Leave you writer’s block in the box it came in

I have two blogs, and lately I’ve been slacking off on both of them. I haven’t had the inspiration for topics at the same pace I had before. Is this writer’s block?

Writer’s block is a common theme among bloggers running low on steam. I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of good bloggers come and go. Were they all overcome by writer’s block?

I don’t truly know what writer’s block is. I guess nobody does. It seems to be a catchall phrase for those moments when you just don’t have enough idea to wrap a meaningful layer of words around.

I don’t know about writer’s block, but I have certainly suffered from blog fatigue. Both my blogs are targeted to specific subject areas. This blog contains three types of features: fiction, essays about writing, and my own skewed perspectives on pieces of classic literature. That’s not a very broad subject area. It can take some time to come up with new ideas within those guidelines.

In the early days, they would put all the bloggers in one big box and make them write their way out of it. Conditions have improved since then.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have subjects I could easily knock out 500 words on. They just might not be appropriate subjects for my niche blogs. I could write plenty of pages on my unfortunate habit of getting stuck behind a pastel colored Prius on my drive to work. I think up lots of colorful phrases as I am forced to drive 15 mph below the speed limit in my frustrated attempts to be a prompt employee. I could probably even create my own Trapped in Prius Hell blog, with a special tab dedicated to the handful of truly noble Prius owners who are saving the world without making the rest of humanity late for their appointments. Yeah, I know a few of these rare gems.

Alas, even this would play itself out over time, and I would have to expand the scope to include overcautious Subaru drivers or be tormented by the steady decay of writer’s block. Incidentally, my 2007 Hyundai was not built for safety and will probably explode into a fireball at the slightest bumper tap, so don’t make me slam on the brakes unless you want all your clever bumper stickers singed.

Maybe writer’s block should be called writer’s box. It’s not that you’re blocked from writing; you’re just trying to write inside the wrong box. I’ve been making good progress on my novel series, but when I climb into the blogging box, it’s slow going. Instead of banging my head against the sides of the box, I climb out of the box and go play novelist for a while.

Sure, I’d like to get back to blogging as frequently as I used to, but if my imagination wants to tend toward novels right now, I’m going to make hay while that sun shines. It’s not so important that I take a break from one medium. What’s more important is I don’t go on hiatus from writing altogether.

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The things we do for $112 and a cookie

Is writing fun? Cathartic? Rewarding? Are there some other motivations that make people, who are not compelled by outside forces to do this task, do it of their own free will?

Why would you spend precious time and energy on this task, when you could be playing, or sleeping, or working a second job – spending your mental powers on something that actually supplements your income?

If it’s your job to write, that’s reason enough, but what about the rest of us, who write anyway?

Is writing fun?

I’ve heard people say they love to write. Some people can write for hours on end, and emerge feeling like they’ve been to a great party. If I write for more than an hour, the party host has begun showing vacation slides, the liquor’s gone, and I’m turning cranky. Writing is hard for me. It’s a chore. There are many things I’d have more fun doing.

Is writing cathartic?

Some say they write to let out their feelings. Writing takes a weight off their souls and allows them to address emotions in ways they cannot do otherwise. I also feel better after a session of writing, but for me, it’s the same as feeling good after a workout, when you realize you have a whole day before you have to make yourself tired and sweaty again. I admit there have been a few times when writing has allowed me to get something off my chest. But my angry letters to Boston Market Corporate Headquarters probably weren’t my best work. Besides, the euphoria didn’t last past the next local chicken shortage.

angry letter

“Tell ’em we’re tired of them running out of mashed potatoes too!”

Is writing rewarding?

There are many different levels of reward. There’s the fame and fortune reward. There’s the flattering five-star review reward. There’s the how do I claim $112 in royalties on my income tax? reward. There’s the I’m really pleased with how this piece turned out, even if nobody ever reads it reward. There’s the I wrote 500 words today so I’m having a damned cookie reward. There are many levels of reward between these as well. What I’ve learned about rewards is they are all fleeting, except possibly the fame and fortune reward, which I know nothing about. Also they are scant reward for the amount of toil that created them. Writing for reward is a fool’s errand.

Why then?

I ask this a lot, because I consider myself a logical person, but there seems to be no logic in why I take on this task again and again.

I think I write because I can’t draw, or paint, or play the horn. I write because I can, though opinions may differ on this point. Writing is my one chance to leave something lasting. Yes, it’s a long shot, another fool’s errand, but what so far has led you to believe I’m not a fool?

