Sunday, June 28, 2015

Writer's Block

Once or twice a year, some of my writing friends and I gather at a pretentious cafĂ©, order whatever is cheapest on the menu, and talk about what we’re working on. Invariably, someone brings up writer’s block.

The discussion gets deep and personal. I generally look on with what I have been told is supercilious arrogance because, you see, I don’t believe in writer’s block. As a matter of fact, I think it’s nonsense.

There. I’ve said it. Bring on the literary firing squad.

Many decades ago when I was still in school, Professor C, whose pipe-smoking demeanor I thought to emulate by purchasing an expensive Peterson’s Irish Sea Fishtail briar, gave me an F on what I thought was one of my more excellent efforts. The piece of writing was an unfinished short story. I told Professor C that a deep and dark episode of writer’s block had prevented me from concluding the tale. He flunked me.

I resented this.  Not only was I struggling with learning how to look good with a pipe sticking out of my mouth—which is close to impossible—but the good prof’s belittling of my literary struggles was insulting and unsettling.

It’s been a long time since Prof. C gave me a piece of advice I still use from time to time when I’m at a writing impasse. Here it is: Type the letter “I” and stare at it. Let your indomitable ego takeover, and you’ll find that the “I” will take you places. I have. I will. I won’t. I might. It never fails.

Regarding writer’s block, here’s what I think. Writer’s block is you not wanting to write.  That can occur for a variety of reasons. One might be that what you’re working on is simply not good, and your subconscious is telling you to let it go—or start over—before you waste more of your time. Or your stuff may be good, but it doesn’t have the necessary legs to take you anywhere meaningful. In other words, what you’re struggling with might be a viable short story but it’s going to be a lousy novel.

Writer’s block may also mean you’ve written yourself into a corner. That’s tough, and you’re likely to waste a lot more time searching for the way out than you are recasting the situation or plot to make it work smoothly.

I remember once working on a novel where it was imperative that one of my characters commit a violent crime. This was a well-written personage; I’d carefully built him over 200 pages of plot, and his refusal—because that’s what it was—to do what I wanted him to do had me stymied.  Writer’s block! I moaned and whined about it to a non-writing friend who said, “So change the plot.”


I think a lot of us, when we’re writing, haven’t fully worked out where we’re going. Personally, I think this is fine. For me, half the joy really is the journey. I may have a basic story in mind, but the details of my people’s actions and workings are revealed as I write them, and this is where the fun starts. I may have to pause, but that’s not writer’s block—that’s taking a deep breath and assessing the situation. Having gotten to here, how do I get to there?

Someone said that writer’s block is when your imaginary friends stop talking to you.  Okay, that’s cute and eminently quotable. I prefer to think that it’s my shortcoming. I’m lazy today, or tired, or have something I’d rather be doing than writing. I have options. I can stop writing, or keep writing. I can write something I know is bad, a few pages that will not survive the first edit. If I do that, there is the very slim chance I may end up with a salvageable sentence or two.  If I decide to not write, I’ll have nothing. Come to think of it, not a very difficult choice at all.


Monday, June 22, 2015

The End o’ Life™ Clinic

“Hello, is this Thierry? Am I pronouncing it right??”

“Yes, it is, and no, you’re not, but that’s okay.”

“Well I‘m sorry. Foreign names are so difficult. Anyway, Thierry, this is the Everlasting Peace Clinic, and it appears you missed your appointment yesterday…”

“Ah. Yes. Well, I changed my mind.”

“You changed your mind? What do you mean you changed your mind?”

“I’ve decided I want to live.”

“You want to live? Whatever for? You’re a mess, you told us so yourself!”

“I know. But I may have been exaggerating. Things aren’t that bad. I was depressed when I made the appointment, is all. But I’m just no ready to be euthanized.”

“I don’t understand. You came in a month ago and told us you were ready to end it all. You spoke to Doctor Bob, and you put down the non-refundable $500 deposit. You do realize that was non-refundable, right?”

