Jelly Belly Jellybeans

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.

Jelly Belly Jellybeans

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:

Jelly Belly Jellybeans

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.

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18 thoughts on “On Writer’s Block, Serendipity, Self-Made Muses, and Jelly Beans

  1. Love this post. This line resonates particularly, “I keep rubbing words together because I’ve seen them spark before.” I tell my students that it’s serendipity but it’s more than that. It wouldn’t spark without the actual typing of words and the attempt to get at something so far away and to pull it in and make it fire. When I was down in Tucson in Ander’s class, his students asked me what was the worst thing I ever wrote and I said, the thing in my head–a poem I wrote while running about squirrels and cages and nice neighbors. It was very bad. Something like, “Squirrel, don’t go. Kind neighbors will let you live in their cages. Their own cages. Houses of their own.” Maybe worse than that since I wrote that here so at least there was some sense of audience holding me to something. Writing doesn’t happen in your head. Only on the page with some imaginary reader waiting to see the spark.

    1. Yes! It’s the hardest thing for me to believe, but that’s absolutely right: it doesn’t happen in your head. P.S. Is it wrong that I like the squirrel poem?

    1. Thank you for reading it. I think it needs a part 2, something about how “it never sucks as much as we think” or something. Because your writing is so lovely and original that I can’t ever imagine you struggling.

  2. Loved this blog, it’s basically the equivalent of saying – don’t stop before you even try, what the hell is the point of that?! Awesome and made me feel better about life in general haha.

  3. Karen, such a fantastic article.

    I’ve been dealing with writer’s block for about 7-8 months now. I’m proud to say I wrote through it almost every day; but it is a really, really scary thing! Luckily in the past few days I’ve regained my process, but I’m certainly still recovering and this article was inspiring in that I feel like a made a good choice this summer, just fighting it the whole way. It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes I almost even hated poetry for it, but eventually I found my passion for it again through the grind.

    Also, I agree The Conjuring didn’t have enough scares. Though I did like the clap thing, that was amusing and somewhat clever. I have to say though, I feel it was a more quality horror movie in that you could tell it was trying to be more than just itself, which was nice. You can’t say that about Saw or maybe even Paranormal Activity anymore. Though, I must confess I should probably defer to you–I have a feeling you’re much more versed in horror movies than I am, so I appreciate your expert opinion.

    You’re blog is looking just real fantastic by the way, I’m impressed!

    1. Bryan,

      Thanks so much for commenting. I feel like The Conjuring has the historical grounding which makes it more interesting, definitely. I do have to say, though, that the first Saw had some interesting stuff going on in it, no? I am waiting excitedly for Insidious 2, though I think it will be all scare, no substance.

      What I’m more interested in, though, is what happened as you pushed through the writer’s block. You said you found your passion: does that mean you started to write some good stuff you didn’t expect?

  4. Ah, yes, sorry I misspoke. I was more referring more to their sequels than the originals. I enjoyed both Saw 1 and Paranormal Activity 1 more than the Conjuring. Have you seen the Saw parody with Shaq, by the way? If not, you should check it out on youtube, it’s pretty funny.

    As far as the writer’s block, it was just an insane thing. I’ve never struggled so much with my writing before and honestly it was an awful feeling because it made me feel like I wasn’t living my life–if I couldn’t express my experiences on a page, was I really experiencing anything in life that was challenging me? That question really bothered me. Even reading other’s work–Matthew Dickman, Bukowski, Shakespeare (I looked everywhere for inspiration)–seemed unexcited and lackluster. Words on a page seemed dead.

    Eventually, a few days ago I stirred the pot and changed up the “economic” schedule I had been on. I stopped living life so safely and changed up a few things like my sleep schedule and caffeine intake habits, went out with friends more often than I had been so that I could go searching for an answer in my tired mind.

    I would say I started to write some good stuff which I did and didn’t expect. I didn’t expect it because I had been dealing with writer’s block for so long and nothing seemed to be helping me out of it. I did expect to be able to write well because I had shifted my writer’s process so drastically and really looked for inspiration outside of the words–I knew out in the world was where I would eventually find my answer. At first, it didn’t work, and I thought the process was a lost cause. After a few days of rinse and repeat–as well as a little less sleep–it eventually just came out. My mind was too tired to fight my fingers and so instead of writing about a preconceived notion of the truth I had, I wrote music and let truth conform to that.

    1. It’s funny–in another post on Misery I quote one of Stephen King’s characters, who often goes on walks when he is blocked, which helps because it’s “boring.” But you remind me that another great way of dealing with writer’s block is to expand your horizons, take on new experiences, meet new people, shake up your world. Great idea. Maybe advice I should follow myself.

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