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…

By Mike Sinert, 2016 Nonfiction Fellow

Making Use of Discomfort

Every now and then I come across a story or novel the content of which makes me uncomfortable.  For instance, recently I read some stories by Ottessa Moshfegh and immediately got a sense of danger from her writing. I got the sense that nothing was off limits for this writer.  I’m probably thinking most of her short story “Disgust” when I say this, which was published in The Paris Review.

Other writers whose work shakes me up include Akhil Sharma (especially his novel An Obedient Father), Aravind Adiga, Garth Greenwell.

It even makes me uncomfortable to say what makes me uncomfortable but let me list some things so this is not too vague:  explicit sex, extreme profanity, bestiality. Many people will agree with my (partial) list though personality and culture will clearly come into it.  For example, I grew up in India in the conservative seventies through nineties when no one talked openly about anything and this background helped determine my attitudes.

The work of the authors I mentioned above includes some or all of the things on my list.  But sometimes a piece of writing may cause discomfort for unobvious reasons because, say, it reflects sentiments different from those that are accepted, through unsociable or unlikeable or just strange characters.

If I’m reading something that disturbs me, I might put away the book or I might keep reading.  Either way the writer has managed to startle me to attention. His or her work has become hard to forget.  I wondered:  what makes/enables writers to write in a way that causes discomfort? What makes a writer tackle difficult, off-putting material? Is it a desire to shock the reader? Is it a desire to gain interest? Is it a desire to be honest?

Suddenly this feels like a huge topic.  I offer some thoughts briefly.

It depends on the work. “Disgust” and some of Sharma’s An Obedient Father may well reflect the writers’ desire to tread uncharted territory.  I sense the writers’ delight in writing provocatively.  Other such work may stem from the writer’s desire to be true to his or her self or past.  Writers are always being told to make their writing truthful and one aspect of being truthful might be to not flinch from what causes discomfort.

I thought of my own writing in this light.  Is my language made unnaturally prim because I don’t like to use bad words? Is the work made empty because I don’t venture into difficult places?  I don’t ask these questions to fake things, of course, but to know whether my attitudes affect, maybe dilute, my work.

One area in which I try to bring this thinking to bear is how I depict grief.  People cry a lot in my stories. It gets one’s attention to see someone cry, doesn’t it?  It’s the very point of crying.  I have been using my reflections on discomfort to push my “crying episodes” further perhaps to the point of causing discomfort.

Fun stuff, no?

By Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

Dead Time

Sometimes not writing is more productive than writing. As someone who likes to accomplish things, this drives me crazy. (Case in point, I am writing this on a bus while traveling because I have not spent a weekend at home in over a month and at least on a bus you can get stuff done.) When I have a book idea, there’s that first delicious thrill over the idea, excitement for the concept and crushing on characters I’m just getting to know. I’m filled with vigor and just want to start writing. The important thing for me to remember is that this isn’t love, it’s infatuation. I don’t know these characters yet. I have no idea where the story is going, what my themes are, or what the bones are that I’m going to build on.

I was trained first as an illustrator and then as a writer and I think most of my process comes from my illustration training, in which one must research, develop a concept, and do hundreds of sketches before committing to refined sketches or a final. I’ve learned that this process is comparable to what I have to do when I write. After the initial ideas, I need to research: read, experience, create charts and doodles. With this period comes a gestation period, a time when I have to let the research and the story seeds sit in my brain. Walks, sitting on buses, listening to music….not writing becomes important. During this period I’m tempted to take a sprouting idea and run with it, but I can’t, I have to wait, to give the idea time to grow and mature a bit. If I start writing too much now, I’ll be committing to half ideas, concepts and themes that have not been pushed far enough. I respect myself and my readers too much to commit to these half ideas, ideas that are more likely to be cliched.

The image above is a sketch from the conference and the first appearance of the character currently growing in my head- she's had five names in six weeks. Image copyright 2016 Marika McCoola.

The image above is a sketch from the conference and the first appearance of the character currently growing in my head- she’s had five names in six weeks. Image copyright 2016 Marika McCoola.