“Yes, I do. And that’s okay; you’re welcome to keep the depo--”

“Thierry. Please tell me how to pronounce your name. It doesn’t seem right to mispronounce it…”

“It’s like Pierre, but with a T.”

“Well, Thierry, is that better, yes? Well, Thierry, it’s not all about the non-refundable deposit. We went to a lot of trouble here at Everlasting Peace Clinic. We printed up your End o’ Life Greeting Cards, twenty of them. I guess you don’t have many friends. But we sent them out day before yesterday. And the death notice is going to appear in the Post tomorrow. We’re going to have to charge you for that, you know.”

“I understand. Charge what you have to.”

“And there’s a $600 charge for the End o’ Life Miracle Heart-Stopper package, plus the bed rental and cleaning…

“The what?”

“The bed where we turn out your lights. It has to be disinfected after every use. That costs money.”

“But I’m not going to be using it!”

“Our next client doesn’t know that. They’ll want to see the End o’ Life Cleaning Certificate. And we can’t issue that until that bed has had the full treatment. Plus, you opted for the Wash ‘n’ Wax Special. Which, I might add, was very thoughtful of you.”

“I did? When did I do that?”

“You agreed during the post-signing End o’ Life Telephone Survey.”

“No I didn’t!”

“I have it recorded right here. Would you like to hear it?”

“No, that’s all right. Just send me the bill.”

“And you also signed up for the End o’ Life Backup Emergency Plan.”

“I never did…”

“It’s right here on my screen.”

“I don’t even know what that is!”

“That’s in case the drugs don’t work. We send in a guy who smothers you with our End o’ Life™ Pillow.”

“That’s awful!”

“You’re unconscious. You don’t feel a thing…”

“My God… Okay, like I said, send me the bill.”

“We’d prefer if you came in and paid cash.”

“Cash? Why cash?”

“You opted for the End o’ Life™ Post Mortem New & Improved AntiTheft Plan, remember? So we cancelled all your credits cards for you. That way your relatives won’t be tempted to use your accounts to buy things when they find out you’re gone.”

“But I’m not gone!”

“That's not our fault! You should be!”

“And I don’t have any relatives!”

“Really? Are you sure you don’t want to reschedule? Your life’s a mess and you have no relatives, what’s the point in living? How about I put you down tentatively for the 22nd?”

“That’s okay, I’ll—”

“Done. See you on the 22nd, Thierry. Did I pronounce it right this time?”  

“Yes, but—“
“Have a nice day!”

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Stop Writing. Bow Part Deux

Stop Writing. Now, a recent blog I wrote a couple of days ago, seriously upset some folks.

Five blogger friends thought I was writing about them specifically (perhaps some small ego issue here) and one took it very personally. All six were wrong. I don’t criticize friends’ stuff online for the world to see. That’s why I’m member of a few writers’ groups, where critiquing each other’s works is the order of the day. Stop Writing. Now was meant to comment generically on the fact that some of the stuff I force myself to read online really has little redeeming value, at least to me. The blog was all about realizing we live in a very odd age that begs the question: Can we claim to be what we want to be?

For example, are you black because you say you’re black? Are you a woman because it feels right to be a woman? And are you a writer because for some reason you think being a writer is neat and will put you in the company of people you’d like to emulate? You read Hemingway or George Sand (a woman, I might add, despite her name) and thought, Hmmm, I could do that…

The first question refers of course to the issues brought up by Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who decided she wanted to be black and rose to become the director of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP. Ms. Dolezal darkened her skin, Afroed her hair and, everyone seems to agree, in spite of the racial muddle, did a bang-up job of leading the anti-racism organization. The second query addresses the recently femaled Caytlin Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, an Olympic decathlete gold medalist. And the writing question? That one, I’m unsure of. Does firing up Word on a computer, typing a few pages, and posting them online make you a writer?

