You-Know-What or That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named (Ahem…Writer’s Block)

By: Michael James Greenwald

So, I’ve made a regular habit of watching “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” with my mother.  For those of you who do not know, “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” is a game show on Fox hosted by Jeff Foxworthy where an adult must answer a series of questions, supposedly extracted from 1st through 5th grade textbooks, to win $250,000.  I watch this show with my mother because she enjoys it immensely and I find myself drawn to the spectacle of watching adults struggle with questions that any normal fifth grader would have no trouble with, and to make matters worse, the show actually casts three fifth grade students, who help the adults answer the questions.  It fascinates me to watch these adults hemming and hawing over, let’s say, the capital of Wyoming

while the fifth graders lock in their answers in seconds.  I mentioned that one time to my mother.  I said, “Mom, how do these kids know the answer so fast?”  And she, not taking her eyes off of her favorite program, responded, “They’re children, dear, they don’t yet fear failure.”

This scene led me to mull over my childhood, and I’ll fully admit, here and now, I was just as obedient perfectionist as a fifth grader as I am as a thirty year old “adult.”  But I can remember, sprawled on the floor of my room, with my construction paper and scissors and crayons spread around me, writing and drawing picture books, that I’d present to the whole family come dinner time.  I probably wrote a book a day for a whole year, prolificacy even Stephen King couldn’t snuff at.  I’d scoop my Apple Jacks into my face as quickly as I could to get to my floor, so I could write books about dogs or lizards or gila monsters (I was really into Gila Monsters Meet You At the Airport, which I’d seen on “Reading Rainbow”, my favorite show).

My favorite book for a while.

I remember being a fifth grader and Miss Foley, my English teacher, had us writing our own stories, which we’d read on Fridays and I created this pulp, noire private-I series (before I’d even read Chandler) about a gum-chewing (Miss Foley was very conservative, so cigarettes and whiskey wouldn’t have been proper) P.I. who solved the crime and got the buxom babe, though each installment ended just as my detective was going in for the kiss with a “RIIIIIIINNNNNNNNGGGGGGG!!!!!!”, of which the source of this ending sound I never revealed to a soul, even as much as the cutest girls in the class tried to flirt it out of me, or Jimmy Sessions, the biggest kid in fifth grade used to push me down as I walked down the hall and demand, “Greenwald!  Tell me what the stupid ring is at the end of your stupid stories!”

With my PI series, I wrote maybe twenty installments in a semester, about ten to twelve pages each.  You can do the math.

So, how as a fifth grader, was I able to be at least twice as prolific as I am now as a professional writer?

That question can be easily answered by returning to my mother’s favorite television quiz show.  The reason I was prolific is twofold: I was a child, so I didn’t fear failure and I didn’t understand the stakes.

Let’s talk about failure for a second.  When I was sprawled on the floor of my room making my Gila monster picture books I didn’t think about what my parents would like when I crafted the story-lines, I created characters who made me laugh, did things I thought were cool, expressed feelings I had inside myself.  In fifth grade, when I created these big-breasted, beautiful women who entered my PI’s office at the beginning of the story who’d had their dogs run-away on them or had their trillion dollar necklaces stolen, I was relating a fantasy that I had as a fifth grade boy.  I wanted to be this laid-back, cool as Zach Morris detective, and have mature woman beg for my help.  And I knew that the boys in my grade wanted that too (most of them, at least) and the girls were riveted maybe because they wanted to have a man of my PI’s suaveness dote on them.  My point is, as a child, I never thought that a literary agent would find my damsels in distress stereotypical, or my gila monster characters flat and un-evolving by stories end, or my “surprise” “RRRIIINNNNNNGGGGG!!!!!” endings of my PI stories to be cliche.

Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott

In the introduction to one of my favorite writing books, Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott relates to her students about how it is for her at her writing desk every morning “with a few ideas and a lot of blank paper, with hideous conceit and low self-esteem in equal measure, fingers poised on the keyboard.”

And that’s exactly where I find myself every day, as I assume if you are a writer of any prolificacy, you also find yourself in the same position, hunched over your keys, hating the sight of your opened Word file, eyes flicking to the toolbar where you know Mozila is only two clicks away, and you’ll be on the Internet, where life is surfing and reading and fun, but afterward…

The Afterward is what you need to focus on.  The Afterward is The Truth for me.  If you want to be uncouth, the Afterward is waking up, still-drunk, next to a body you know you shouldn’t have slept with.  For me, writing is a relationship partner, someone who makes you feel just as amazing after you’ve slept together as during.  Or a different analogy, writing is cooking a fresh meal, with produce I’d gotten from the farmer’s market, maybe I walked down their with a person I love the most in this world, and we browsed the aisles, hand in hand, sipping that mornings coffee, and selected organic green peppers from a sweet lady from Bloomington and carrots from a nice farmer named John from Springfield, and then my baby and I spent all day in the kitchen, cleaning and chopping and steaming and preparing jambalaya, with turkey sausage and rice, and we ate it that evening, so slowly, bite by savory bite, illuminated by only candlelight, sipping merlot.  And after all the dishes are washed, and all the leftovers are put away, we’re lying together on the couch, reading, with the dinner we’d prepared from scratch digesting in our bellies.

To me, that’s writing.  It’s a lot of work, lot of preparation, cooking, preparing.  But afterward, you feel amazing.

If I close my Word file and click over to Mozilla and IM on Facebook, or leave my office all-together to watch Jerry Springer, when I’m supposed to be writing, it might feel good while I’m doing it, like scarfing a McDouble and a large fry or sleeping with the girl who eats McDoubles and large fries, but afterward, the Afterward, my body feels horrible.

Anne Lamott says about her students, “When they are working on their books or stories, their heads will spin with ideas and invention.  They’ll see the world through new eyes.  Everything they see and hear and learn will become grist for the mill.  At cocktail parties or in line at the post office, they will be gleaning small moments and overheard expressions: they’ll sneak away to scribble these things down.  They will have days at the desk of frantic boredom, of angry hopelessness, of wanting to quit forever, and there will be days when it feels like they have caught and are riding a wave.”

So, my last words are this: There are no short cuts, no easy solutions, no carpool lane to getting published, no literary steroids you can take to speed up the construction of writing muscles.  There is only work.  But let me tell you, once you brush aside expectation and ignore the high-pitched voice of Fear of Failure, and face each day with the mindset to reach your word count or dedicate a block of time to your art, you’ll find, as the days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and your project develops in front of your eyes, your whole life condenses to one feeling: delicious accomplishment.

I’ll leave you with my anthem…