3 Novel-Related Google Searches, March '16—and a Caveat about Writers Block

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I have had a hard time writing this month. I have had a hard time sleeping, too. As I write this, it is after three o'clock in the morning and I've been awake for two hours. I am kept away by worries about work, about publications, a thousand other things. When you're having a hard time, you take everything very, very seriously. 

On one hand, to be fair, I haven't been working on the novel because I recently finished the second quarter of the book and gave it to my writing group to workshop. While I waited for them to read it, I did no work on it. Instead I plugged away at this short story I've been trying to write for months. This short story is supposed to be fun! It's about an orangutan! And a magician! And a pharmaceutical company! It's darkly humorous! Ideally—probably too obviously, probably obliquely—it's Saundersesque! 

But even the short story has proved elusive. It isn't that I'm not working on it. It's that when I do work on it, I find myself uninterested. I don't care about it enough to write more than a paragraph or two at a time. 

I know what I would tell myself, were I my own student. I'd say, "Work with that lack of curiosity. Figure out the shape and nature of that blockage, whatever it is. Let yourself get up in the middle of the night. Suffer the physical and emotional discomfort necessary to come out the other side of your creative misery. To look back on the block rather than looking ahead at it, or around at it, as you do when you're inside of it." 

So, okay. It is now half past three, and this is how I feel about the story and the blockage: that I have lost my grip on some sort of essential magic—or it has lost its grip on me. That whatever magnetism was keeping me in the bristling, mysterious world of my own written fictions has lost its power.

And what is the degradation of magnetism but simple entropy? It takes a great deal of force to work against entropy. As I lose my grip I feel my strength flagging. I feel the shame of giving up, but I also feel something like relief.

There is a certain gross deliciousness about giving into shame. It is the same feeling as overeating alone. It is self-indulgence. It is self-acceptance. It is also fear. No coincidence, I think, that I've been sick several times recently: clogged up and sneezing, aching, I've given myself a tangible reason to whine. No coincidence either that I have been suffering this creative block during the month leading up to this year's AWP conference in LA—a conference I'm looking forward to, but that also tends to make me feel like fucking Sisyphus. Where the fucking rock I'm pushing up that fucking mountain is my fucking writing career. And where, all around me, on other mountains, other writers are perched happily at the very top of their own mountain tops, passionately typing away at long, intricate novels that finish easily, are boxed up immediately, and are sent post-haste to happy, helpful agents who then sell them for massive sums to wealthy, agreeable publishers, who place them on bookshelves at thriving bookstores, where they are bought by hungry readers and admiring reviewers. Poor Rachel-Sisyphus! Everyone else has it so much easier than you! Why not let that poor rock fall back into the canyons? It isn't worth it! Might as well give up! It's not like you're accomplishing anything! Ha-ha!

Right. It isn't worth it. Or it wouldn't be worth it if that's how it were. But it is worth something. What is it worth? Every time I write, I am also fortifying my sense of purpose. It is worth fortifying my sense of purpose. And every time I write, I explore some new hidden place. It is worth exploring those hidden places, and uncovering the strange treasures I find there.

It is worth becoming a more honest person, a better person, a woman more like the woman I want to be. 

In the end, the overwhelming, amorphous blockage I face, and am then subsumed by, is given shape when I put a name to it. Naming something makes it a lot less horrifying. I think often of Elizabeth Gilbert's story about Tom Waits, who told a song to go fuck itself when it visited him when he was stuck in traffic. "Song, get lost. Can't you see I'm busy? If you must be written now, go visit Leonard Cohen." And the perhaps apocryphal anecdote about Michael Jackson: that he worried if he didn't work, work, work, his songs would go find Prince, instead. I think of these two anecdotes, and I know the goal is to be open to the creative thoughts that visit me. And in order to do that, I must name and therefore shape the intimidating amorphous whatever-it-is that blocks me. 

I think of how some people call the Loch Ness monster "Nessie." This monster who's who-knows-how big, who lives in a steaming hot cave below the crust of the Earth, who upturns boats and slinks so quietly through the black Loch. People call her "Nessie." They name her—and it's such a cute name. And because she's called "Nessie," she isn't threatening anymore. 

So it's 3:52 now, and 4 AM's the witching hour, that time when it's too late to go back to sleep. I've got to go back to bed… but I think I can now.

My Nihilist Hedonist Practical Spiritual Approach to the Slog of Writing

A few days ago I was helping a friend edit a short humor piece she's been working on, and she asked, almost in passing, "What makes the risks and sacrifices we make to commit to this work worth it? When is writing worth it? Is its value mostly the process? But what if the process sucks? Do we ever know it's been worth it?" 

It was thought-provoking, and I had a little time to devote to metaphysical questions about the meaning/worth of art, so I launched into it with her. "I think I am a……… nihilist hedonist practical spiritualist when it comes to these sorts of questions," I wrote back. To elaborate…: 

The nihilist part of me says, nobody cares if you write or not. The world's a crowded place, and there are a zillion other writers out there who are hungrier than you, and if you don't want to write they ain't gonna cry.

Meanwhile, the hedonist part of me says: if writing provokes thought and enjoyment in the mind and heart of you, the writer, it's worth something. And if your written work provokes thought and enjoyment in others' minds and hearts, maybe it's worth a little more. Pleasure, man, pleasure! If we're not on planet Earth for a reason—and I believe we're not (see: nihilism)—pleasure's all we've got. When it takes a little pain to achieve your pleasure, that pleasure seems so much sweeter. So go ahead and pursue it. When things get difficult, pursue it harder. 

But the practical part of me says there's something else here. I don't know if this will make sense, but I'm going to try articulating it. Since you don't know whether your writing will be worth anything until it's worth something, and since, as you write, you become a better and better editor of your own work over time, over the course of your writing career you are continuously working harder and writing more to produce fewer, probably better words. If value is measured by a relatively traditional ratio (work investment to value of the product), as you continue to write harder and spend more time writing, then logically, continuously, and predictably, your writing should increase in worth over time.

In this way I think the process is inextricably intertwined in the worth of the product. 

In a last way, though, on a spiritual level, all of the above is bullshit. Because, first of all, there is an important difference between worth and value. And, putting worth aside for a moment, who are we to know what inherent value there is in art—or life, or love, or any of the things that end up mattering to us (sometimes… or most of the time… but never always)? All I know is that I feel better, emotionally stronger, more clearheaded, smarter, humbler, and more in awe of the world around me, when I devote myself to the discipline of writing. I could devote myself to some other discipline, like meditation or exercise or playing the violin, and probably feel almost the same way, but I happen to be a person who gets more satisfaction out of putting words together in a way that makes not just sense but magic—in a way, in other words, that ends up with their meaning somehow more than I ever could have known I would mean before I strung them together (!)—than I get out of, like, running. At its worst, writing is a boring, stupid slog, and it makes me feel like my brain is made out of mush. But whatever, sometimes my brain is made out of mush, and to be spiritually minded about it (i.e. to use a little hokey, inverted logic), those days are there to keep me humble. At its best it's the most valuable of exercises. An exercise in balancing judgment with compassion; utopia with the real world; hope with despair; loneliness with fraternity; clarity with confusion; sarcasm and satire with earnestness and depth, etc., etc. Writing feels to me like not just best but the only way I have of truly expressing myself, in all the frustration and stupidity and awe and fear and confusion that comes with having a self at all.

So keep on sloggin', girl.