PRIMING THE “WILL” (WRITER’S BLOCK OR WRITER FATIGUE?)

I’ve experienced it before, but never like this, when even the ideas don’t come. Usually, I still get the ideas and can jot them down, but this time I have nothing to jot down, no notes to make. I knew it would happen, but not to this extent…” (From my Writing Journal, July 13, 2002)

The “it” in my journal entry was a long-winded bout with what most writers refer to as writer’s block, but which I prefer to call, in this instance at least, writer’s fatigue, although I didn’t realize the difference between the two at the time. Only by working my way through it and past it did I determine that it was much more serious and far-reaching than the typical writer’s block, and that, as such, needed to be handled a little differently.

I acknowledge and accept writer’s block as a brief stalling period in which I can catch my writing breath, but in which I also want desperately to write something—anything—yet my mind and, consequently, my pen, stalls.

As a parent, I am familiar with stalling. Before we put our son in school, my husband took both of us with him when he went out of town to work on boiler controls. And always, when we ran out of things to do in a “strange” town, we ended up going to the zoo—until our son himself complained, “Not the zoo again!” Then came his school years, and sports. In high school, he anxiously signed up for summer wrestling camp at a college some forty miles from home. But on the day we delivered him to the college campus, and were about to leave him there, he pleaded, “Can’t we go to the zoo?” While he really wanted to go to the camp, he was willing to do anything to keep from being left alone, so far from home, with perfect strangers.

The writing process can be a lonely and sometimes scary one because no one else knows exactly what you have in mind or what you want to see on paper; and you have no way of knowing if a finished piece will be accepted by readers or publishers. Since I already have many publications to my credit, I consider the stalling tactic to be somewhat of a copout, or safety net, i.e., what I don’t write can’t get criticized or rejected. Or maybe it’s just that I know how much work it’s going to be, the revising and rewriting, and that I can’t call on anyone else to help me (or to take me to the zoo). At any rate, it usually doesn’t last long because it can be thwarted by pulling out some of the stops suggested by other writers on the subject: buying a fabulous new journal or a smooth-writing pen, reading books and articles about writing, leisurely walks—anything that will get me back into the swing of writing.

During the period referred to in my journal, however, I knew that I was not dealing with typical writer’s block but with a more deliberate and complete stoppage of work that kicked in immediately after I’d finished an enormous writing project. As an amateur genealogist, I had just put together and published a branch of my family tree that I had been researching, off and on, for some twenty years. I had balked at the idea of getting the family history finished up (as much as any family history can be “finished up”) because I knew that, even though I had already gathered most of the needed information, putting it into book form was going to be a gigantic task. And past history had already shown that when I get deeply involved in genealogy, all else suffers—especially my “everyday” writing. Nevertheless, I set my children’s stories and poems aside and started laying out a hundred pages of historical family facts. At the same time, I mailed out over fifty form letters with return envelopes, in an attempt to gather the latest birth and death dates; scanned hundreds of photos; and set up, printed out, and proofread the final draft of an additional five hundred pages containing the names, dates and places tied to those photos.

By the time the book was printed and distributed to family members, and for weeks afterward, I was physically and emotionally drained, to the point that I couldn’t bring myself to write so much as a personal letter, much less work on a story or a poem. Nor could I face re-reading any of the books and articles on writer’s block that had helped me so many times before, simply because it wasn’t like any writer’s block I had experienced before. Though it had the earmarks of a stall, it more resembled the “let down” feeling I get after a great vacation. I’m home; everything is unpacked and put away; and my mind is still reeling with anxiety as I anticipate sharing the details and photos of my trip with family and friends. At the same time, as I begin to unwind, I find myself rebelling at the thought of starting any new project.

I knew there was work to be done and ideas to be developed, but the words and lines waiting to be written were as elusive as underground water waiting to be coaxed to the surface by an old hand pump—a pump that is just as apt to produce dry squeaks as it is to actually draw water. Still, I know that, when a pump produces squeaks instead of water, it isn’t because there is no water in the well but because the leathers inside the pump have dried out from non-use. The squeaks are merely a signal that the pump needs to be primed with a little bit of water before it can raise a single drop more, and that whoever wants to drink from the well had better have two things in reserve: a little water for the priming plus the determination, or will, to keep raising and lowering the pump handle until water begins to flow.

My husband was the youngest of six children when, at the age of four, he became responsible for keeping a bucket of water in the family house at all times. That meant priming the pump, on his part, and a household of consideration on the family’s part, because every family member knew that there always had to be a little water left in the bucket for priming the pump. So too, serious writers know the importance of the “reserves” they need when it comes to drawing on the “well of ideas” from which stories and books and poems eventually flow—ideas that help avoid, or disrupt, dry spells known as writer’s block. That well can hold anything from a few words, lines, or titles tossed into an ideas file, to a binder or folder that holds beginnings, middles, and endings of works ready to be finished. Yet, no matter how shallow or deep the well, it can’t be drawn on without at least a small amount of inspiration, and definitely not without the will to summon up, or draw on, that inspiration.