I attended a conference earlier this year at which Chris Tebbetts talked about the creative process (I use this broadly, because I think there’s a lot of crossover between writing and other arts). There are two states to the process: will and grace. Will is sitting down to work and pushing through drafts. Grace is allowing ideas to come, it is  accepting change and inspiration. Each work is some combination of the two, though not always in similar proportions. Grace is the part of the process we idealize, the muse coming. Will is the part that makes this work. I see the dead time of not writing as a marriage between will and grace, a period in which I have to be mindful, in the moment, holding back my will to work and accepting the grace without acting. Yes, it’s infuriating, but it also holds so much promise. At this point, there’s so much potential in the concept and it is certain to grow and change into something I can’t yet conceive of. Yes, it’ll take so much work, much of which will be painful, but right now, I can’t quite see that yet.

by Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow  

The Path to Here

It’s hard to believe this is the end of my year as a Writers’ Room of Boston fellow. I’d like to take space in this final blog post to thank the Writers’ Room of Boston Program Director Debka Colson, the Board of Directors, and WROB members for selecting me for such a generous and rewarding opportunity, and for welcoming me into such a friendly and supportive community of writers.

Life doesn’t always go the way we plan, and neither did my fellowship. I thought my time at the Room would bring me only the most sublime fruits of productivity. While it did bring me some of that, I also faced one of the most difficult times I’ve ever had as a writer: a long dry spell.

I never believed in writer’s block: I thought there could be no writer’s block if you simply kept writing (quality of writing was a different matter). Four years ago, the week after my mother died, I found myself sitting at a table at the local café, opening my laptop, and staring at a blank screen, unable to utter a word. But that, I told myself, was understandable.

In the middle of my fellowship, I found myself inexcusably barren of words. It was a year since I’d terminated my contract with my agent over professional differences, and I’d just spent months seeking representation for a new memoir I was writing. Out of over a hundred queries, about half the agents I approached requested materials. Five of them called me on the phone after reading my proposal and sample chapters. My published author friends told me that agents don’t call unless they want to offer representation.

But things don’t always go the way we expect.

One agent called to inform me why my book would never sell. She spent a half hour enumerating the reasons, sounding angry, saying she was doing me a favor. I wondered, what was the point? Another agent asked me a question about plot: was I still dating one of the men I’d written about? No. “Then I’m going to have to pass,” the agent said and hung up the phone. My life hadn’t happened the way she wanted. A month later, she called me again, asking, “Has anything changed?” When I told her no, she told me she was declining representation, again.

The other three agents sounded enthusiastically ready, one spending forty-five minutes in conversation with me, stating we were “on the same page,” another calling me twice to discuss her interest in my work, and the third (from a top agency) talking for an hour about his excitement over my book and the reasons I should choose his agency over another to represent me. Days later, all three declined to represent me, one citing my lack of a New York Times byline (“No editor will take you on without that,” the agent said, despite my many other legitimate publications), another my lack of celebrity status, and the third, my lack of ability to sell to a publisher because, in her opinion, my story, as it read, didn’t articulate “enough exquisite takeaways.”

I took in all the things I was lacking, and lost my hold on writing.

For a few months, I went to the Writers’ Room with my laptop, sat at a desk, and stared at my blank screen, feeling ashamed and empty. I didn’t want anyone to know that my passion for writing was gone. I didn’t want anyone to think I was wasting my fellowship.

I sat in the Room, mourning my failures, taking in the sound of successful writers at work, their hearts beating on the page. I sat in the Room, looking at members’ published books on the shelves, at the Webster’s dictionary and the Roget’s thesaurus—my mother, a writer and copy editor, had monogramed copies of both, which I’d held onto as talismans after her death. I sat in the Room, bathing in the air of creativity supplied by others.

For months, I sat in the Room, engulfed by silence, listening deeply.

One day an agent contacted me. He’d read my book proposal and sample chapters. In an email, he praised my writing but declined representation. He felt there was much more of a story than what I’d put on paper. He said he wanted to read more about my struggles over a greater period of time, the full scope of how I’d gotten from way back there to here. When I saw the email in my inbox, I knew it was a rejection and I couldn’t bear to read it. I gave it to my friend to read for me. My friend, who isn’t a writer, said he thought this agent was on to something.

