman who decides, every once in a while, to bestow her favor upon thee. But why should she get all the credit? It may SEEM like the idea came from outside of you, that you were simply in the right place at the right time. But actually you conjured the idea, the phrase, the whatever, by bringing together a collection of elements that wouldn’t co-exist in space and time but for you. And the more you do that, the more you increase the probability that it will happen again. And again. How fun. It’s sort of like Christmas.
If I could give everyone, including me, one gift, it would be unflappable faith that we can call down the muse any damn time we want. She works on our schedule. Remember that.