The best advice I ever got about writing was that I should do it every day, no matter what. No matter what and no matter how much, or how little you can write. Over the last several days I haven’t been able to follow that advice and even today, the words feel forced. In fact, the only thing I seem to be able to think about is how painful writer’s block is. That might sound like an overstatement but I promise you it isn’t. Writing is for me an irrepressible urge and almost perfectly reflective of where my head is. The need for sleep, food . . . nothing else will trump the need to write and the necessary interruption to satisfy those needs can be an annoyance if the words are flowing. If it were an option, I would almost always choose to satisfy the needs of my mind over that of my body. Occasionally, I’ll write my thoughts without knowing that I’m doing it. If I’m daydreaming and there is pen and paper nearby I may later find that I scribbled something down without having been aware of it at the time, which is always interesting and sometimes alarming.
So when I can’t write at all, it’s worrisome. It means that my thoughts are jumbled, and my mind is occupied with something that I cannot, or do not want to give voice to. I sit in front of my computer, I let my fingers dance across the keyboard and see what, if anything will come. These last two days, very little. And then a friend of mine, also a writer, told me of her surefire cure for writer’s block.
“Read something,” she said. “Something by a writer whose work you admire. Someone who’s so good they almost make you pissed. That always makes me get back to work.”
From Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, my all-time favorite line in literature. Janie, the novel’s heroine looks at the man she loves, and Hurston describes it this way: “Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.” If that line makes you feel nothing, then you’re probably dead.
And from Nella Larsen’s book Quicksand: “Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent. She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it. As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable. She went through moments of overwhelming anguish. She felt shut in, trapped.”
Now, I happen to believe that passages like those are inspired, not constructed. If you’re lucky, you get one such passage after a lifetime of writing. One. I have no doubt that before they arrived at such inspiration, both Hurston and Larsen wrote pages and pages of material that they dismissed as trite, and that may even have been objectively speaking, trite (though I tend to doubt it).
And that’s all I need to know to get back to work. For my friend, I think the motivation is a sense of competition, which makes perfect sense. And though I’m not particularly competitive, something about being reminded that I’m not alone but a part of a community of people who have existed since time immemorial – people drawn to the page, keeps me writing.