My struggles were key.

Over the course of a decade, I’d written four books—three memoirs and a novel—none of which had sold. I’d been writing around my story, presenting what packaged slivers of myself I thought the business, and the world, would accept.

Soon after this rejection, my self-censorship lifted and I began to write again, more than I ever had before. I wrote four to six hours a day during the week while teaching full-time, and on average eight hours a day on weekends. I wrote during the fifteen minutes I had between faculty meetings, the ten minutes I had my students doing in-class writing exercises, the half hour I commuted on the train. I was up in the middle of the night, my mind lacing together sentences and paragraphs and chapters. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t turn my writing mojo off.

Two months later, I finished a 330-paged manuscript that I felt was “the” book, the one I hadn’t been ready, until that point, to unfurl. Everything crystalized. I understood that nothing I’d done or hadn’t done had been a waste: it had all been part of my path to here.

During my fellowship, writing came alive for me in a way it never had before. Thank you, Writers’ Room, for giving me the space to transform, to access that quiet inner room where words are reborn.

by Tracy Strauss, 2015 WROB Nonfiction Fellow  

The Writer as Jane Eyre… Or the Writer as the Wife Locked in the Attic

I forgot about my last blog post. This, however, is the title I came up with ages ago, when I knew I had one more to write—then life intervened, my time got booked with freelance work, and I promptly forgot. I believe the post was due on Valentine’s Day, so it’s a little late, but I thought I’d wrap up my blogging with a Valentine for the Room. Much love and many thanks—for the autonomy (the best of Jane), for the escape (the wife no longer locked in the attic). Thank you for so many things… here are a few:

For starters, though it seems a small thing, I began to use the dictionary again, having changed over to the electronic version years ago. I spent many hours in the Room flipping through pages, which is how I began as a poet—rifling through the dictionary while I gathered my thoughts.

The Room offered participation in two public readings—one with the Writers’ Room  community and others at Lesley University, and one still to come, the Writers’ Room Open House, which also welcomes the talented new fellows due here in March.

So much new material. I have written pages upon pages, and although I have not become a speedy writer over the last year, I have become a diligent one. Much of this material is unusable—some is mere play, some is badly written. But there are many, many words, invaluable later on.

Three poems written in the room published or forthcoming in wonderful places. Several others are currently circulating with magazines. Some real writing was done here.

I have a chapbook length manuscript that feels fairly tight. And also a looser, but well-girded book length manuscript that may be at page count soon.

I send out a thank you for the many writers I’ve met while here, including the group of fellows I was privileged to be part of. For their posts, and for the chance to reflect on the year in my own posts, I am grateful.

Thank you, dear Room, for the space. For the quiet and for the energy of the location.

I think we are all the bold Jane Eyre, but we are also the crazy wife locked away in the attic—we writers. We are locked away with our solitary work. We are obsessed, demented maybe. Nobody cares to acknowledge us—we have, in our own way, made an impossible marriage. But at times, we are saved. It’s an imprisonment of our own making, and here, made in absolute peace and comfort. If I can, down the road, I’ll be back.

—Valerie Duff, 2015 WROB Poetry Fellow

WROB Open House & Celebration of Our Fellows!

cropped-wr_logo.jpg

“I love that writing space so much. I miss it all the time.”

From a February 9, 2016  interview with Laura Van den Berg, author of Find Me

See: http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/tk-with-james-scott

JOIN US FOR AN OPEN HOUSE & Celebration of our Fellows!

ThurSDAY, MARCH 10TH FROM 6-9 PM

READING BY OUR 2015 FELLOWS FROM 7-7:30 PM:

Valerie Duff, Cynthia Gunadi, Tracy Strauss & Susan Tan

111 STATE STREET, 5TH FLOOR, BOSTON, MA

The Writers’ Room of Boston is an urban writers’ colony providing 24-hour access to a quiet, affordable and secure work space for serious writers. Located in downtown Boston, the Room is convenient to public transportation.

