I’ve often said to anyone who will listen that our use of the word “addiction” is far too crude to describe all the myriad ways our restlessness manifests. And then if they’re still listening, I say, it’s like trying to build a house with just a hammer. Similarly, I find the term “writer’s block” to be a bit of a catch all for the assorted means and reasons we skid to a stop on the page.
If you want to see ambivalence in action, visit a memoir writing class sometime. Every fall, my students arrive ready, set, go in the classroom. They’ve paid the hefty tuition, bought the books, sometimes hired babysitters of left spouses to fend for themselves. They’re tired from a day of high-tech or parenting or doctoring or the busyness that is retired life, but they’re determined. They’ve been wanting to do this for years often, and now here it is: their chance to write. And they do! The first few weeks are quite often very productive. Many of them are very excited about how much they’re writing and how well it’s going. But then, for some of them something happens around Week Six. Before my eyes, I watch the expressions morph from “Here I go!” to “Why am I doing this again?”
I don’t always know what’s going on (and frankly at least one student will flat out disappear), but I’ve talked to enough of them and watched my own experience with writing memoir to have a pretty good idea of what happens. At first–it seems to me–they’re writing that story that they came to the class to write–their story–but then as the pages wear on, a darker story beckons, an understory starts to emerge from the lake of memory. It’s a bit of a Loch Ness Monster, this story. Hard to corral and certainly not something to be shared with friends and family. It’s that knee-level story Frank McCourt and I talked about. You can veer around it and return to the surface, but once you’ve seen the face of this story–far more riveting than the one you originally set out to tell, most of the time–it’s a bit tricky to let it go. Part of you wants to follow it. Where will it lead? What will you know after you follow it? And then, there’s the sane part of you that has to get up in the morning and resume high-teching or parenting or doctoring. That part is saying, “Hey, what’s on the telly?” or “Why don’t you go make yourself another cup of tea?”
It’s a bit of a make or break time. A time most of us want to call “block,” like an iron fence that’s suddenly been dropped down from the heavens for no apparent reason. I’m happy to say that most of my students make it through this and somehow keep showing up at the page, doing their best to tell their stories the best they know how.