I’m nowhere near objective on this subject.  I’ve been a writer most of my life, and the title is important to me. I’ve earned a living at it—badly—for a while now, and. I think, paid the necessary dues. I believe writing is very hard work, often thankless, quickly forgotten and damned poorly remunerated.

In other disciplines, associations bestow membership to people who’ve studied, paid money, and follow certain rules. A doctor or lawyer or accountant has to pass state exams to be certified and cannot practice without a license. In other professions—and certainly in the arts, with the possible exception of architecture—anything goes. I recently had a literary agent whose professionalism I took for granted because he belonged to a small, boutique literary agency. He vanished, taking three of my books with him. While I’m certain having my works will not help establish him in the agent profession, I remain pretty ticked off. This man claimed to be something he wasn’t…

My thought is that writers should be working at getting published, paid and read. Someone who daily makes entries into a diary no one will read is not really a writer. He or she might be a chronicler of daily life, but unless there’s a courage and willingness to display one’s work, it’s finger-painting, and a finger-painting child is not a painter, despite what the parents might think.

The secondary issue is, are you any good? With self-publishing taking over the world, hundreds of thousands of books that should never see the light of day are being published, and by sheer weight and numbers, obscuring some of the good stuff that does deserve readership. The same is true of blogs. Is your blog worth reading? Does it move people? Does it make them think, question, re-evaluate? Does it inspire once in a while? Or are you simply taking up a chunk of cyberspace simply because everyone else is doing it, and you can too?

I’ve always liked the modern saying that wearing Spandex is a privilege; it’s not a right.  

I feel much the same way about writing.

My good friend David sent me an appropriate quote this morning: “If you don't like someone's story, write your own.” That’s from the celebrated Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe.

Achebe might also have added, “But if it’s not any good, don’t expect me to read it.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Invasive? Whaddya Mean Invasive?

All told, I was happy with the results of the latest cancer test. No tumors, no area needing special attention. As always, I worried beforehand. There have been a couple of dozen cystoscopies in three years; only two have ever come back clean, and even after that, the cancer, that nasty, unwanted guest, managed to return.

The nurse has prepared me for the examination, and I think of the old joke: normally, when a woman handles me that way, a dinner and a movie were involved.

I’m lying on an examining table, wearing one of those paper horrors that never close right and show your butt. I am fixated on a small tear in one of the ceiling tiles. I focus on that because what is happening definitely does not feel good. Then I watch my doctor watch the screen depicting my innards as he moves a tiny camera up my urethrae and into my bladder.

“Looks good,” he says after a minute or two, and gives me a pat on the shoulder. He strips off his blue latex gloves and tosses them into the wastebasket. He adjusts his tie.

“I was worried,” he adds. “The last procedure found some new cells, invasive ones. So I was holding my breath… But right now it looks as if everything is all right. You’ll just have to be extra vigilant.”

I like my doctor. He has a toothy grin and the look of a somewhat frustrated bon vivant. He enjoys life and told me he brought in the New Year by drinking a little too much with his neighbors.  I answered that I was glad he wasn’t operating on me January first.  He said, “Oh no, the hospital is closed then.” Then he got it and went, “Ha! Ha ha! Yes! Ha!”  

I suppose that ethically, he had to tell me about the last surgery’s test results, and I’m grateful he didn’t pass that information on last March, because I would have worried for three straight months. But still, that news tarnished the silver cloud.

This being said, I’m particularly happy not to have to be put under again. I really believe that being anesthetized isn’t good for my health, and that essentially being put in a supervised coma—that’s how one doctor described it—nine times in three years could have negative and lasting implications. I remember reading about brain cell loss among patients with high anesthesia rates…

Today, though, I think I’m going to opt for being happy. I have every intention of making myself a prosciutto provolone mortadella sweet peppers camembert and baby tomato sandwich on a French baguette. There will be mustard and olive oil and vinegar from the south of France. I will eat half-a-jar of those tiny little pickles you folks call gherkins and my folks call cornichons. I will make an excellent salad with spinach, Belgian endives and macadamia nuts but, since I’ll be full from the sandwich, I probably won’t eat it right now. I’ll nibble on it later today as I watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which is the best televised sport of the decade. I will then drink a quadruple decaf espresso, and sleep the sleep of the blessed.

