In the post Thou’s Name is Block, I wrote about writer’s block that originates from a fear of the material: if you’re not ready to go there, you’ll find yourself washing dishes or checking email rather than writing. And then, beating yourself up later for not writing. All fun stuff.
When people ask me about my writing routine, I get a little squirrelly. I’m off task as often as I’m on. It’s hard to prescribe that as a way of life. Some of my off-task time comes from that fear of material stuff, but the worst block I ever experienced was rooted in being in over my head, simply not being prepared for the magnitude of the project I was facing.
After two years of course work for a Masters in English Literature, I was faced with the task of writing a 100-page thesis. Until that point, I’d never written a paper longer than the required 20 pages of our seminar papers. The truth was even those always came in a little short, weighing in at a slender 17 or 18. Like I didn’t quite have enough words in me. But it wasn’t so much the number of words as playing games with a required number. If a 15 page paper was required, mine would surely be 13.
Now faced with the heft of 100 pages, I choked. It seemed like I wouldn’t find my way through and all the work of the last few years would be wasted and I would be waitressing for the rest of my life. The following is the first part (maybe there will be three, but based on what I just said, maybe two) of the story of how I got past this block. I share it not because it makes me look like a total dumbo, but because I think the route I found out could be traveled by others.
Once Upon a Block, Part One:
It’s May 1989 and it feels like things can’t get much worse. My boyfriend broke up with me unexpectedly. Really. They say you see it coming, but I didn’t. Okay, maybe three days before I saw. It was an uncleared plate. I made him this amazing breakfast…a crazy thing a woman should never make for a man unless she’s sure sure sure it’s the real thing. A breakfast that included a fresh fruit salad (which involves chopping), an omelet with fresh herbs and cheese (whisking, chopping, grating) and a half an everything bagel (toasting). He ate half of it—that’s fine—but then he left the unfinished plate on the table, my little table in my tiny studio apartment with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I saw that uncleared plate and I thought: Oh boy. There’s a problem here.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. For the three weeks before the pending breakup, I’d been stuck on page 8 of my 100 page thesis. I’d spent the last two years doing the coursework for the Masters in English Literature degree, and all that stood between me and the piece of paper now was this teensy, tiny little thesis. Simple enough. Except, except, except. I got to page 8 and I just couldn’t figure out another word to say. For three weeks, I stared at the thing. I took it over to the Tart to Tart café on Irving and gnawed on it over lattes and giant muffins. I took it home and tossed it onto the rug and wrestled with it down there for a while before finally slumping over my desk and trying to get something, anything else out.
This is 1989, so there’s no googling “stuck on thesis” or “thesis block” or “steps to completing thesis.” I turned to the other grad students, who were either similarly stuck (although I must say it didn’t seem to be of the epic sort of proportions of my stuck) or just racing along typing out the pages as if they were being dictated from on high. “Just do it,” my friend Margit said. She was 25 and already owned a condo somewhere near the end of the BART line, which in itself seemed quite beyond comprehension.
“Isn’t that a Nike ad?” I asked, trying to sound cynical rather than scared.
“Yeah,” she said, “But it works. Tell yourself it’s easy.”
Easy. Okay. Easy. I told myself that but myself just answered back that it was easy for Margit. She’d picked a more comprehensible topic. Mine, I knew, was convoluted—a dash of Foucault, a dash of Derrida, a little Structuralism, a pinch of Post-Structuralism, none of which I fully understood. But if the topic was really hard, that meant I was smart. Although not smart enough, I had to admit, to actually write the thesis.
I called my thesis adviser and told her I wanted to meet. “You have some pages?” She said pages in an ominous way, like maybe the word heroin would be used if this were a drug deal and people who bought heroin actually used the word heroin when purchasing.
“Some,” I squeaked out, and left the dog-eared 8 pages in her box, hoping for a miracle. We met the next week at the Ecumenical House across from the University at the Southern edge of the city where the glamor of San Francisco threatens to become a stretch of identical, nameless suburbs.
“Is this a draft?” she asked. “A rough draft?”
I had no idea how to answer that. I was writing a 100 page thesis. If we’re looking at 8 pages of course those are going to be a “draft.” But the way she said draft, almost like a cough, something to be cleared from the throat, I knew a draft must be a very, very bad thing.
She lowered her voice to an ominous whisper. “Don’t ever, ever give me a rough draft again. Do you understand?”
“I’ve been having some problems.” I thought of the boyfriend breakup but veered away from that, knowing that her disgust would only be magnified by that getting-your-head-messed-up-over-a-boy sort of nonsense. “I’ve been having some problems,” I started again, “managing the project. My time, maybe?”
“I can’t help you with that,” she said, threading an arm through a coat sleeve. “My job is to help you with the content. Get some pages done. Finished pages.”
I rode the M train to the N train and finally was home, where I fell onto my sofa and sobbed. The jig was up. I wasn’t going to be able to do this stupid thesis, which meant the last few years, all the money, energy and time that went into getting this degree were wasted. It also meant….what I’d always feared…that I wasn’t smart, wasn’t somehow like other people who completed things, who had One Real Job (I had two jobs—one as a writing tutor, another as a waitress in an Italian restaurant that served a certain blue-haired San Franciscan of the Tony Bennett era that was on the verge of extinction), who won prizes and scholarships and had relationships that lasted.
Eventually, I must have stopped crying. Crying alone is a thankless task. No one’s there to coo over you, tell you it’s going to be okay or take you out to the Lebanese restaurant on 9th when you’re through. You know this when you’re crying; you know that sometime it will end and you’ll be alone facing the void, the transition in between crying and whatever will come next. Maybe a snack or a walk.
Sometime, over the next few days, I was in the used bookstore on Judah where I came across a book that caught my eye: Working it Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work. The cover reeked of that 1970’s feminism that I’d once dabbled in: a collage of black and white photos of women of all races—black women with afros, fresh scrubbed women with no makeup and hair that didn’t require a professional cut. One sported a bun and a pair of dangling earrings, another sat thoughtfully behind a typewriter. I looked inside: 4 dollars. On instinct, I bought it and scurried back to my little apartment.
To be continued…