From The Files: Fictioneer

It’s late, and I feel the need to update, but I also need to go to bed, so I’m reprinting the text of a blog post I wrote in June of 2005, in a blog I kept for a few years and then took down, called Fictioneer. This one is about students and writer’s block, and it’s after the jump.


I hear pretty regularly from writing students who have set their work aside. Years later as they return to it they’re demoralized, and approach like they are apostates, and I am the one they’ve chosen to let them back into church.
To me, they’re like people returning to their own homes after being away, unaware they have their keys in their pocket. Usually whatever I teach them begins by getting them to find their keys, metaphorically. Years in college spent helping drunk friends get home comes in handy at this time.

They talk in a language of punishments. I need a kick, they say. I need my ass kicked.

It isn’t really going to work that way, though, it may satisfy some psychological aspect for the writer in question. After everything else, they don’t need to be punished by me, or shamed by me. It isn’t useful and if you’re treating yourself this way you should stop. It confuses the real issue. Which is about whatever it is the writer was trying to prevent from being seen. And why.

The writer needs possibility. They may have stopped because they believed they were impossible. No one does this, they may have told themselves. Not like this. They may have believed, No one can do this. They may have believed, No one should do this. They were young, they believed in absolutes. No one will love me if I do this, they may have said to themselves, and out of fear of being alone, shut the manuscript in a cupboard at the back of their minds.

Every time I write something I will someday think is great, I start out thinking I’m going to get dragged into the street and beaten up for it. My sister called me out on it recently. I was on the phone to her, and I said, Well, I’m probably insane but…

And she said, You always start out that way. It’s why I know it’s fine. You start out thinking you’re crazy and then eventually you calm down.

What happens when you don’t write it? You begin a life that doesn’t add up for you, in your favor. You put in place a series of obstacles. What I usually hear about first is a job so demanding that there’s no time to write. Then I’m told about a spouse who doesn’t understand the need to be alone in order to write, and then children who don’t leave any room to write. One student had friends who would come in and shut his computer and drag him off to drink with them, or bounce a ball in his room until he would be ready to stop and pay attention to them. Another writer I know just got a puppy whose raising, she told me, meant she wouldn’t have time to write her new novel, which, if she keeps at it, will stay unseen, like her older one.

They act like they can’t control it. Like it’s out of their hands. But of course, doors shut. Friends respond to explanations, if they’re really friends. Dogs can sit by your feet. Meanwhile the student is there, starving to death for wanting to write, so good at renunciation, a prodigy at it. It’s become the only thing they’re proud of, that they can deny themselves what they need, and they hate themselves for it. And it’s why they tell me they need a kick.

I don’t. I can’t punish you any worse, is the thing. How could anything I do be worse than making a life for you with no room for you in it? But also, if you’re my student, I’m not interested in what won’t work in this scenario, which, I do understand. Though it is on you to then go make a life that makes room for you in it. And that’s hard, but not as hard as living in the life with no room for you.

Any gay person can tell you about the time when they were closeted, is the thing. They can tell you about the lies and the things they thought people would believe. They can stare, incredulous, at a life that was full of everything they didn’t want. Going through the process of coming out isn’t very different. But going through it doesn’t mean you won’t start stopping yourself again.

When I block an idea I get disoriented. The reason for this is that I begin operating counter-intuitively and if I genuinely stop the idea from going forward I am typically reacting out of fear to the result of an intuition. This can create more of those decisions. Eventually I begin a process that investigates my own confusion and leads me back to the idea. I’m fortunate in that as near as I can tell it hasn’t lasted longer than a few years. In a way, I think what I’m really saying here is, it’s dangerous to mistake your fear for your intuition.

1 Comment

  1. I keep thinking about this.

    I agree that one way to self-sabotage is to “act like [you] can’t control it.” You’ve put your finger on it, Alex. People are good at coming up with long lists of why they can’t. (Hey, I’ve done this too.)

    People also get in their own way by acting like they *can* control it, the writing, I mean. They stop writing because that “beautiful idea” (as a student once referred to something she hoped to but couldn’t write) starts getting messy as the words emerge. If it doesn’t immediately look like the writer has imagined it, the writer sometimes abandons it, instead of welcoming it, and making room for whatever that writing is.

    I would add, then, don’t fear a beautiful idea becoming real.

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