Writer’s Block and Other Angst

Man writing with large pencil
From GraphicStock

My blog has been conspicuously silent over the past several weeks. I’d like to blame my writing inertia on the Taliban, or ISIS, or breast cancer, the worldwide epidemic of raping women, or suicide—all issues I either read about, talk about, or mourn over. I find each of these events so depressing in an all-consuming manner because they are so horrifying that mental paralysis sets in. I’m not trying to make light of any of these topics or others (e.g., school shootings, the Presidential race, human trafficking). In fact, I am so sensitive that I take these stories into my soul and wonder about mankind in general. How can one human being be so cruel to another human being?

Although these stories do get to me, I cannot use them as an excuse as to why I have stopped writing. Other excuses aren’t the reason for my hiatus either. Yes, we just had summer break. Yes, we took vacation. And, yes, the kids are now back in school (for better or for worse). No excuse. I have been able to write during these events before. When I’m on fire, I can write in a hotel room, carpool, and even during a church service (don’t repeat that please). Hell, I was even able to write during a hurricane once . Now, that is fortitude.

The truth is I think I have had a bout of writer’s block. (Gasp!) I want to write, particularly for this blog, but I can’t seem to find my voice or a compelling reason to write. The more I fixate on the fact that it’s been X number of days since I’ve written a blog, the more it just fertilizes the angst until my writer’s block is the size of Jack’s beanstalk—minus the gold goose, of course. I know there is a scientific name for this—you know, something like inaction breeding only inaction. I am no scientist.

So, what does a former teacher/professor of English and writing do? She googles (yes, now a verb) writer’s block to see if she can get unstuck. It is no surprise that I find a slew of books on how to deal with writer’s block. These are famous books by famous people like Peter Elbow, Natalie Goldberg, and Anne Lamont. They talk about their own problems with writer’s block and then offer solutions and writing prompts to get those wordy juices flowing again.

The funny thing about writer’s block is that writers find it so commonplace that they make jokes about it. I’m not kidding. Punch in writer’s block on Pinterest and you will journey to the land known as “Painful (yet funny) Subculture of Writing.” The new mantra for writer’s block is the following definition: “Writer’s block: When your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.” Humorous, yet there is a lot of truth in that because fiction writers often feel as if they have multiple personalities screaming insane thoughts at them. And, cartoonists like Charles Schultz (Peanuts), Gary Larson (The Far Side) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbs) succinctly add their amusing slant to this awful but inevitable experience.

People have “invented” items to help with the blockage of the pen. From Aqua Notes (water proof writing pad for the shower) to Magnetic Poetry in a Jar to perfume and lotions with a “paperback” scent, marketing geniuses are capitalizing on this sad state of creative affairs.

This one company has manufactured a soap and a candle to help. They claim, “Soap for writer’s block: Smells like regurgitated ideas and probably a vampire.” The Whiskey River Soap Company’s promo reads,

Tired of feeling like a bone-dry hack? So the wordsmith’s well has run dry? Try this specially-crafted Writer’s Block candle. If this candle doesn’t help you churn out regurgitated ideas and probably a vampire, I’ll eat my hat. It’s a fedora, by the way. Cool vampires wear fedoras now. Put that in your crack pipe and smoke it. Or in your book. Either way, you’re gonna need this candle ASAP. Your ideas are terrible. Cheap whiskey scented Net Weight: Approximately 17 oz. Burn time: 60 hours …. Product Code: HACKCANDLE

I love the stream of consciousness flair! You can even buy a magnet that reads, “Back away from the fridge. Good. Now go back to your desk and start writing.” Yes, overdoing it with food and drink is almost always a side effect of this illness.

I am happy to report that in researching writer’s block and sharing my findings with you, I have become unblocked. The ideas are beginning to flow…sometimes like a picturesque river and sometimes like a toilet. But, at least it is all flowing again.

Book Review: Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

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I am new to the Jenny Lawson camp, but I definitely want to sign up to be a card-carrying member of her fan club. This newfound love for this humorist and blogger (see Bloggess) came after listening to her read her newest book Furiously Happy. Most critics describe this second book as a collection of essays about her mental disorders toldthrough sardonic, witty humor.

