Sunday, July 27, 2008

Writer's Block

The term “Writer’s Block” is a misnomer.

I’ve never known a real writer to have an actual blockage in anything other than their colon or sinuses.

Most people, upon hearing the term “Writer’s Block” envision a woodcut or etching of a Bohemian-age writer seated at a large desk covered in sheets upon sheets of scattered paper; while the disheveled writer hunches over said desk with one hand clutching a pen and the other plastered permanently over his forehead.

What remains visible of the writer’s face is a deeply etched and pained expression resembling a victim of severe constipation.

And most modern-day self-help books for writers do little to dispel this myth.

They advise everything from exercises to stimulate the brain to a mental rest of walking away from the page and coming back to it in the morning after a good night’s rest.

But everyone seems to have a “cure” for this undiagnosed disease.

Talk to friends and family. Don’t talk to friends and family. Go to a quiet place. Go to a different place. Clean your desk. Walk away from your desk. Go for a walk in the woods. Go where people are. Just write. Stop writing. Write only when you’re inspired. Write different things. Write only one thing. Write this. Write that. Write. Don’t write. For godsakes, put that pencil down and stop writing!

Well, okay---none of them will ever tell you to stop writing forever.

No one would buy that book.

But maybe they should.

Surely there are a few would-be writers who could benefit by the “Scared Straight” tactic.

In college, I majored in theatre. One particular professor seemed to delight in utilizing this tactic on his young, impressionable charges---harsh words of criticism and disgust, peppered with phrases like “you’ll never make it in this business”, and uttered with a breath that smelled suspiciously of Peppermint Schnapps.

I saw him break quite a few. A reduction to tears was as common in his class as the word, “Line”.

He tried to break me. Without success. Even at that tender age, I saw thru the liquor-induced words and realized I was dealing with a bitter, broken man. I sat there quietly, let him spew, and went on with my life.

Did it hurt?

Yeah, sure. It was meant to. Any spanking, mental or physical, is going to hurt. Does it always stop the unwanted behavior?

Child rearing experts agree: No.


As a child, I was very rarely spanked. Maybe twice. And both times (I’m sure) for hitting my brother. Physical violence in the home was not tolerated. But both spanking incidents were possibly the most controlled and orderly punishments since the Spanish Inquisition---without all that torture and maiming.

The spankings began with a lecture. A very calm and carefully-worded indictment on what I had done wrong. By the time the crime was stated, detailed and documented---I was already crying.

And then came the worst part of the punishment. No, not the spanking. The words of disappointment.

“We’re so disappointed in you.” “We can’t believe you did that.” “Why did you do that?”

I was a mess. Red-faced and as soggy as a used Handi-Wipe.

By the time the actual spanking rolled around, I just wanted the whole thing to be over. Whatever was about to happen to me, I certainly deserved. I had done something horrible. Had disappointed everyone close to me. And, in the end, I went to my spankings like a royal to the guillotine---teary-eyed, resigned, and compliant.

“So bend over my knee…”

If I had had access to Dickens at the age of seven, I might have uttered, “Tis a far, far better thing I do…”

Looking back, I’m amazed that my family could offer such restraint and reasoning towards children when, as children themselves, they were often chased around the house haphazardly with a hickory stick and a belt.

Years later, my family admitted, “By the time it came for your spanking, you were crying so much and felt so bad that we hated to even bother to spank you.”

My point?

True pain comes from within. If you believe something to be true, it can and will hurt---and hurt much more than any potential mental or physical punishment possible. This is the power of the human brain.

As far as I know, no other species has the mental capacity to commit suicide.

The disappointment of my family hurt. The disappointment of a drunken, bitter college professor only made me stronger.

To this day, I believe that the actors who broke down and cried in that class were simply getting a confirmation of what they already believed to be true. That they were horrible. And would never make it in this business.

Years later, I realized that maybe that bitter, drunken theatre professor had done them a favor. Saved them years of disappointment and missed opportunities. Saved them the horror of winding up a bitter, drunken theatre professor in the middle of Nowhere, U.S.A.

As far as I know, no one who cried is still “in the business”.

Writers are rarely thus discouraged.

The mere act of putting pen to paper seems to bestow upon the writer an untouchable status.

While parents may do everything in their power to deter their child from a life as a thespian---few parents would dream of discouraging their child to read and write.

Everyone from college professors to workshop instructors to casual writer’s groups will flatter, congratulate, and encourage the writer to keep writing---after all, the number one rule of writing is, “Writers write”.

After years of mastering his craft, the writer makes the decision to let the world know of his creations.

That’s where the problem begins.

Imagine spending months writing, work-shopping and re-writing a piece. A piece that received nothing but glowing reviews in every safe environment it was subjected to. For the writer of such a brilliant piece, sending their baby out into the world is not so much a moment of truth, as a moment of awakening. A new dawn. A new life. A soon-to-be certain confirmation of all they have been told and all they believe to be true.

Anywhere from a few days to a few months later, 99.9% of the time, the writer will receive a letter with a response something along the lines of “Not for us at this time.”

They try again. And again. Months, sometimes even years, can go by with nothing more than an occasional request to view the material. And, after months of rejection, this simple request can send a desolate writer into a tailspin of hope and happiness. Finally! Someone will read their work!

The writer picks himself up and quickly gathers his troops for battle. A fresh copy of the manuscript is quickly made, a carefully-worded (yet brief) cover letter is written to the proper person with the proper spelling of their name and the proper address (all information checked and double-checked), the manuscript is bound in the proper binding, a mailing enclosure purchased, the package neatly addressed, a return envelope addressed, everything inserted inside, and a trip to the Post Office is now all that is needed to change their life forever.

Anywhere from a few weeks to a few months later, a large, brown envelope covered in familiar handwriting appears in the writer’s mailbox. “Not for us at this time.”

The writer is devastated. Crushed. Lost. Disillusioned. And generally spends anywhere from one to seven days in this dismal state.

Eventually, they scrape themselves off the floor and try again. More research, more queries, and more trips to the office supply store and the Post Office.