I knew that my well was full of ideas just waiting to be raised, however deep they lay, yet I had no inspiration, no enthusiasm, no desire for priming the pump, and my will to raise and lower the handle, to get the ideas to a spot where I could actually use them, had totally gone awry. It was as if all of those reserves were buried at the bottom of the well, under the ideas that couldn’t be raised without them, and there was simply no way to get to them—not immediately, anyway. My only solution was to let go of the handle, walk away from the pump, and leave my “well of ideas” right where they were while I searched for a way to seek out and stir up my “will of inspiration” instead.

Fatigue of any kind, at any level, calls for rest, or at least for taking a break—a vacation, of sorts—from whatever is causing it, and until there is relief from it. Of course, the best way to handle it is to ward it off before it ever gets a foothold. But I had already let it get the best of me, and now I had to find a way to get through it and past it.

My solution included patting myself on the back for the completion of the family history and, in my next mind’s breath, releasing myself from the pressure of thinking that I had to be writing all the time. In fact, I made one hard and fast rule for myself, that under no circumstances would I force myself to write. Then I distanced myself as much as was logical and possible, mentally and physically, from everything that spelled writing to me, namely, my desk, my computer, and the shelf overloaded with binders that hold stories and poems and articles still waiting to be written or finished.

The only writing privilege I did not set aside was that of carrying my writing journal with me wherever I went, and of recording the day-by-day struggle with the fatigue I was experiencing and my progression through it, even though I had no name for it at the time. Most of those journal writings were done in our local mall, or in the public park, after taking a long walk and then just sitting and observing the people and hearing children talking and playing—things that I realized I had not been doing but which had, in the past, helped me fend off or put an end to writer’s block. In the meantime, I waited and watched for any indication of an urge to pick up my pen on a more regular basis, or to look for a book that might spark the muse I knew was hiding somewhere in the offing.

It was several days before I found and purchased a book of haiku. While haiku had always fascinated me, I had not written much of it. But that book prompted me to pick up my pen, and when I did, it was to write pages and pages of haiku—many of which have since been published. In turn, writing haiku led me back to my well of ideas with enough inspiration to prime the pump and enough determination to pump the handle until the words began to flow again.

I only need to thumb through my writing journal to find other, more recent instances of tedious writing projects that have steered me directly into writer’s fatigue. One was the winter I spent retyping and adding photos and documents to the diary I had kept as a teenager (during a two-and-a-half year stint in Australia, with my parents); another was the several weeks I spent editing and typesetting an anthology of poems for the poetry club to which I belong. On the flip side, when I edited and typeset a collection of poetry by an individual member of that club, I was so inspired that, once the book went to print, I sat down and wrote twenty poems of my own, start to finish, in seven days.

Since I will probably never change my habit of jumping headlong into big writing projects that draw me away from my everyday writing, I’ve learned to accept writer’s fatigue as graciously as I learned to accept writer’s block simply because I know that it is not a lasting condition; that it just takes a little more determination to work through it and past it; and that once I’ve done that, I will write again.

For a glimpse into my books, Snaps, Scraps & Snippets of the Past and Present, and Light for the Burning Soul, please visit my website as http://loisjfunk.com. I’d love to hear from you!

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DEALING WITH CRITICS, ONE AT A TIME

The initial publication of my poem “Mother’s Hands” in Ideals Magazine brought on a chain reaction of events, the first of which was an interview and feature article covering the poem and my children’s writing, along with mention of the seventh-grade teacher who had encouraged me to become a writer. The day after the article appeared in a local newspaper, I was contacted by a retired teacher who gave me the then current address of the seventh-grade teacher, in hopes that I would send her some of my published stories. (I did.) The same day, a radio DJ read “Mother’s Hands” over the air; and a few days later, I was invited to take part in the Reading Roundup Program at an elementary school.

The Reading Roundup boasted of local TV celebrities and the County Sheriff, all of whom would be reading stories selected by the Roundup Committee. Also milling around, with pen, pad, and camera in hand, was a reporter named Joe, from a newspaper more local than the last. It was understandably clear that Joe was more interested in the celebrities than he was in me but, eventually, he sat down beside me and asked who I was and what I would be reading. To the last question, I replied, “Three of my own stories.”

Joe’s faint but obvious snicker didn’t set well with my husband Fred, who was sitting on the other side of me and who quietly handed the young man a popular children’s magazine, opened to my 700-word story. As Joe read and turned the first page of the story, he looked up at Fred and said, “This is all in rhyme! And it makes sense! That’s hard to do!”

Leaning back in his chair, Fred merely grinned and said, “Yeah.”

Two days later, Joe’s byline appeared on a feature article with my photo and no mention of TV celebrities or sheriff.