If I write enough, maybe one little portion of my output will prove itself to be beautiful and I will have something to show for my time.

If you write, why do you do it?

What’s in your wallet? – flash fiction

I asked the nurse to hand me my wallet. She fumbled it a little and a condom fell out. She kept a straight face, discretely picking it up and setting in on my blanket. Then she left the room, not wanting to burst out laughing in front of me.

Rocky, my roommate, grinned at me from his bed. He was 50 years older than me, with his scraggly beard and glassy eyes.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

Rocky chuckled. “I understand. I was a young buck once. You a college boy?”

“Yeah.”

“I never went to college, but I did have my fun.” He nodded at an inevitable transition. “Then I got married. Margie and me was married 40 years, and I liked that a whole hell of lot better than carrying one of them things in my wallet.” He gestured toward the condom I struggled to stuff back into its home.

“40 years? That’s awesome!” It seemed like the right thing to say.

“It was.” He sighed. “Except for the last few. She got Alzheimer’s. I carried her license in my wallet ‘cause she’d lose it otherwise. She’d lose anything you gave her.” He shook his head. “Then she’d snip at me about it. Finally I said, ‘Margie if this next 40 years don’t go no better, I’m calling it quits.’ That was the last joke I told her.” He frowned. “Not a very good joke.”

“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“She passed almost two years ago.”

I didn’t want to say sorry again. “Do you still keep her license in your wallet?”

“No. I couldn’t look at it every time. It only reminded me of the past. But I guess she told the last joke. After all that time wedged in that little sleeve, it left a faint impression of her picture on the plastic, like a ghost staring up at me.”

“Did you get a new wallet?”

“Oh no. I don’t mind the ghost. It doesn’t give me bad memories; it says she’s still with me. And being how I already invested 40 years, I guess I’ll keep her.” He turned his wet eyes toward the window and spoke at the sky. “Yup, I guess I’ll keep her.”

If a novel had a baby would it be a short story?

A reader once asked me if I thought short stories were smaller versions of novels with fewer plot turns. It is a good question for writers to consider before transitioning from one form to the other. It’s helpful to remember the form you are writing and what its purpose is.

A short story is as much a mini novel as a chipmunk is a baby squirrel. They are completely different beasts, put on earth for different purposes. When a chipmunk grows into a squirrel, I’ll start writing short stories that are condensed novels.

I define a novel as a set of conflicts, illustrated through a series of plot turns, resolved in such a way as to leave the reader satisfied that some Wisdom was served by the narrative. This Wisdom may be love, justice, retribution, fate, or any other force in human experience that will lay the characters of the story down peaceably to rest.

This is a chipmunk. With any luck, it will grow into a bigger chipmunk and nothing else.

A short story should have one resounding point that will stick with the reader after the story is over. That point is revealed at the end of the story. Everything preceding builds the effect of that revelation.

Since the crux of a short story comes at the end, I often construct them backward. The ending is the kernel of the story, and everything leading up to that is set into place afterward, trailing back to the most natural starting point. Only what is necessary to bring forth the point is built into the story.

Novels demand to be conceived going forward. Even with a general idea of the ending, there will be too many shifting sands there for it to be the foundation. The characters have more say in the direction of a novel. They create the resolution as they travel the narrative, perhaps making the ending quite different than first imagined. Building a novel backward prevents the characters from developing into the people they should grow to be.

Short stories and novels demand different skills. Novels require more devotion to the characters, but they are more forgiving than short stories. A novel can survive a small lull in the narrative; a short story cannot. Each word carries more weight in a short story. A few ill-chosen words, or a few too many words, can quickly derail the narrative.

A squirrel, properly crafted and distinctly its own art form.

Short stories were once more popular than they are now. Their fall might be linked to the decline of literary magazines, but it may also have something to do with writers not appreciating how different the craft is from the art of writing novels.

Some short stories appear to have been aborted novels. Have you read stories that seem to come to a crashing halt, leaving you to wonder, “What was the point of that?” When I encounter one of these stories, I question if the writer set out to write a short novel, waiting to see where the story would take him. It took him nowhere, and he ran out of words.

Storytelling is about coming to a resolution or making a lasting point. The story written as a baby novel does neither. Infant novels labeled short stories are a turnoff. A chipmunk is bound to be a disappointment to his parents if his parents are squirrels.

Do you agree or disagree? Comments are open.