Most writers, by this stage in the game, are now equipped with an entire shelf-full of books on the business of writing---all of which seem to begin with a pithy phrase like, “The business of writing is a business.”

And the first time you read a chapter entitled, “What Every Agent Wants”, you sit up in your comfy chair and take notes. No weekend workshop in the Catskills with an obscure (yet brilliant) playwright is going to give you these little tidbits. You consider it to be part of your Writer’s Education. You delegate the time necessary to learn exactly how to be what is both wanted and needed in your chosen profession in order to make everybody happy.

Over the next few months you try to balance your free time between writing queries, taking workshops, attending readings, researching online, submitting to contests, applying for writing positions, and (last, but not least) writing.

Writing has suddenly taken a backseat.

If there actually is such a thing as “Writer’s Block”, it is brief and momentary. A few minutes trying to figure out the perfect character name, a few hours spent pacing back and forth trying to decide how to get the characters in the subplot to do more than just be there to overhear the latest piece of gossip about the heroine, perhaps even a day or two trying to decide if that particular scene needs to be there at all.

Writing can often be like a crossword puzzle---a meticulous blend of meaning and form, combined with a search for just the right letters to fit in the little boxes. But no one stymied over the Sunday NY Times Crossword is ever accused of having “Crossword Block” as they stew over the paper with their morning coffee. They’re not blocked. They’re just thinking.

That fun new resource known as Wikipedia, defines Writer’s Block as such:

phenomenon involving temporary loss of ability to begin or continue writing, usually due to lack of inspiration or creativity.”Every writer I know has occasionally suffered from a lack of inspiration or creativity. But none of them has ever referred to it as “Writer’s Block”.

Usually they explain it away for what it is---a period of time where they’re searching for their next idea. Again, thinking.

Most writers have ideas constantly swirling around in their minds. But it takes a while to collect all those mental notecards into one coherent piece. There’s a great idea for an opening, a look between characters, a few lines, a quote from Nietzsche, a silly wave, a re-occurring pigeon…

This is called the gestation process. That beast growing within us that will eventually come out. Again, not Writer’s Block. Thinking.

Wikipedia goes on to write:

“Writer's block can be closely related to
depression and anxiety[1] two mood disorders that reflect environmentally caused or spontaneous changes in the brain's frontal lobe. This is in contrast to hypergraphia, more closely linked to mania, in which the changes occur primarily in the temporal lobe. These processes, and their implications for treatment, are described in neurologist Alice Flaherty's book The Midnight Disease.”
Okay, this is a whole other kettle of fish that no book titled, How To Write A Movie In 21 Days will solve. Not Writer’s Block. Not thinking. This requires professionals.

Wikipedia continues:

“Another interpretation of writer's block, sometimes confused with scant output, is given in the book
Silences, by Tillie Olsen, who argues that historically many women and working-class writers have been unable to devote themselves to, or concentrate on, their writing because their social and economic circumstances prevent them from doing so.”
Not Writer’s Block. Not by a long shot. This is necessity. Anyone struggling to complete their novel while working three jobs and raising a family is NOT suffering from Writer’s Block. They’re suffering from POOR. Anyone accusing them of Writer’s Block is simply an insensitive bitch---and yes, you can call a man a bitch, if the behavior warrants.

Not to be deterred, Wikipedia continues:

“It is widely thought that writer's block is part of a natural ebb and flow in the creative process. Author
Justina Headley explains in keynote speeches that for her it comes from losing touch with the characters about whom she is writing; and that by discovering who they are again, the block disintegrates.”
But what disintegrated? The entire statement doesn’t make sense. First, it’s described as “a part of the NATURAL ebb and flow” and then suddenly, something disintegrates. In the ebb and flow of the tide, nothing disintegrates to make this possible. Like the relationship with the water, the sun and the moon---you think, you write and you rest. No blockage there. It’s as natural as the water rushing towards the sand. Sometimes the water brings pretty seashells. Sometimes it brings a smelly, decaying whale. It’s all natural.

Moving on:

“There have been cases where writer's block has lasted for years or decades. The most notable example of this in modern literary history was
Henry Roth's writer's block which persisted for sixty years and was caused by a combination of depression, political problems, and an unwillingness to confront past problems. This kind of writer's block seems to be quite rare, and most writer's block lasts for shorter periods or simply a particular sitting.”Okay, if you have Writer’s Block for 60 years… Well, you must have a pretty good trust fund.

Now, I admit that I have not read Call It Sleep (Henry Roth’s early masterpiece), but there are more than a few writers who only have one work to their name. Margaret Mitchell with Gone With the Wind, Emily Bronte with Wuthering Heights and Harper Lee with To Kill A Mockingbird are possibly the most famous of the bunch.

But who said they had to write anything at all? The fact that these very talented ladies left us with these wonderful books is an achievement to be applauded, not decried. Some writers are more intent on living. The writing is only incidental. And certainly, no one sits down to write To Kill A Mockingbird without ever having held pen to paper. Trust me, these ladies wrote. They may have honed their skills with a combination of school essays, poems, letters to friends and articles for the daily paper---but these gals were no slouches in the verbiage department.

And, in those days, women were not required to have a profession other than wife and mother. Virginia Woolf may have asked for a Room Of One’s Own, but she certainly wasn’t expecting to pay the rent. That was kind of part of what she was begging for.

As for Henry Roth---well, he had other issues---I refer you to Wikipeida.

Frankly, some people have an honest gift for the written word—however, they may not have all that much to say. They may only have one good story in them. If they know it, they stop and move on to living. If they don’t…well, they spend the rest of their life churning out crappy novel after crappy novel---becoming frustrated that the world doesn't understand them. Eventually, their reputation as a writer is tarnished. With so much crap on the shelves, no one bothers to read their early, well-written masterpiece.

Maybe they should have stopped at one.

We’ve all known people who are charming and amusing at parties; yet, when they’re required to step on a stage to display those cocktail talents, freeze up like a frozen daiquiri.

I’ve done quite a bit of directing in my day, and I’ve often had the opportunity to work with people so wonderfully referred to as “non-actors”.