On one hand I agree with this premise because Lawson does spend a great deal of time discussing what it is like to live with depression, anxiety, social (and less common) phobias, and self-mutilation with a smattering of stories about her rheumatoid arthritis as well. At times the stories are funny like when Lawson explains her inexplicable phobia of doctor’s coats. Whenever she sees one, she passes out, even if she is at the gynecologist in the middle of an exam and how when she wakes up, she hopes the doctor continued the exam while she was unconscious. (I think that is a reasonable desire myself.)

Lawson writes about early on-set social phobia and how that manifests today in hiding in her own house whenever someone rings her doorbell. She is completely aware that how she reacts to certain situations is irrational, and goes so far as to call herself crazy. In fact, Lawson relates a lengthy conversation she has with her mother over whether or not she is crazy.  Jenny, I believe, wins that one.

Yet, Lawson is okay with being crazy. In fact, she embraces the notion, and punctuates her book with reasons why people who have mental disorders like she has should not sit alone in shame, but celebrate their differences. She calls for society to re-envision how we think about and relate to people with mental disorders. That’s where the name of her book has its origins. She refuses to continue life down in the dumps. Instead, she wants to be “furiously happy.” According to Lawson, we all have a choice—even in the midst of terrible events—to be happy. The furious part of the equation is how hard one should work to be happy.

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So, yes, this book is about mental illness, but to me it was more than that. What captured my attention were her long, convoluted, stream-of-conscience ramblings about how she copes with and lives an ordinary life as a mother, wife, daughter, and friend. These stories are cross-your-legs funny. In fact, a woman in my book club suggested the publisher should sell Poise pads with each copy. I thought that was a great idea.

Although I say Lawson’s life is ordinary, her exploits and the tales are anything but ordinary. Some of my favorite stories are as follows:

  • As the daughter of a taxidermist, she loves playing with her taxidermied raccoon named Rory and sometimes she involves her cats in these games.
  • She write a lengthy chapter about dressing up as a Koala bear when she meets Koala bears in Australia, a place she swears wants to kill her.

• In one chapter, Lawson writes about how she fell asleep in a strange position and both arms went numb. When she awakens, she falls out of bed and lies there pondering her temporary paralysis. Then, she asks her husband to set up her recorder so she can work with no hands (or hands experiencing the pins and needles of recovery) while lying on her bedroom floor surrounded by her cats. That’s a dedicated writer!

• In her chapter on parenting, Lawson begins with, “I don’t know how many times I’ve done meth in front of my child.” Of course, she is kidding, but it is her way of saying that once you make that statement, anything else you do as a parent seems fabulous.

Statements like the one above are often dotted generously with swear words, that quite frankly I think add to the effect of her writing. When I listened to Lawson read her own stories, I felt as if I were listening to the crazy twin inside my own head. I got her sense of humor because I think a lot like her. I am not sure Lawson would find that complimentary, but I do. I often write potential skits for Saturday Night Live in my head. I too am a bit crazy as I also suffer from clinical depression, anxiety and compulsiveness. Although I am not social phobic, the older I get the more I too want to pretend I am not home when the doorbell rings.

So, I highly recommend this book to (1) those who are crazy like Lawson and me, (2) those who are not necessarily crazy but love crazy people, and (3) people who make not love crazy people but have always been curious about the way they think.

A Plug for Adults to Read Children’s Literature

This school year my children will be entering 4th, 6th, and 7th grade, and they all have at least two books they are required to read over the summer. If possible, I like to listen to the kids read, read some myself aloud, and/or silently follow along. I read the most with my eldest daughter because she has a severe form of dyslexia and is dependent on audiobooks most of the time, but I try to keep up with the others as well. Lately, it dawned on me how much I have enjoyed the books my children read, and I wanted to put a plug-in for adults to revisit some of the old and new “classics” the kids are reading in school because I have found that these books are just plain good literature. Below I discuss a few of my favorite children’s books—some are early “chapter” books and others are novels for children.

