There are things worse than facing a blank page . . . facing a blank page and having absolutely no clue about what you might want to put on it. That’s when the first tinge of panic seeps in . . . then rushes like a high-pressure leak, similar to the ones in the movies that if not immediately remedied will take the sub and its crew to the bottom.
Not an image of my favorite way to go. A bullet in the brain completes its murderous, albeit messier, task before you have any time to think about it. But without air, you would have a few minutes of consciousness to contemplate your inevitable end. Personally, I don’t want to consciously face my own inevitable end. I want to close my eyes and simply not wake up. Who wants to lie there while friends and relatives fawn over you . . . or worse . . . lie there with no friends or relatives fawning, or otherwise?
But a writer needs the scene, an emotionally detailed description of the dying person’s condition, his aloneness, the reaction of relatives and friends, and enemies, as the end approaches and everyone is flashing back to happier times or why they would, at this instant, prefer to break into a cheer or a version of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
My mother was right. For virtually every situation, things could be worse. And for the writer facing the blank page with fingers hovering over a keyboard and the other end of the trail of nerves suffering a cranial connectivity problem . . . well that’s a horror of unthinkable magnitude. A blank brain is the ultimate source of ultimate distress for a writer.
At this point, you might expect a transition into a sure-fire remedy for the problem, called writer’s block, and become the recipient of sage advice of avoidance. Nope. Haven’t got anything new that you haven’t already heard or are not familiar with. Sometimes the well simply runs dry. It’s part of a writer’s reality—the occasional and inevitable imbalance between the supply and demand of creative thought. But don’t rush it. Getting a new grip on potentially new stuff takes about twenty minutes of mindless exercise—walking works for me—before your thinking process sufficiently loosens up and frees up some room for creative thinking again and what we like to call that flash of genius.
However, from my personal experiences with my grandmother’s well, a well that refills too quickly will likely fill with dirty and murky water that smells like rotten eggs. I could never understand the rotten egg smell unless the water ran through some place filled with rotten eggs—a secret dumping ground for egg farmers perhaps. I pumped tankers of the smelly stuff for Grandma’s garden. Plants liked it. It’s the minerals, Grandmother explained as the source of the odor. Vitamins for plants. She was probably right. I remember that it tasted like rusty nails.
But wait, I’m writing about writing, not farming. The “vitamins” I’m thinking about are the ones that bolster creative connections. There is a relationship to farming, however. Both operations—farming and writing—are very organic processes. Things start fresh, ripen and bloom, but sometimes turn rotten too soon. You’re constantly planting, tending, and harvesting. Some seeds produce fruit; some do not. You’re constantly pulling weeds. So how to assure a good harvest? Time! Orson Wells hawked some California wine years ago with a line, “No wine before it’s time.” So, perhaps, “No words before their time . . .”
In this regard, one of my favorite literary insights comes from the famous Indian, Chief Dan George: “Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.” Or as any good Jewish mother will say: “Get over yourself.” Everything comes or plays out in cycles. Some cycles are very consistent, like the 60 cycles per second of alternating electrical current. Otherwise, alternating current would be direct current of the sort delivered to you were you to find yourself assigned to die in the electric chair. Or, your stories are. Zzzzzaaaaaapppppp!
In reality, time plays an important role in creativity. Your creativity is directly associated with what you ate . . . or didn’t . . . how much sleep you got, the sorts of experiences you encountered, and the extraneous input you collected or were subjected to while awake, and how your brain processes it all while you sleep. Sometimes that sort of time flows. Sometimes it comes in fits and starts. It may come in cycles, sometimes smooth, other times jerkier. But in the end, time is key to the aging process that not only makes for finer wine and more mellow whiskey but lets the flash of an idea mature into something malleable in your writer’s hands and enables you to smooth the raw edges and form it into something pleasantly readable.
We sometimes, however, think about what we think about too much. We’ve all been guilty of overthinking an idea or an argument and as a result render a perfectly good idea into uselessness. I’ve discovered perhaps not the perfect remedy, but one that works pretty well—physical activity. I’m not talking about balls-to-the-walls exercise, although that works for some, but performing some chores or errands that have a physical nature to them. Alternatively, you can just take a walk around the block. Either way, my brain takes about 20 minutes to find the balance between physical and mental activity and shift into a more creative mode—when ideas start to form, come together, and flow.
I recently cleaned my garage, including painting and putting shelves in the alcove at the front of it. We already added cupboards along both sides, so my additional work added storage capacity. We need to do the same thing with our brains. Clear out the clutter, neaten things up a bit and create some room for new stuff. Valuable lessons arise when you practice the art of discerning trash and crap from stuff with actual value. It’s also fun to witness the transition that turns things and ideas once perceived to have value and usefulness into junk. I won’t use the term “trash” because that can be a gender of writing in some circles. (A few friends in the old university days wrote “true” (trash) stories for the then popular grocery store pulp romance magazines to make some extra money. A nickel a word was the going rate. A nice sideline to an MFA degree!)
But back on point: you have to monitor this process with understanding and patience and be able to observe without wandering through the guilt-tinged process of trying to figure out what the hell you were thinking when you first committed “these” words to paper. One, you might have been thinking differently from the way you do now. They represent an early part of a process and like most such things bearing that classification deserve to be discarded when no longer immediately useful. Perhaps we need is a Goodwill for writers—a place where we can dispose of efforts of lesser (earlier) quality or which have outlived their literary usefulness but might motivate another person to start down his or her own literary path. But more likely, a trashcan is the best receptacle.
I’ve discovered that words are like wine. For some, the aging process (accumulated experience) works by enabling the discovery of other better approaches or word paths to explore. For others it merely delays the decision to throw some stuff out. To the writer, the stuff in the garage might be notes or files saved for reasons now lost to the distant past and now serve the same purpose as my grandmother’s well water—to give off the odor of rotten eggs. Yes, some items the re-discovery of which keep you humble, and enable you to measure how far you have come in honing your talents and refining your writing skills. When something can serve that role, savor the feeling . . . then throw it out. It’s made its last and most useful contribution and thus fulfilled its purpose. You should not spend much time re-reviewing the past efforts except maybe to regain focus on your current path and direction or to find another, but once on a path, look forward and move forward.
Nothing horrible will happen to you if you save the old stuff . . . at least in this life. On the “other side,” however, you might but required to read it to an audience of critics (measured in multitudes) armed with rotten eggs and slimy vegetables and stinging words of rejection and criticism that, try as you might, you cannot dodge. Splat! Haven’t you noticed that we rarely see the really early stuff of great writers? That’s because they learned how to clean the garage and to throw out stuff that smells like rotten eggs.