All in all, so far, a good day.



Sunday, June 14, 2015

Stop Writing. Now.

“You didn’t read my blogs,” says my friend who has been traveling.

“I did,” I say, “but I didn’t memorize them? Did you read mine?”

“The last one I read was…” she says.

“That was weeks ago. I’ve written a couple since,” I say.

“Oh,” she says. “I haven’t seen those yet.”

“Hmpf,” I think.

So much for more communications being better communications. It has become really difficult to keep up with the blogs, text messages, emails, Facebook announcements, E-vites, voicemails, and Twitter accounts. I’m getting to the point where I wish we’d return to the town crier, to the note being slipped under the door or the US mail.

Thing is, I know a bunch of people who write blogs. Some blogs are better than others, just like some friends are better than others.

So here’s what I have to say.

Stop writing. Right now. Please.

Blogs are strange endeavors. In olden days, they would have been diaries, or newspaper columns, or letters shared with friends. They would have imparted information others might want to read. Aunt Nellie made it through another winter. Uncle Festus didn’t. Mary got married. Steve got divorced from that uppity woman nobody liked and thank heavens they didn’t have children. And yes, she took him to the cleaners. Gertrude had puppies.

Times have changed.

Writing a blog now implies a righteous ego that believes what we have to say is of interest to others. Occasionally, that’s the case. Often, it’s not. Are our experiences really so interesting others want to know about them? Are we good enough writers to describe the mundane and make it special? Some of us are, most of us are not. And many of us are too busy writing our blogs to read anyone else’s.

And so: To the lady who writes about lipstick; to the guy who waxes euphoric about the engine displacement of his Jeep; to the nice couple who tell us stories about their amusing cat; to the gardening woman and her six-pound Burpee Big Boy tomato grown from seed in a half-barrel on her sundeck; to ALL the real estate people; to the discoverer of that wonderful little Serbo-Croatian eatery just an hour away; to the guy who breeds earthworms; to the man who just turned eighty and is learning to play slide guitar; to every single miniature porcelain shoe collector; to the putt-putt golf pro; to the would-be author who has little to say and probably will say it anyway at great length; and, finally, to the novelist who writes about writing his book but never does…

Please, stop writing. I beg of you.

Thank you.  

I’m going to post this now.


Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Colossal Cancerous Colon

Well, I have to admit that the CCC—the Colossal Cancerous Colon—(see yesterday’s blog) was a big disappointment. I had expected a sort of labyrinth one could travel through while fending off mutant cells. What I got were three inflatable pink arches that looked like the entrance to a really bad seafood restaurant. Along the wall of the arches were various discolorations and raised plastic welts—the cancer in question.

A steel drum band played “Every Little Thing Is Gonna Be All Right,” an odd choice of tunes. In a ballroom containing 1,200 cancer patients, it’s a pretty sure bet that not every little thing is gonna be all right for a lot of them. When I commented on this to a woman seated at my table, she looked up sadly and said, “It’s happy music.”

The food was excellent and healthy. Turkey wraps, chicken, humus, three kinds of potatoes and a zillion carrot sticks. The freebies were okay too: a notebook, a glass, a pen, and a neat picnic plate with a built in fork and a snap-on cover. I can tell you that this handy gadget can (and does) hold three turkey wraps quite comfortably should you wish to take some home from the buffet.

The majority of attendees were well over 50 years old, divided equally among black and white with here and there an Asian thrown in because cancer is an equal opportunity disease.