One of my most memorable “non-actor” moments happened back in Minneapolis. As a favor to a friend (and on the promise of a few hundred dollars) I was coerced into writing and directing an infomercial. Without going into too many details, the producer and I had begged the guy commissioning the job to hire an actor for the shoot. After a few minutes sorting thru our stack of headshots and resumes, he made his decision.

“I’d rather go with Kenny.”

Kenny was a guy in his office. Great at parties. Everybody loved him. Kenny would be a natural.


“We’re going with Kenny.”

I dutifully put together the script (per his careful instructions so as not to alert the IRS to his obvious pyramid scheme) and we showed up the morning of the shoot with a professional crew ready-to-work.

A few minutes later, Kenny was dolled-up by a professional make-up artist and was called out onto the set.

Kenny was a mess.

Kenny was shaking, stammering, stiff and clearly reading from the cue cards. The producer, the cameraman and I huddled off to the side after every take. While I may have had confidence in my directorial abilities, I had no problem admitting to the rest of the crew that there was clearly nothing I could do for Kenny.

The producer tried to take the businessman aside and politely offered to quickly find a replacement. The businessman would not hear of it. Kenny was his guy. He just needed to relax. Give him a chance. We’re going with Kenny.

An hour later, Kenny was still a wooden bundle of nerves. The crew was anxious to move on to the next location. The producer was terrified. Even the businessman looked concerned. And everyone looked to me. Still feeling I had some people skills intact, I motioned the businessman aside.

I would need to talk to him in his language---which seemed like a combination of Pathetic Guy In Strip Club and mafioso. So, in the best Tony Soprano-speak I could muster, I began, “We’ve got a problem here. I think you would agree.”

He rubbed his hand over his porn-star moustache, slicked back his thinning, greased-up hair and said, “Yeah. I don’t understand it. The guy’s great at parties.”

“Well, this ain’t no party.”

He laughed. I think it’s probably a good time to mention that, by the day of the shoot, I wound up being the only one on the crew the businessman liked. But trust me, I wasn’t flattered. He’d let it slide to me in a pre-production meeting that he also had an interest in producing soft-core porn. Perhaps I’d be interested in writing? Something like The Red Shoe Diaries----smart, well-written, but with all redheads.

I was a redhead at the time.

So our private conversation in the guest bathroom was not only necessary, but uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I powered thru.

“Look---Kenny is shaking. I’m letting you know, I already told the cameraman to pull away from his hands. He’s nervous. And when he’s nervous, he comes across as shady. You don’t want that now, do you?”

This said to the man who, only that morning, had asked me to change the words on the cue cards from “Turn your hobby into a business” to “Turn you pastime into a business”.

“The IRS sees a red flag when they hear the word ‘hobby’”, he explained.

The businessman sighed. He knew I was right. Kenny may have been great at parties, but he was lousy on-camera. He couldn’t remember his lines, shook like a bowl of Jell-O, and looked as dishonest and shady as a guy running the shell game on 34th St.

In his shady porn producer voice, he muttered, “He’s just blocked. Let me have a little talk with Kenny.”


“I’ll take care of it.”

A moment later, he exited the guest bathroom, put his arm around Kenny and walked him outside.

Ten minutes later, they came back. Kenny was calmer, more natural. Still had trouble remembering his lines. But no longer shaking. Whatever illegal form of “attitude adjustment” this guy had slipped him, it seemed to work. Can’t say Kenny was the picture of charm and delight---but at least we finished the shoot.

Was that a true blockage? No. Just nerves, inexperience and a lack of extracurricular drugs.

Acting was not Kenny’s gift. Nor his chosen profession (I believe he was the guy’s accountant---and we all know how funny accountants can be). So, when push came to shove---what was at stake for him was not an opportunity to finally shine in his chosen profession, but the potential for failure in front of his boss.

No wonder he was shaking. He may have been the life of the wife-swap party, but pretty much anyone will laugh at your jokes for the chance to bang your wife in front of the office staff.

On a set, with cameras and make-up artists and cue cards and marks---well, poor little Kenny was out of his milieu.

Writers choose their milieu carefully. Maybe not in the beginning. Even the best prose writers have a notebook full of crappy poems they wrote when they were thirteen. But by the time they’re ready to come out from behind the desk and show their work---they’ve usually got more to show than a loose-leaf folder with a poem that begins,

“I found a guy
And I don’t know why”

True writers have studied and honed their craft. Yes, they occasionally make some small mistakes---that’s what editors are for. But they have a little something called experience.

The people who seem to complain most about "Writer's Block" are beginning writers.

“I’m working on my first screenplay and I can’t seem to finish it. I think I have Writer's Block”

I hesitate to tell them that they can’t finish it because it’s THEIR FIRST SCREENPLAY! It’s usually their first ANYTHING on paper. And they’re perplexed that they can’t seem to get the darned thing to work.

Experience breeds expediency.

There’s a great story about Buster Keaton. After years of being a major comedy star in the silent era and creating masterpieces like The General and Sherlock Jr., Keaton fell on hard times. The studio system of the 30s and 40s was a cruel place. But they never liked being perceived as such. Hence, after Keaton suffered personal problems and a severe bout of alcoholism, MGM threw him a bone---They hired their former top star as a gag writer at $100 a week (ten years earlier, he was making ten times that much).

But Keaton, ever humble, was simply happy to be employed. And one day, on the set of a Red Skelton film, the writers and director were having a difficult time trying to figure out exactly how to get Red out of an on-screen predicament:

Red’s character was trapped in a house with a large dog on his tail. With Red cornered up against the locked kitchen door, and the ferocious Great Dane ready to pounce…everyone on set was stuck. Hours went by as a petulant (and highly paid) Skelton cooled his heels in his trailer. Finally, someone said, “Call Keaton.”

A few minutes later, Keaton came down to the set and surveyed the situation. Without even blinking an eye, Keaton quietly pulled the hinges out of the door, removed the door from the frame, and turned it around just as the Great Dane attacked. Genius.

You can see it in the final film---Bathing Beauty with Esther Williams, 1944.