WROB bathroom

announcing our 2016 Fellows: Ari Belathar, Anu KANDIKUPPA, mike sinert & marika mccoola

and our two finalists: andrea roach & annie hartnett

Come check out our amenities and meet members of our supportive community. Learn about our fellowships. Light refreshments will be served.
Apply for membership!
Email: info@writersroomofboston.org

What Chooses Us

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I am discussing a trio of stories with a professor, and I express concern that, after reading and rereading them as a united body of work, I want nothing more than to stab my eye out. The mothers in my stories keep perishing. And what’s with all the dead or injured animals? I don’t think of myself as a particularly troubled person–I am grateful to live, by most standards, a pretty good and happy life–and so it is somewhat alarming, to see my predilections on the page. I am suspicious of myself. I worry to my professor that I only write in one mode: melancholy. When she asks what I think I should be writing, I tell her that I feel I should try writing something funny, or light. For balance. There is a thoughtful pause while she appraises me. She says, You sound a little bit like someone trying to be well-rounded for a college application.

 Oh. I recognize myself in that comment as soon as it leaves her lips. I wonder if that really is the root of my anxiety, and whether it’s just another version of the inner critic, who worries too much about what other people will think. That inner critic is so very good at casting doubt. My professor goes on to say, then, that we all have our obsessions. People are in the period they’re in, and they have to fully inhabit that period, and at some point they’ll feel like they can move on, but they don’t have to…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we gravitate towards our material: whether we choose it or whether it chooses us. And while I can’t really know how other writers work, I suspect that very few of us would claim that we are wholly in control. I’ve found that the muse has little regard for my intentions–I sit down to write this kind of story or that, but in the end they inevitably depart from such plans. As they should.

Sometimes I think that all we can do is pay attention, and to write where our energy lies.

It’s different for everyone–perhaps you walk through your life gathering the seeds of nascent stories. You might feel the heat coming most strongly off of your deepest fears. Or maybe your subjects simply appear to you, unbidden flashes of lightning. And who can say why these differences of approach, or why some things call to us and others don’t. Who can say why I return again and again to mothers and children, to animals, to magic. It is tempting to psychologize, or to try to apply reason, or balance, but I don’t know anymore. Maybe it is necessary for the mysteries of creation to remain beyond us. 

Tony Hoagland wrote of poets’ obsessions, though I think it an apt observation for any writer: “A mature poet may not know how to command obsession, but understands how to transfuse material into it and then to surrender. The obsessed psyche knows unerringly where to go, like a Geiger counter to uranium, or a dog to his master’s grave. Lucky dog, to have a master.” This idea of surrender–so hard, so true. Writing is a calling, and we come to answer a summons. What that summons sounds like or where it comes from is, perhaps, less the point than that we respond to it at all. 

We are lucky dogs, indeed. 

-Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

 

Applications for WROB Emerging Writers’ Fellowships Due January 15, 2016!

Do you need a place to write?

WROB loungeThe Writers’ Room of Boston offers a 1,600 square-foot light-filled space with ten carrels, a small lounge, a kitchenette, a bathroom, and– best of all– a supportive and engaged community of writers. Every year we offer four fellowships to emerging writers in the greater Boston area who would otherwise be unable to afford the standard cost of membership. We are located near historic Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, with easy access to public transportation. Our membership is composed of new and established writers who produce fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, young adult and children’s literature, comics and graphic novels, plays and memoirs. Join us!

For more information about our Fellowship program, please visit: http://www.writersroomofboston.org/fellowship/

Fellowship applications will be accepted until midnight on Friday, January 15th.

Writer’s Resolutions

Happy New Year! The slate is clean. It’s time for some New Year’s Resolutions, for the writer:

