I came out of a nearly twenty year writer's block this year. I was only sure I was in the clear when I looked across an autumnal table in a Santa Fe monastery—introducing myself as a fiction fellow for Jack Jones Literary Arts—and dizzy with altitude sickness and the joy of newfound friends. Up until now, the story to my visual career was in part due to—or as I liked to tell it, inspired by—a dreadful literary block so occlusive I turned a handful of finger puppets created during those nights of insomnia into an illustration and design business. It was and still remains a truthful tale, but not without some key discretions.
Got married. Got tired of the black ice in Michigan. Followed the siblings from Ann Arbor to San Francisco. Set up a desk by the only window in a studio apartment overlooking an Edwardian manse and set out to write the great novel. These details were fitting for design interviews about my business. Forget that I was sleeping more on the couch than the bed. That I knew the velour stripes on the bottom cushions were wider than those on the back rests—I even counted them in the months I convalesced on them, sick from the hidden black mold creeping up the seams of our closet walls. Forget that I spent the next year in a new apartment with no mold, a perfect view of Sutro Tower and still could not write. I was, of course, omitting the gravest facts—that my ex was suffering a depression that was pulling me under. That I was told my writing and the visual and non-fiction books that followed did not belong to me but to him as his allowances in our relationship. These were sentiments which bore into my temples and rung like bells between my ears. It wasn't until the year of political upheavals, Me Too's and marching down Market Street in protest with my son, that new bells, new sounds, began to inhabit my heart.
Some psychologists cast off writer's block to be a myth, a self-selected pathos. Writer's block is not an affliction, it is a choice, an old professor once said. Deconstructed, in layman's terms, this simply means lazy and undisciplined to me. I prefer what editor and writing coach Susan Reynolds deems as an arduous mental process not for the faint of heart—that writing is a balancing act of not just technical competency but also being able to progress forward with a fair amount of uncertainty. It was the uncertainty in my own life which arrested me from being able to explore the same for my characters—how could I take guardianship of them if I did not believe in my own personal narrative?
Fast forward to a few months ago when I wrote Linda Swanson-Davies to thank her and Susan for all they have delighted and inspired in the years. Glimmer Train has surely influenced its writers and readers in a myriad of ways—for me, before the writer's block, when I was young and headstrong and undaunted, I had won a Glimmer Train award for my short story. I was touched and surprised when Linda kindly wrote back in encouragement, bestowing me with two letters she found from the archives. I was moving around so much in grad school I never received them. The first was a nomination of me as a scholar at Breadloaf, and the other, a letter from the then executive editor at Hyperion requesting to meet me and see the manuscript for my novel. It was a humbling effect, something of a great reminder and relief. That I was believed. More so, that my writing was believed. And that my writing did not belong to someone else. In fact, some might say it was derailed, that the block in and of itself was a shield of resistance to such entitlements.
What Susan Reynolds and other professionals have advised is to simply plod on. Wait the sucker out. Do it by remaining active in something. Progress. Even it if takes twenty years. I used my block as a promise to myself. If I was able to escape the relationship which was binding me, I would reach new truths about myself and I would have the capacity to win my writing back. Writer's block was never a 'battle" for which I sparred against—it was a beacon, a mirror to the deepest parts of myself. When I freed myself from others' lies and accusations, when I started believing in myself and putting myself into the hands of others who believed in me, the molting began—the voice came back—and writing, in all of its uncertainties and quirks became trustful of me again.