Despite all his accolades, Red Skelton was not a writer. Skelton (and most comics of his day) had an army of writers behind them. Generous comics (and writers themselves) like Jack Benny, George Burns and Fred Allen not only appreciated their writers, but constantly gave them the credit they deserved.

Writers working for Red Skelton were told they didn’t exist. Once, as a guest on The Tonight Show, Skelton told Jack Parr, “I don’t need writers. I just get on stage and God tells me what to do.”

The next day, Red showed up for work to find his latest script---a hundred blank pages with a note that read, “Dear Red, Please have God fill in the pages.”

If anyone has ever suffered from the dreaded “Writer’s Block” if might have been Red Skelton at that very moment.

He might have been a great clown---but he wasn’t a writer.

So, why all the talk about Writer’s Block?

Well, because lately, I've been suffering from something akin to what might be referred to as “Writer’s Block”.

It’s not a block. After all, I’m writing this as we speak.

On most days, I wake up (fairly) bright and (at least somewhat) cheerful. Coffee helps to clear away those parentheses. But, after a few minutes of news updates and a steaming cup of Starbucks Breakfast Blend---I’m ready to start my day.

Can’t say I immediately sit down and write---although, on a few occasions, I’ve been known to take the coffee immediately to my computer and set to work. But I at least get out of bed with a sense of purpose.

The past few weeks---not so much so.

Hitting the “Snooze” button has become my favorite pastime. Crawling out of bed seems like a tremendous chore. Even pre-setting my coffee maker the night before so that the smell of freshly-brewed coffee wafts thru the apartment first thing in the morning seems to have no effect.

In fact, the only thing that truly drags my sorry ass out of bed lately is (I’m sorry to say) work. As a waitress. And, working nights as a waitress…well, that means that I don’t crawl out from under the covers till around one o’clock.

This is bad. This is really bad. Particularly when we’re finally getting a spate of wonderful summer weather. No rain. No humidity. Just warmth and sunshine---both of which I seem to prefer sleeping thru.

This is so unlike me that the loss of my summer began to send me into a state of depression. Misery begets misery.

Why didn’t I want to wake up and greet my day? Why didn’t I want to grab my notebooks and head to Central Park to do some writing? Or even an hour or so hunkered down at a metal chair and table in Bryant Park? After all, this is New York City! There’s so much to do and see! Especially in the summertime. Little day trips to out-of-the-way places. Hidden treasures. Historical spots. Or just sitting at a cafĂ© in The Village with a cup of tea writing and watching the world go by.

Why was I spending it in bed?

It couldn’t be Writer’s Block. After all, I was still writing. Writing lots of things. Little sketches to shoot with friends, blog entries, another episode for a series I’m working on…not to mention loads of witty emails. In fact, words seemed to be pouring out of me.

In fact, the small notepad I keep in my apron pocket at work had been literally filled with ideas, jottings and bits of dialogue over the past few weeks. So full, in fact, that I strained to remember where I bought this perfect-sized, sturdy, and now-full notepad---Borders, I think. I would have to make a trip there. Tho the price tag on the back cover is now worn, I seem to remember it being $1.95. Yes. Definitely. I would have to go back. That is, if I could get my ass out of bed.

But why can’t I get my ass out of bed?

A few months ago, I went thru a period of massive submissions. It took a lot of time and energy to put these packages together. And for the first time in a long time, these were the sorts of submissions that really held some promise. Not simply due to the quality of the work---after all, why would I send out less than first-rate work? But a combination of recommendations from professionals in the business to having found the perfect material to send to the perfect place almost guaranteed that I would at least hear something.

Sure, none of these submissions might turn out to be the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. But I at least thought I had a goose. And I at least expected an egg. Gold, white, brown, speckled---I didn’t care. I just needed a goddamn egg.

Months later, I’m still waiting on that egg.

At least some word that the goose appears to have a blockage and the egg will arrive in four-to-six weeks.

But nothing.

It was around this time that I started hitting the “Snooze” button.

Writing is a form of communication. Whether it’s an Inter-Office Memo, a letter from the Civil War battlefield, or The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, it is simply one person trying to communicate their thoughts to another. The intended audience might be one person or one million---but the premise remains the same.

But if that Civil War soldier wrote dozens of letters to his sweetheart back home in Charleston without ever receiving a response… Well, you can imagine how difficult it might be for him to wake up to a fresh pot of chicory and start marching off to war. Without even a “Dear John” letter to settle his fears, he would most likely be a mess. And the next causality on the battlefield.

Writing is nothing more than delayed and carefully worded speech. So when there seems to be no one to speak to… The writer often becomes silent. And morose. We continue to communicate in the basic sense---talking to people, letters, emails, etc. Out of sheer habit, we even continue to write.

But the joy is gone.

With no possibility that someone will eventually hear and understand us…why even try.

Of course, the potential for success is never really gone. But, as I said before----True pain comes from within.

But who in their right mind would just suddenly start believing horrible things about themselves?

Child experts also agree on another point---if you tell a child they’re stupid, they will eventually believe it’s true. And if the pretty, sweet girl is never asked to dance at the school mixer---she will eventually believe she’s dull and ugly.

Simple conditioning. But this conditioning only comes about when you give others the power to judge you.

Like most people, my first judges in life were my family. Luckily, I was blessed with a great set of judges who have always been trust-worthy guides in my life. Them, I believed. A bitter, drunken theatre professor---I could care less. Not only did my family instill great values in me, they also taught me to distinguish charlatans from role models.

But, despite all their wonderful qualities, no one in my family is a writer. Or even anything close to it. I realized early on that I would have to look elsewhere for guidance in this strange new field. So, you set off into the world. You find other writers. You create support groups. Out of those groups, you begin to cull mentors and like-souls to be your new judges. While these judges may offer constructive criticism, they are still the kindliest judges in town.

But ultimately, you reach a point where they can no longer help with your case. The time comes when you have to appeal to a higher court---agents and producers. If you are going to succeed, you have no other choice.

These judges are stern. And no amount of personal sentiment will sway their decision. This is decidedly NOT a safe environment.