  1. I will write.
  2. I will not procrastinate.
  3. I will write 1,500 words a day. If I cannot generate that much text, I will edit an equal number of words.
  4. I will not distract myself with Facebook or Twitter; I will write.
  5. I will not write about my dates, because that isn’t nice.
  6. I will not let rejections, from whomever or wherever, come between the page and myself.
  7. If I cannot help myself from writing about my dates, I will change names to protect the innocent. (If my date is a jerk, I will be exempt from this resolution.)
  8. I will get up every morning at 5 a.m. and write for two hours before getting showered and dressed for my day job.
  9. I will not hit the snooze button more than twice.
  10. I will make sure to feed and brush my cats, even if they can see that I have a “Do Not Disturb” sign beside my writing desk.
  11. I will write during my lunch hour, and on the train.
  12. I will not feel badly about myself as a writer, even if I hear of another writer’s jackpot success after I receive three rejections in one half hour.
  13. I will not despair; I will write.
  14. Every time I receive a rejection, I will send my work to five more publications/agents/editors.
  15. I will email my submissions; I will not pay for postage or reading fees.
  16. I will focus on the art of writing and ignore the business of writing, so as to not stymie my writing mojo.
  17. I will not allow my doubts or the doubts of others to stop me from reaching my goals.
  18. I will respect the cone of silence in the Writers’ Room, except in the kitchen, where talking is allowed.
  19. I will write.
  20. I will practice good posture while I’m writing and not hold tension in my back or neck or arms or jaw; I will not end up at the chiropractor’s office weekly.
  21. I will buy that ergonomic chair, when I have enough money.
  22. I will keep my wrists level when working on my laptop, and remember to blink often in order to prevent eye dryness and fatigue caused by staring at the screen.
  23. I will go to the gym to keep in shape (and to sit in the steam room, sauna, and/or whirlpool), not to delay writing.
  24. I will drink only green tea and ice water, and eat just one square of a 70% cacao dark chocolate bar per day.
  25. I will shut out the voices that tell me I shouldn’t write this or that.
  26. I will envelope myself in that sweet spot between my heart and mind.
  27. I will write.

Tracy Strauss, 2015 WROB Nonfiction Fellow

Community

The introvert in me recoiled from social interaction at a writer’s residency I attended a few years ago, not because I wanted a hermetic life in which I spoke to no one for weeks on end, but because I wished to emerge from those isolated writing sessions under no particular social pressure. I ate three meals a day (glorious meals that someone else cooked for me—with no need to clean dishes after) with others who (perhaps) wanted to talk more than I did about what they were working on, how it was going, or just—talk. I had to eat, so I went to a busy dining room after a day of seeing no one. As I walked there, I felt my energy buzz fizzle as I put my world-face on. There was loads of wine—I was not the only introvert. Afterwards, people disappeared quickly to their rooms, their computers, desperate to reclaim an alpha state. The pressure is on when one’s writing room must be paired with a social life.

When I enter the Writers’ Room, I have a private space, but I’m not alone. If I see a friendly face while there, I can engage—or not—but the entering, the working, the exiting the room—is a fluid, quiet transaction.boston_front copy

It is, in fact, a flourishing microcosm, and one I have come to anticipate. There I have a desk space, but also a comfortable reading space. I have, in essence, my first studio apartment where I spent my year of graduate creative writing work at Boston University—only bigger. The gym, in its way, is a microcosm, too, but it is utilitarian. When I tell people I’m going to the Writers’ Room, and they look at me as if I’ve said I’m going to the gym, I want to insist on the difference—it’s not just that I’m doing something positive for myself, it’s freedom and succor. Organization and generation. It’s the light. It’s the near perfect quiet. It’s the lack of interaction.

On one of my most productive, happiest days, I remember being there completely alone, spread out in the reading area, listening to the traffic below. Most days there are others in the room, but with no additional pressure to network or compete. Nowhere else have I ever learned so much about my community by entering the bathroom. By which I mean the active, ever-changing blackboard used for notes, information about readings, suggestions for gatherings, etc. We are here even when we are unseen.

We move together, fluidly, many of us working at a slug’s pace. Occasionally one of us squeaks a chair, or puts on a coat. Time’s up, but I hardly noticed it go by. The other day, someone was banging for someone else on the back door. We forget our keys, we stare mindlessly, we clear our throats in our common space.booth.gulls

Yesterday, helicopters were everywhere outside, the steady chopper sound impossible to ignore, even from the cocoon. The world is out there. If I could tame it, I would. When I leave, I have all the people I could possibly need—a city of people—and I transition in the crowd.

The space is one in which I would like to live. But it’s the transient life of the renter, the city life, the life of keys in my pocket and the electricity of exchange.

—Valerie Duff, 2015 WROB Poetry Fellow