Thanks to the pandemic
Everyone’s A Writer Now.
Or at least everyone's getting a sense of what it’s like to live/work as a writer:
_ Staying home for interminable stretches aka sheltering-in-place
_ Facing fears (job insecurity, bills, anonymity)
_ Writing in cramped spaces that look nothing like the idyllic Parisian garret of Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”
Writers like the majority of America’s workforce these days (except for the essential workers saving us all) work at home. Being flexible creatures writers can be found scribbling in basements and stairwells, on beds or couches, in cafes or coffee shops, libraries and park benches or if they’re lucky like Virginia Woolf they might write in a room of ones own with a door to shut out the world while creating their own.
As a writer I find it hard to empathize with people complaining about the rigors of forced denial while Sheltering-In-Place because sheltering-in-place is more than a professional requirement of being a writer: It’s a state of mind. To write anything decent, original and slightly compelling writers have no choice but to spend straight-jacket stretches of time alone with their minds and imagination with an e-thesaurus for company.
Being a bonafide working writer is about as glam as being a dental hygienist except instead of teeth, a writer polishes words and phrases with patient precision, inserting the sharp instrument of doubt into dark places, poking prose for fractures and flaws in story/structure: theme, character, dialogue, plot, momentum, rhythm, pacing and flow.
It’s a love-hate thing (writing to earn a living) demanding truckers’ hours on the days/nights one manages to marshal the will and focus required to churn out more than a few decent pages, monologues or scenes. And when the fun part aka first draft is done we scrub up to perform multiple surgeries aka rewrites followed by editing and more editing, polishing and more polishing until receiving notes from a trusted colleague or agent suggesting further rewrites and so we begin again.
It’s a rewarding but maddening profession — like swimming laps in an inflatable pool in your garage with a rope tied around your middle and hitched to a ceiling hook designed to keep you in place while giving the illusion of movement. Most day it feels like I’m making progress as a writer when really I’m swimming in place. It’s a life of illusions: Thinking you’ve won the race but suddenly the Olympics are cancelled and your career is in free-fall.
And no matter what you’ve accomplished, even when your book’s been published (hooray), your play’s been premiered (hooray!) or your screenplay’s set to stream (hooray!) there’s always something more you know you could have done to make it better, tighter, funnier, more powerful or precise.
So when someone, especially a non-writer friend tells me they’re thinking about becoming a writer (at least for now, they say, during the Pandemic: the perfect time to whip up the novel or screenplay they’ve been carrying around in their heads but haven’t had the time for until now ... as if writing, like doing laundry, is a function of having time), I want to scream:
Why be a writer? You’ve got health insurance and a career with vacation and sick days!
Are you insane?!?
But they’re not to blame: The plague has pranked mass consciousness freeing everyone to be a writer.
Now That We’re All Writers
The pandemic has given everyone a taste of the writer’s life so it’s no surprise a few friends recently informed me of their plans to pen a memoir or a thriller or a YA fantasy trilogy and could they ask me a few questions about writing?
Thumbs Up emoji.
Their top question?
Hint: it’s got nothing to do with the underbelly of writing: the hard, sticky, grueling phases of researching, the deep dives to discover story, shape a coherent arc with compelling characters or even how to outline a book chapter by chapter or a play act by act scene by scene before you can actually sit down and write. Nope.
They want to know about WRITER’S BLOCK and what to do to when it happens to them.
How can they worry about Writer’s Block when they haven’t even started writing?
They ask how I deal with my writer’s block. And think I'm joking when I say I’ve never suffered from writer’s block. Ever. In fact I suffer from the opposite: Writer’s Gush.
Ideas and words gush from my inner core and onto the blank page or screen with the intensity and semi-regularity of a Yellowstone geyser. Some days Old Faithful, other days more like Little Cub Geyser in the upper Basin having a rough day.
I explain: My writing challenge has never been a dearth of words or ideas, but how to shape and sculpt, edit and lens the flow. Sometimes I can’t type fast enough to capture the dialogue or sentences knocking on my brain like a swat team at El Chapo’s door. Random phrases follow me as I go for a walk, or wake me in the night. If I remember to write them down they're illegible by morning but the visitation by a garbled muse is the support I need to start another day.
While I’ve never experienced a block, I’m familiar with the long silence (some lasting days or weeks) before a storm. I tell my aspiring writer friends to trust that out of silence (which is a gift, not a block), a knowing will come .... followed in time by words and ideas.
And if they still think they're "blocked"? Study the craft of writing! Gather the works of great writers present and past. Read. Absorb. Assimilate until your voice speaks, which it will.
I sense their disappointment. They want writer’s block as a certificate of authenticity as much as they want the Parisian garret where, sitting by the fire, they'll swill Pernod penning their future bestseller. How can I tell them these are cliches, not reality?
Instead I offer a flattering lie:
“I’ve heard writer’s block usually happens after someone’s had a bestseller or won an Oscar or a MacArthur Genius Grant and they don’t know if they’ll be able to live up to let alone surpass their last success." They nod knowingly.
"Until then, don’t worry!" I say. "Stay home, embrace your imagination and write.”
Please share your thoughts/experiences in comments:
Do you have writer’s block or writer’s gush? A little of both?
This blog is part of a new Women Write Funny category called "WTF Is A Writer's Life" with rants, raves and musings about, well, writing .... by Didi Balle.
Upcoming Blog Posts: Excerpts from the Lazy Ass Host Handbook by Didi Balle.