You have to develop a tough skin for criticism. And you have to learn that, while they have the power, they may not always be right. Your piece may truly be "not for us at this time”. Or your carefully crafted submission may simply just get lost in the shuffle. Yes. It happens.

Every writer suffers rejection. Even the greats. The stories are so common and the rejections so unspeakable in hindsight. Of course, it’s easy to see how a dull-minded publisher could reject a fresh new voice like Kerouac or Nabokov. It’s even easy to see how popular writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King might have been rejected with the reasoning, “Yeah, it’s good. But will it be popular ENOUGH?”

But when one discovers that The Diary of Anne Frank was routinely rejected, not because of anti-Semitism, but on the grounds of which one publisher wrote, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”

Well, the mind boggles. And struggling writers take heart. They keep writing. And keep submitting.

But all of the above writers eventually got published.

Even John Kennedy Toole’s classic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces eventually found a publisher. Sure, he had to spend years writing, re-writing and then submitting his novel. And sure he had to spend several more years back and forth working on revisions for the one editor who seemed to take an interest (Robert Gottlieb, an editor at Simon & Schuster). And, sure, after all that, he still got rejected by Gottlieb. And sure, he had to spend a few more years drinking heavily and suffering from acute depression and pretty much stopped writing alltogether. And sure, he finally had to attach a garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and kill himself by asphyxiation. And sure, then his grieving mother had to find the manuscript after his death and spend another nine years trying to find a publisher. And sure, maybe after nine years all she could get was a small university text book publisher to take a chance on a printing of 2,500 copies.

But in the end, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and went on to sell more than a million copies!

See, good things DO eventually happen.

After the publication (and subsequent prize-winning) of A Confederacy of Dunces, the publishing industry suffered a bit of a beating in the public eye. After all, what’s wrong with an industry that needs 20 years and the death of an author to discover a masterpiece?

Although Gottlieb definitely took a hit after the book’s success, if truth be told, he had been the one person in the publishing industry that had spotted the book’s potential. The publishing industry, as a whole, was another matter. They were the ultimate villain. They had committed the worst sin a publisher could commit---they had killed a great writer.

But the publishing industry has no Hippocratic Oath. If they had any oath, it might be the words of Wall Street, "Buy low and sell high." They responded to this criticism, at first, with silence; and then, by publishing a whole spate of books on the life, work, and eventual death of John Kennedy Toole---biographies and odysseys which seemed to help explain away the cause of said death.

While admitting to the depression he suffered over the book’s rejection, these books offered other contributing factors: life with a domineering mother, financial problems, alcohol problems, possibly the early signs of schizophrenia, loneliness, and---the favorite exercise of modern biographers---possible confusion over his sexuality.

In the end, there were certainly other contributing factors. But it still begs the question: What took the publishing industry so long?

On that matter, their presses seem to be silent.

The lesson to be learned: Judges can be wrong. I give you two words: Dred Scott.

In fact, even our own best and trusted judges can often be wrong. A few years ago, our family dog was sprayed by a skunk. My mother, who I always think of as the one person who knows all, apparently thought that giving the dog a simple soap and water bath would be enough. However, despite copious amounts of lemon-y fresh doggie shampoo---Shadow still smelled. No one even wanted to pet her for fear of having stinky skunk hands for the rest of the day. Poor Shadow.

Finally, Mom called a higher authority---the family vet. I was stunned the next week as I listened to my Mom tell the tale over the phone---a long, sordid story that ended with the vet prescribing a bath in tomato juice to help get rid of the smell.

What? My smart, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-together mother had never heard of a bath in tomato juice? Even I knew that. Knowledge, I might add, I somehow gathered over the course of my life without ever having been sprayed by a skunk.

Due to the delay in getting round to the tomato juice, the skunk smell pretty much dried up on the dog’s fur and (despite numerous dips in marinara sauce) it was weeks before poor Shadow was smelling clean and fresh again.

Even the best and most trusted judges occasionally make mistakes.

But that doesn’t mean that we (or the dog!) don’t suffer. I don’t doubt that Shadow suffered weeks of acute depression over her smelly state combined with a lack of hugs.

As writers, our reaction to our judges’ failure to act can cause similar anxiety. Just like Shadow, we feel rejected, stinky, and unloved.

As for Shadow, well, she just had to wait it out. Without understanding quite why she was in this predicament, she must have trusted that eventually, she would stop smelling so bad and she would be embraced once again. And, as writers, we have to do the same.

“Writer’s Block” is an over-used word. And that’s my objection. Because it seems to denote a simple malady that can easily be fixed, as opposed to the wide range of causes surrounding it’s appearance---and the myriad forms those appearances can take---if, it indeed, exists at all.

As the weeks went by following my copious submissions, I went thru a whole range of emotions---most of them ending with the simple need for closure. One night, I found myself talking with friends over this state of affairs and wound up saying, "I know I'll probably get rejected---but for godsakes, hurry up and reject me! That's all I ask!"

Still nothing.

While I was continuing to write (either out of habit or a feeling of sheer necessity), I suddenly began to feel like a scientist surveying the Universe and asking, "Is there anybody out there?"

But, like the telephone line to Houdini's coffin---not a sound was heard. It was as if I had put my manuscripts into a rocket and shot them off into space. There was nothing out there. I had no audience to write for, no hope of communicating in my chosen form, and no potential for---let’s just say it---love.

In every endeavor, human beings are searching for love. That's one of the truly wonderful and unique things about our species. It's why we love getting Thank You cards after sending a thoughtful gift. Why we hate being unappreciated at work. And why Moms get upset when you don’t eat their dinners.

Every act we perform, from the simplest to the most complex, is ultimately a quest for love.

Occasionally some get those brain waves crossed---that’s why husbands beat (and sometimes) kill their wives. And why those same husbands wind up on the witness stand crying out, “I LOVED her!”

Vincent Van Gogh once wrote, “A good picture is equivalent to a good deed.”

So I suppose the question I’ve been asking myself the past few weeks is, “Who are my good deeds for?”

For if I (like all writers) am writing to receive love, then why am I wasting time on unresponsive suitors?