There weren’t a lot of smiles or laughter. I desperately wanted to tell someone my best cancer joke (man goes to the doctor. Doctor says, I have bad news and worse news for you. Man says, “Give me bad news.” Doctor says, “You have cancer.” Man sits down, stunned, and asks “What’s the worse news?” Doctor says, “You also have Alzheimer’s.” Man thinks for a second and says, “Well, at least it isn’t cancer.”) I didn’t get a single opportunity to spread this bit of wit. The woman seated to my right never once looked up from her potato salad. The woman on my left spent most of the lunch hour trying to talk her husband into getting a second bag of free stuff.

During the opening remarks, the crowd applauded itself several times and people waved their arms in the air and went “Woo hoo!” I’m not sure what prompted the elation, but it was nice to see. Then the people with cancer applauded the doctors and the volunteers, after which the doctors and volunteers applauded the people with cancer. Lesser—but just as enthusiastic—cheers was reserved for the staff manning large garbage bags and busing tables.  

The workshops were crowded. I didn’t get a chance to talk to an oncologist about alternative treatments but I was told there is a website devoted to the subject. The line for the massage chairs stretched down the hall, and I never could find the Nordstrom makeup specialists, which is just as well.

Throughout the time I was there, volunteers in green tee shirts vied to help me find a chair, another chair, and a third chair. A few tried to shepherd me into the colon cancer workshop, but having seen the disappointing Colossal Cancerous Colon, I demurred.

As I was leaving, I noticed a sign next to the CCC telling me that being in the Colossal Colon’s vicinity implied my tacit approval that I might be photographed for promotional purposes. With the CCC.

Life gets weirder by the day.

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Cancer Get-Together

On the off chance that I do not make it out of there alive, I think you should all know that sometime tomorrow afternoon, I plan to enter a giant inflatable colon. Hopefully, shortly thereafter, I will also exit the giant inflatable colon in the same state that I entered it.

I am doing this because my healthcare provider is sponsoring a Celebration of Life and Cancer Survivor Day.

There is a degree humor here, since about a week ago I wrote about not liking the survivor tag. I still don’t. I think it must have been invented by someone who has never had cancer, because the people I know who’ve struggled with the disease don’t seem to like the term either.

I’m going to this particular get together on the advice of my primary care physician, who seems to think I have isolated myself from other cancer people.  This is true. I’ve never attended a cancer support group, though I’m to stranger to support groups in general. I rarely talk about the state of my health, though I did write and perform a tune for the Cancer Can Rock people, and this led to a lengthy article in The Washington Post. The fact is, I’m hesitant to discuss the disease. There remains an unaccountable shame, a sense of being soiled, of somehow becoming an untouchable, and I’ve had just about enough of feeling that way.

I don’t expect miracles, but I wouldn’t mind finding a couple of other people like myself who’ve had multiple surgeries. I’d like to know how they cope with the quadrennial tests. Do they go into a tailspin as I do? Are they scared? I am. I also get depressed, frightened and resentful. The knowledge acquired over the years on acceptance isn’t working right now.

Judging from the hand-out I received, I suspect this event will have a lot to do with women and breast cancer. There seem to a number of lectures scheduled on prosthetics and bras. I am looking forward to the chair massage and art therapy session, as well as to the makeup tips offered by a representatives from Nordstrom.

I’m hoping there might be a workshop on cancer and anxiety. I hope there will be a shrink or two with whom I can talk. In the past few months, my anxiety and feelings of loss of control have blossomed in a nasty way. I’ve been told these are not uncommon side-effects of cancer.      

I’m curious about exercising. Every time I have surgery, I have to cease going to the gym for two or three weeks, and it’s getting harder and harder to motivate myself to return. I’m also curious about alternative treatments, though I’ve made it a point to stay away from the websites promoting hemp butter, ketogenic diets and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

But really, I’m going for the giant inflatable colon.