Writing Blocked? Try Wearing a Hat

It was a beautiful evening last Tuesday at Fenway, clear and chilly, in the low 60s, though a bit windy. A crisp night for a ball game, our first of the season. We were having a great time, my daughter and I, cutting through teenage angst and parental anxieties with peanuts and cracker jacks, until the Red Sox gave up a few late inning runs to Tampa Bay, threatening to ruin our special night.

It was rally cap time. Annie and I considered flipping our baseball hats inside out, a good luck talisman, certain the gesture would ensure a come-from- behind victory for our beloved Sox. But it was late and we were cold. We didn’t flip our caps. Our boys lost 3-0. It was entirely our fault.

I’ve never been a superstitious guy, never believed in rabbit’s feet or the Magic 8-Ball. I’ve never feared black cats or walking under ladders. Except when it comes to baseball. Then my superstitions kick into high gear.

And, it turns out, when it comes to writing as well.

There’s this fishing hat, you see, old and ugly, hanging off the top corner of the pine bookcase behind my writing desk, the one with the sweat and ink stains, red, yellow and blue-striped, and the faint scent of my Dad’s Kools. When I’m in a writing slump, when the words won’t come and my typing fingers seem glued to the home keys, I’ll spin around in my chair, laptop in lap, and stare at that hat. I might even reach for it, slip it on. And suddenly, slowly, sometimes surprisingly, the words start to flow.

Now, there’s the logical side of my brain, the part that earned a Master’s in Business Administration, the ex-journalist, the questioner, truth-seeker. That guy who knows I’m talking complete hooey. He’s the guy who knows that old fishing hat has as much to do with the words typed on my screen as my golden retriever Scout, who’s sitting at my feet this very moment. The guy who knows the odor of Dad’s mentholated tobacco smoke faded from the fishing hat’s heavy canvas decades ago.

But there’s this other guy, my creative side, the artist in me I’ve only recently rediscovered, a writer who not only still smells that tobacco smoke but knows it’s mixed with the fragrance of Dad’s Aqua Velva aftershave, who remembers the morning when he was eight and Dad bought the hat and a bag of bait at Charlie’s Fisherman’s Haven near Port Jefferson, on Long Island, before they headed to the pier at Cedar Beach, and hauled up a huge catch. This guy insists that’s the day Dad’s new hat became a lucky hat. He’s the same guy who insists it’s the hat that makes my hands fly across the keyboard.

And what about the days when I’m separated from my fishing hat? What if I’m writing away from home and writer’s block should encroach? A takeout coffee of the right size, from the right coffeehouse, with the lid positioned just so greases things, even hours old and long-cooled. I can re-tie my shoelaces twice and take a ten minute walk–exactly ten minutes, no more, no less– around the block to get the words coming.

The point is, writing is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard. To paraphrase a favorite movie, a baseball flick, ‘the hard is what makes it great.’ And like ballplayers, we writers can be a superstitious bunch. If a major league baseball player believes his performance is improved because of his quirks — the constant tweaking of his batting glove velcro, the way he digs his heels in at home plate before every at-bat or eats chicken vindaloo before every home game — who’s to say it’s not so? And who’s to say our writing quirks don’t loosen the chutes of creativity that lead from our minds to our typing fingers?

I’ve got to get to work now. Been procrastinating too long. I sure could use a little help though. Gotta focus. There’s my fishing hat, hanging off the shelf, next to my old Norton Anthology and that memoir I’ve been meaning to read.

Let me slip it on.

There. Aah. So much better.

Here we go…

-Mike Sinert, 2016 Nonfiction Fellow

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