Like those acting students in class, like the wallflower at the dance, like the child hearing he’s stupid, like John Kennedy Toole and like Shadow after numerous tomato juice dips---I began to hear that voice inside my head that said, “You stink.”

And it was a loud voice. Stronger and more forceful than it’s ever been before. But this time, coupled with the knowledge and the determination that this voice was wrong---I felt I could silence it.

But how?

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” ---Vincent Van Gogh
It seemed to work for Van Gogh. At least, until he shot himself in the fields of Auvers-sur-Oise.

Strangely enough, with a bullet wound in his chest, he picked himself up and walked back to the house where he died two days later.

I like to think that, once he silenced that voice with a gun, he picked himself up in order to get back work.

Without going to such extremes, there was a voice inside of me that needed a little shushing. A little saner than the voices speaking to Toole and Van Gogh---but at least a distant cousin twice-removed.

My voice required a much more sensible approach.

A week ago, I decided to stop submitting.

It was a huge decision for me, but was something I felt I needed to do.

Sure, it’s not as sexy of a finale for the biopic as a shotgun in a wheat field. But it’s just right for me.

Submitting is definitely part of the business of writing. After all, if no one reads your work, then how will anyone hire you, publish you, sell you, love you?

But at a certain point, it might be good to step away. Like coming out of a bad relationship and making sure you “take some time for yourself”.

That doesn’t mean that you’ll never get back out there and look for love again. Quite the contrary. It’s just the requisite time needed to re-establish who you are, to re-evaluate your wants and needs, and to pick yourself up and lick your wounds.

Like Shadow, you just need some time to get the stink off.

In the meantime, like Van Gogh, I throw myself into my work. In fact, with more joy and vigor than ever. What might seem like a throwing in the towel to some, is actually more like sending that towel thru a nice wash, dry and fluff to me.

Since making this decision a week ago, I have been much, much happier. And more productive. When my alarm goes off, I actually jump right out of bed. And if that isn’t the true definition of happiness, I don’t know what is.

Sure, I still hate my waitress job. And sure, there are still those nagging bills to pay, chores to do, and A Trains to catch. But it all seems much more tolerable now. The opportunity to put your complete focus on work that you love is one of the greatest joys in life. And when you are no longer dependent on “the kindness of strangers” for love and approval---then you are certainly more sane. And decidedly happier.

After a long and unsuccessful relationship with these strangers, I feel freer and more creative than ever. Like the theme song for ended relationships, “Since U Been Gone, I can breathe for the first time.”

Sure, at some point I’ll have to submit again. But, for now, I’m taking a Writer’s Retreat. While I certainly can’t afford to spend a few weeks in a cabin in the woods, I can at least delegate my time more wisely.

I just want to write. That’s why I came to New York. And that’s why I’m not leaving. I may have to be a waitress for a while longer---hell, I may have to be a waitress for the rest of my life. But at least I’m writing.

If doing what makes you happy is not its own reward---then it’s not really the thing that makes you happy.

In short, if you truly suffer from that indefinable illness known as “Writer’s Block”, then Senator, you are no writer. You may be able to string some words together into a coherent piece. You may even manage to get something published---Paris Hilton has published TWO books and one was a New York Times Bestseller.

But writers write. Period. Sure we hit some gridlocks occasionally, but that’s part of the process. Sometimes we have to re-evaluate our methods, our strategies and our styles. Often, we step away from the paper to learn new things. And then there are those days when we simply choose to take a day off and just live.

Experienced writers will agree that when you begin writing, if you are any good, you will produce approximately 95% dreck and 5% useable material---and that’s only if you are very good. However, as the years go by, the more you write, the more those statistics will change.

But writers write thru everything. We write thru break-ups, illnesses, depression, deaths, births, and cross-country moves. We even write to help us get thru writing. On my bookshelf, I actually have a published copy of the journal John Steinbeck wrote to help him write The Grapes of Wrath. Writing is our coping mechanism. It’s like having a free psychologist in your own mind. It helps us define our joy and happiness, as well as deal with our sadness and fears.

But no matter how crazy, exhilarating or dire the circumstances---we write. No, it may not be anything even remotely worthy of publication (or even viewing by our most trusted friend, for that matter). Sometimes it’s just a lot of words on paper to exercise the control between our emotions and our words. Our own private session with that interior doctor who can help make sense of our lives.

But we write. We always write.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Coney Island

Last Sunday afternoon, I went to Coney Island.

It took a long time to get there.

Almost two and a half hours, to be exact. Two and a half hours to go to Brooklyn. And then another two and a half hours back. All total, I spent nearly five hours on a train for a three and a half hour visit to Coney Island.

Was it worth it?


I tend to romanticize places. The problem there being that the places never really live up to my expectations.

I will start by saying that my friend Timmy and I have a theory about old tv shows. I’m talking shows from the 70s like The Waltons, Good Times, All in the Family, Little House On the Prairie, etc.

Neither one of us particularly liked any of these shows. To this day, if I see an episode of The Waltons come on cable, I quickly turn the channel in fear, as if it were an airing of The Exorcist.

I never quite analyzed it---but Timmy had an explanation.

“They were poor.”

Sanford & Son?

“They were poor.”

Barney Miller? Alice? Chico and the Man?

“Poor. Poor. Poor.”

Not that either one of us grew up in the lap of luxury. But we just never cared for watching poor people on TV. Frankly, until the characters were moving on up to the East Side to a de-luxe apartment in the sky---we weren’t watching. It all just looked so…dirty.

And poor.

Coney Island has always been a playground for the poor. Not that it set out to be that way. When the first ride was built on Coney Island (a carousel in 1876), it was an attempt to attract the rich. Developers wanted to create a resort. And sure, maybe the turn-of-the-century rich stopped by occasionally. But the ones who regularly visited and spent their hard-earned dollars at Coney Island were the poor. Always have been.