357664A couple of weeks ago I was reading Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo with my son, and I just fell in love with that book all over again. The main character, India Opal, has just moved to a very small town in Florida with her father, the local preacher.   Early in her move, India Opal rescues a stray dog causing havoc in the local Winn Dixie, takes him home, and the rest of the story centers around the pair’s ability to work their way into the locals’ hearts. It is a sweet story that has some sad moments, but it made me hanker for small town goodness. It is great for kids to read this because many can identify with how it feels to lose a parent and how it feels to be the new kid on the block, literally.

10365Last year, my daughter and I read Where the Red Fern Grows I by Wilson Rawls, a book I had never read before. This was a captivating story of a young boy who spends over a year raising his own money to buy two coon hunting dogs. For those of you who live in the city, these dogs are trained to sniff out and tree raccoons, valuable for their pelts. It does not sound like a book I would like much less immerse myself in, but I was hooked by chapter two. The plot is action-packed, the descriptions of what theses coon dogs are capable of doing are detailed and fascinating, and the attachment between a boy and his dogs stole my heart. Warning: This one made me cry—a lot—and if I think about the book today, I could cry again. It’s a real heart-wrencher.   This book was so good for my daughter to read because she garnered an understanding of how other children her age had (and have) to work hard to buy and accomplish something.

Continue reading “A Plug for Adults to Read Children’s Literature”

Pre-Reading: My Two-Cents On the Controversy of Go Set a Watchman

51fGhOk4bLL._AC_SY440_On Tuesday evening, while I was making an amazing pot of beef stew (that is neither here nor there, just a shameless plug for my fabulous stew) I heard the distinct sound of the UPS truck’s breaks. It’s a different sound from a neighbor’s car or my husband’s truck—more hiss than squeak. I looked out the window, and saw the man in brown toting a small package. I just knew if was my copy of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. I was so excited that I met the man on the sidewalk so I could handle the coveted book as soon as possible. All my bibliophile friends had been talking about this book for the past three weeks:

Are you going to get it?
Did you pre-order the book?
I think we should read it for our book club.

In my excitement, I had a hard time ripping off the thick brown cardboard surrounding it, so I used my teeth to free the book. (Yes, all you moms out there, I know teeth are not tools—except sometimes they are). I looked at the cover, the dark teal color, the shadowed trees in the background, and the yellow color of the font. I felt the smooth texture of the book jacket, turned to see how many pages it was (278 pages), and then I put it on my kitchen counter.

Two days later it is still there. Why?

I ask myself the same question, and I think it has to do with all of the hype and the controversies surrounded the publication. So, I have put the book on hold because I do not know how to make sense of these emotions. For those of you who need a quick update about the controversies, here they are:

1. Go Set the Watchman was the original book Harper Lee submitted to her publishers and editor in the late 1950s. Her editor Tay Hohoff liked the voice of the young Scout in the flashback portions and encouraged Lee to rewrite the story from Scout’s point of view growing up in the 1930s Deep South. The result was a completely new book called To Kill a Mockingbird. So, Watchman and Mockingbird are two different books, with different settings. Watchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird, even though it seems like it is. In Watchman, Atticus Finch is a man in his 70s living in the Civil Rights era, and who is seemingly a bigot, very different from the mild-mannered attorney who defended Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Early readers have found this disappointing, almost as if the Atticus in Mockingbird was misrepresented.

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In The Unlikely Event: Judy Blume’s Still Got It

When I heard that Judy Blume’s newest book featured a whole town full of characters, and readers needed to take notes to keep track of them, I wasn’t excited. As a child I loved Blume’s writing because she was so good at getting inside the minds of her characters. She knew them intimately and knew how to get us, the reader, to adore them. That was the whole point of reading a new Blume book for me – I wanted to fall in love with some new, adult characters, just like I had with Fudgie, Margaret and Forever’s Katherine. How was I supposed to do that with a whole town full of characters? I know Judy Blume’s good, but is she that good?

Continue reading “In The Unlikely Event: Judy Blume’s Still Got It”