Invitations continued to pour in, the next being from a mother whose son attended the elementary school. She regretted that she hadn’t heard my presentation, but she belonged to a small writers’ group in the area and asked if I’d bring some of my children’s stories to share with its members. When I did, a barrage of questions followed. How had I gone about getting my work published? How much did it pay? And, finally, would I come back again, to share more of my work? I would; and I did. However, by the time the next meeting rolled around, the lady who had invited me to join the group had received a rejection slip for an article she’d submitted to Redbook. Nothing I offered from my experiences with editors/publishers could convince her that it takes time, determination, and a great deal of research to get published, and that rejection slips are simply a part of the writing game. After a long discussion and a few suggestions, she sneered in my direction, “Well, rhyme is easier to write!” What she failed to realize is that, even if the writing itself appears simple, or seems to come easy to the poet/writer, it isn’t easy to get it published, especially by conventional methods (versus self-publishing).

Between meetings with that writers’ group, I received two handwritten letters from members of a local poetry club, both inviting me to attend their club’s next meeting. This time, having learned what I considered a valuable lesson, I left my own work at home and just went to listen to theirs. However, a follow-up invitation assured me that members would like to see and hear some of my work. So, the next time I took along the Ideals Magazine and read “Mother’s Hands.” I felt it went over well until, after the meeting, the same elderly gentleman who had sent one of the first invitations walked up to me, pointed at my poem, and said, “If that was just on a plain piece of paper, they wouldn’t want it,” implying that the artwork appearing with my poem had surely ‘sold’ the poem. Since I never submit artwork with a manuscript, and always submit my work on plain paper, I stood speechless as he went on to explain that he had submitted a handwritten poem, on a plain piece of paper, to a small magazine. When it was returned with a rejection slip, he had pressed on, personally delivering the poem to a local card shop. Again: rejection. I tried without success to explain that there are set guidelines for submitting work to a publisher and/or for even having an editor read your work. At that time (and maybe yet today) writers could submit neatly done, hand-printed manuscripts, but never handwritten. Still, no matter how perfectly a manuscript is submitted, there is no guarantee that an editor will accept it.

Months after I had joined the poetry club, the Church of Latter Day Saints bought second rights, and subsequently all rights, to a story entitled “A Lamb Named Brandon.” The story appeared in their children’s magazine and then in their magazine for all ages, the latter being printed in fifteen languages, for worldwide distribution. With fourteen magazines in tow (all except the unavailable Chinese version), I attended a poetry club meeting, happy to show the story where even my name was written in each corresponding language. But, once again, the same gentleman could hardly wait to look me in the eye and flat-out say, “The only reason they published that is because the Mormon Church is big on names.” And so it went with his critical remarks, to the point that at one meeting, when a club member read an original poem, the old gentleman pointed at me and said, “Give it to her, and it’ll probably get published.” Sadly, he remained bitter toward my being published until the day he died.

Some critics unwittingly reveal a great deal more than they realize about themselves and their own writing goals and missteps. Nevertheless, they keep me on my toes and bolster my resolve to keep writing and submitting my work to reputable publishers. At the same time, however, the more irritating and hurtful remarks end up on my list of questions and “digs” regarding being published—always by those who haven’t been, or by those who just don’t understand what it takes. So it is with pleasure and a smile that I share my condensed list (minus names) of criticisms and remarks, some of which occur time after time:

  • There’s the person who seriously asks, “Are you still writing?” Non-writers don’t seem to understand that a true writer never stops writing. We write wherever we are, about whatever we feel. In fact, as that person is asking if I’m still writing, I’m already conjuring up a way to get that question into an article or an essay (which I’ve just done).
  • There are strangers who see me writing in a public place; ask if I’m a teacher but find that I’m a writer; and immediately ask, with a smirk, if I’ve ever been published. At my “Oh, yes, many times” answer, the smirk usually disappears as the mouth drops open. While some are genuinely interested, then, to know where I’ve been published, others merely say, “Oh,” and walk away.
  • There are readers who imply that they could probably write the same thing, if they just had the time.
  • There was the beloved, elderly aunt who, when she saw “Mother’s Hands” in what had always been her favorite magazine (Ideals) asked, “Did you write that yourself, or did you copy it out of a magazine?” (Talk about bursting a bubble or sending it off into no-man’s-land with one deliberate breath!)
  • There was the family member who sent me a poem he had written, saying that I could use it if I wanted to—hoping to get it published, of course!
  • There was the lady to whom I gave a copy of my Mother’s Hands chapbook, along with a photocopy of “The Miracle Heart” (from another Ideals Magazine). She thanked me for both but, then, looking at the photocopied poem, asked, “Oh, you didn’t just see it somewhere and copy it?” (It has my byline on it, thank you very much!)
  • There was the woman who bought copies of my Mother’s Hands and Sisters chapbooks for two of her friends and, as I was signing them, asked, “Now, the ‘Acknowledgments’ in the front of these books, are those poems by other people?” (I don’t think so!)
  • And finally, there was the writer who claimed to be a friend; who often asked for help with her poetry; and who wanted to see everything I was writing and everything I was getting published. She was determined to do everything I was doing, from writing children’s stories, to essays, to poems (although, she did admit that writing music was beyond her reach). No matter what I’d just had published, she’d read it and say, “I can do that!”  But she didn’t.

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For a glimpse into my books, Snaps, Scraps & Snippets of the Past and Present, and Light for the Burning Soul, please visit my website as http://loisjfunk.com. I’d love to hear from you!