Of course, turn-of-the-century poor look a little different from the poor of today. Back then, the poor wore hats. Poor working stiffs in their suits and straw hats strolled down the boardwalk with their poor wives who wore full-length dresses and even bigger hats. Many of them were immigrants. Working twelve hour-long days six days a week. Sunday was their one day of rest and relaxation. But they still wore suits, hats and full-length dresses, god love ‘em.
I suppose it also didn’t help that I prepared for my impending visit to Coney Island by watching the 1917 silent film “Coney Island” with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. And then, the next day, spent an inordinate amount of time walking all over Coney Island looking for the game of skill where you can accidentally bop someone on the head with a giant mallet and win a cigar.

It wasn’t there.

Nor were many of the other famous icons of Coney Island. Luna Park lit up at night. The Coney Island Steeplechase with that creepy smiling guy as the cartoon mascot. And where were the Barbershop Quartets? I was there for three and a half hours and didn’t hear “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby” even once.

I did hear a lot of salsa music and screaming children. And I saw a lot of poor fat men with their guts hanging out and poor fat women hanging out of their too-small swimsuits. In the good-old days, the poor were much thinner. Sigh.

I did take a walk along the beach---though I kept my shoes on. A little worried about stepping on a broken beer bottle or a syringe.

I will say, The Boardwalk was pretty.

Certainly could’ve used one less guy selling bottled water out of a cooler and one more Barbershop Quartet. But that’s just me.

A few of the famous rides are still there.

The Wonder Wheel.

The Cyclone.

And Astroland was up and running. Although if you thought the blaring sounds of competing salsa tunes was irritating---just try walking thru Astroland with its constant bells, whistles, rinky-dink jingles and screaming kids.

But there were lots of games of chance and/or skill---none of which seemed to be enticing to even the poor. Apparently, today’s poor are adequately stocked on stuffed animals.

The one game that actually had a few players was more than disheartening---The Goldfish Game.

For two bucks, people were given the golden opportunity to toss ping pong balls into small goldfish bowls in an attempt to win a goldfish.

I hesitated to tell them that they could go to a pet store and purchase a goldfish for around ten cents. Nor did I bother to tell any of these people that, unless they went out and purchased a goldfish tank with a filter and air bubbler that these beautiful fish would most likely die within 24 hours.

Okay, it’s time to settle this once and for all. Goldfish DO NOT and CAN NOT live in a bowl.

I know we’re all used to the image of a goldfish happily swimming around in a bowl. We’ve seen it everywhere from Tom and Jerry cartoons to home improvement magazines---both of which are FICTIONAL.

But if you actually put a goldfish in a bowl---you will be quite surprised to notice that the fish just sort of lies there. It will not swim around. It will just lie there, motionless. Why? It’s trying to conserve air.

It’s like putting a human being on the moon without an oxygen tank.

Goldfish will not survive in a bowl. They need a filter and an air pump and to be in a tank with at least 10 gallons of water PER FISH.

It was depressing watching the uneducated poor tossing ping balls into empty glass bowls in an attempt to win and then slowly kill a beautiful fish by asphyxiation.

And not only fish. You could “upgrade” your winnings/killings to either an aquatic frog or a hermit crab.

Of the three living creatures, the aquatic frog is the hardiest. The aquatic frogs available to win are called African Clawed Frogs. You can buy them at a pet store for about two dollars. In The Goldfish Game, it will cost you approximately 20-50 dollars to win one of these little guys, depending on your tossing skills.

I used to have an African Clawed Frog. His name was Peepers. He lived to be about three years old. He died of a mysterious illness, but he was given very good care during those three years. And, to create a good home for these guys where they will live and prosper---well, I can tell you from experience that it’s going to cost you around $50. A ten gallon tank, a lid with locks (these guys jump!), water conditioner, gravel and food---not to mention the little added niceties of large rocks and silk plants, which will up your cost a bit.

A single goldfish (properly and minimally housed) will cost you approximately $75 to set up for business.

And a hermit crab?

Well, I’ve never had one as a pet---with good reason. These guys are pretty needy. I’m guessing a good hundred for the layout to start.

I am neither a vegetarian, nor a PETA member, but this was pretty upsetting. At least give these folks a “Care Sheet” or something.

I decided to take all this pent-up rage to a place where they really knew how to care for aquatic life---The New York Aquarium.

Just a few steps from The Boardwalk, The New York Aquarium is well-worth the $13 admission fee.

First of all, if you know anything about fish and aquatic life, you will be astounded at how the staff has managed to provide adequate space, conditions and care for the variety of aquatic life on display.

Well, “on display” might be a misnomer.

Like any zoo or other caged-animal facility, the inhabitants have an uncanny ability to hide and/or sleep during visiting hours.

Due to this phenomenon of nature, I was able to get amazing shots like this:

And this:
Oddly enough, bystanders would notice me taking shots of absolutely nothing and would immediately crowd in---believing that I was seeing something they had completely missed. That’s a phenomenon of human nature---no one wants to be left out of the action.

However, if you do have a decent camera, you can get some amazing shots. Everything from sharks coming right at you…
To delicate jellyfish suspended in water----giving them an eerie appearance resembling the most dangerous lava lamp ever.

The creepy, piped-in New Age music certainly helps with the ominous vibe.

But there are all sorts of amazing things to see and photograph. Particularly a great display on seahorses.

One interesting fact about seahorses is that the male seahorses carry the babies in their bellies. These little guys looked miserable.
I was also happy to see my favourite animal. The penguin.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always loved penguins. In the wild, they are dirty, smelly and often mean birds. The emperor penguins of Antarctica are large enough and powerful enough to knock down a grown man with their flippers.

But I’m a sucker for these little guys. Altho my family (knowing of my love of penguins) has a tendency to give me way too much penguin paraphernalia. Stuffed penguins. Plastic penguins. Ceramic penguins. Glass penguins. Penguin cards. Penguin pictures. Penguin t-shirts. Penguin stickers, refrigerator magnets, buttons, earrings…

Really, it has got to stop. Sure, I like penguins. But not THAT much. It’s not like I work with penguins or anything. Not like I’m a penguin expert.

I’ve relegated a few of my favorite penguin knick-knacks to my bathroom. Even then, you would be hard-pressed to call it The Penguin Room. It’s pretty subtle, if you ask me.

Way more subtle than my Aunt Susie’s Elvis Room. After her oldest son moved out for college, she immediately confiscated his bedroom and turned it into The Elvis Room to house all her Elvis paraphernalia. And it IS an Elvis Room. It’s pretty close to being a shrine. In fact, the only thing missing is his tomb and Priscilla standing at the door.
Speaking of freak shows…
The Freak Show Element is still at Coney Island. But even that seems to be on its last legs.

In the Golden Age of Freaks on Reality TV and Freaks on YouTube and Freaks on the Internet… Well, people didn’t seem too interested in paying money to see Freaks in Person.

In fact, outside of the NY Aquarium (which definitely seems to be the way the New Coney Island is headed) the entire place seemed to be reminiscent of the 1950s. Stuck in its last great era. What modern-day Havana probably looks like.

Very few games and concession stands had any business at all. In fact, the most played game of chance seemed to be the game of Careful! Watch the Vomit! at Astroland.
I must’ve watched at least thirty play this game as they gingerly stepped around the pool of kiddie vomit.
Sure, I stopped at the original Nathan’s and had one of their famous hot dogs.
But there was something clearly disappointing about my visit. Frankly, the heart and history of Coney Island was just not there anymore.

For the past several years, local residents, carnies, developers and politicians have been waging war over the direction the new Coney Island will take.

Honestly, after my visit, I think this place definitely needs some development. Weeds and debris have taken up huge chunks of land. And the lack of connection to its history left me feeling empty and sad.

Right before I got back on the train, I took a slight detour to a street charmingly called Mermaid Avenue.
While Mermaid Avenue may be most famous for the annual Coney Island Freak-style parade named after it---my strongest association with Mermaid Avenue is that it was once the street where Woody Guthrie lived.

Just as World War II was breaking out in Europe, Woody found himself in New York City. And Woody (the leftist, radical, folksinger) teamed up with Will Geer (a leftist, radical actor). Woody slept on Geer’s couch in Manhattan and eventually got himself a room at a small motel on 43rd St. While there, he spent most of his free time writing songs and listening to the radio play Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” ad nauseam. He found the song to be not only unrealistic, but far-too complacent. Finally, as an act of rebellion, he sat down in his 43rd St. motel room and wrote a better song about America---“This Land Is Your Land”.

While most people recognize the first two verses, few would be able to sing the third (generally un-sung) verse:
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "Private Property"
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.

For those of you who never got the memo, “This Land Is Your Land” is a protest song. It’s about class equality. Hunger. Pain. And rebellion. But grade school music books tend to leave out the last verse.

A few years later, Woody would meet his future wife, Marjorie Mazia, a dance instructor at the Martha Graham Dance School in New York. After their marriage, they moved to Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island where they began their family. Arlo Guthrie was born here. And his sister, Cathy, died here as a result of one of the many fires that had haunted the Guthrie Family for generations.

But, despite the depression suffered after his daughter’s death, The Mermaid Avenue Years were possibly Woody’s most productive. In fact, several years ago, Billy Bragg and Wilco created a critically acclaimed album based on the unpublished manuscripts Woody had written during these fruitful years.

Finally, in 1967, it was at Coney Island Beach where Woody’s ashes were scattered after his death following a long battle with the still misunderstood and horrible disease of Huntington’s.

As I walked down this quiet little street, I thought of my old friend Rodney who died in a car accident years ago. Rodney was one of my poet friends from college. At least ten years older than me, brilliant and so incredibly gifted.

His mother had been diagnosed with Huntington’s years before. And he knew the odds. He would have a fifty-fifty chance of getting the horrible hereditary disease that would start by eating away at his brain and eventually leave him a vegetable in the last years of his life.

A few months before his death, he mentioned to friends over drinks that he was starting to sense something was wrong. And he knew what it was. It was his own Huntington’s beginning to take root in his brain. He complained of seeing ghosts fly up in front of his windshield when he was driving on the road. Still cogniscent enough to recognize that it was just the Huntington’s---it nonetheless, made driving hazardous.
A few months later, he was driving down the road and plowed right into a semi. He was killed instantly. His car was totaled. Oddly enough, the one thing to survive the crash was a briefcase in the backseat containing his poems.
It was with a great sense of loss that I got on the train and began my long journey back home.

A few days later, I was discussing my disappointment in Coney Island with my friend Timmy.

“Okay---what you were looking for is The Boardwalk at Disneyworld.”


“They have everything! It’s clean and comfortable. And it looks exactly like you thought Coney Island would look. The workers there even dress up in turn-of-the-century bathing costumes with the caps and everything!”

Do they have Barbershop Quartets?

“Yes! They have everything! There’s a soda fountain and all that stuff! They even import their seagulls!”

I don’t think I need to mention at this point that my friend Timmy is gay. And need I add that Disneyworld is his favourite vacation spot.

Not long after, he pulled up the Disneyworld page on the computer and showed me the Coney Island of my dreams.

“Okay, sure, it’s all fake---It’s Disney. But it’s everything you want!”

It’s the usual conundrum of life. What we want turns out to be fake; while reality turns out to be ugly.

I suppose I’m just looking for the Happy Medium. But it’s not at Coney Island. And it’s not at Disneyworld.

In the end, I suppose it’s somewhere inside myself. A reality I created in my own mind. A place where Rodney still sits at a comfortable table, reading his poems over a pitcher of beer. Where goldfish swim happily in ten gallon tanks. Where Woody Guthrie composes children’s songs over the sound of the waves. Where you can take off your shoes and walk carefree in the sand. And where four guys in straw hats sing “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby” as the local seagulls swoop down for a piece of cast-off hot dog.

The challenge seems to be in creating our own reality. Our own sense of comfort, ease and happiness. And, unlike the goldfish destined for the bowl-chamber or the jellyfish artificially housed in Plexiglas aquariums, we have the unique ability to create our own perfect tank. An environment to satisfy our own special wants and needs.

And so, most of us go about our lives filling our tanks with pretty rocks, plastic plants, and tap water. For some in our species, it might be just enough.

But, for a few of us, we need something more.

That indefinable something on which Saint-Exupery writes:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

A Coney Island of the Mind.