Friday, February 3, 2012

800 Words: Writer's Block

I get writer’s block, awful writer’s block. I always have. For months, you can write at a steady stream with no interruption and make all sorts of plans for future projects which you see no reason to believe will remain incomplete. But one day the words dry out, you can’t imagine anything on the blank screen and the ability to merely face it becomes onerous. Eventually, you’d much rather watch TV.

And even in those moments when the words do come, there’s a 50/50 shot that you can’t finish it. Sometimes you’ve written four excellent paragraphs only for the fifth to fail you, so you skip paragraph five with the intention of doubling back. Six and seven come easily, but paragraph eight is similarly uncooperative. You begin to lose your concept, paragraphs nine and ten are muddled at best, and by paragraph 11, you’ve lost the entire train of the argument. The words don’t come, and there’s no way to form the concept you have in your head. “Onto the next post!” you say, only for the next post to be still more fraught with difficulty than the last one.

I’m sure that every writer has a different reason for writer’s block. Mine is usually a failure of nerve, not ability. The ability to write like me doesn’t necessarily require talent, but it requires an army of nerve. It requires the ability to have no compunctions about writing whatever personal stuff pops into your head with as little filter as possible, because once the censor gains a foothold, it’s nearly impossible to get him to back down.

Nerve is my most reliable friend. Without him, I’d have been lying for the last twenty years on my parents couch in a fetal position, my thumb in my mouth. It always surprises people when I say that I’m an extremely shy person, but I am, and I’ve been compensating for that ever since I’ve had memories.

In my twenties, I’ve heard over and over that watching me at parties is a bit like watching a cartoon character or performance art - in which I might say or do something so completely outrageous that it can’t help be remembered five years later. Knowing some of the stunts I’ve pulled in social situations, I can’t call this a lie. No one has less shame than I about making a fool of himself, or saying outrageous things about others. It’s my job. Wherever I go, I’m the court jester - and however debasing it is to be a such a clown, the jester is still the second-most powerful person in court, saying out loud with impunity what others never dare.

So whatever I say out loud to embarrass myself, others can’t say before me. But this description is entirely at variance with the person I know myself to be - not because I consider myself particularly deep, only because I consider myself extremely inhibited. I’m far too happy being alone for 48 hours at a time to be anything resembling an extrovert. The person I am in public, hilarious as I might find him (and as others do too - occasionally), is absolutely not me. I’m far too uncomfortable around people to let the real thing out. It makes me a very good performer and a very fine conductor for certain musicians (though an equally awful one for others). Like all introverts, I prefer a gathering of 3 friends to 30. And like all performers, I prefer an audience of 300 to 30. The problem is neither intimacy nor crowds, the problem is a large gathering of individuals. The small crowd is my mortal enemy. The worst part of any day is the moment after I’ve said something awful and am waiting for a reaction - it might be laughter, it might be a grimace, it might be a slap. How much more compounded is that reaction when you have to earn the laughter of 11 friends rather than 1? And because I so dread the small crowd, I’ve become uncommonly good at entertaining it.

Nowhere is this more the case lately than with my 30th birthday party. Thirty is not the worst of the arbitrary birthday milestones, but it is the first of the bad ones. Once you’ve hit thirty, you’re unmistakably ‘over-the-hill.’ From thirty until whenever it is, you are officially past the extent of your physical, mental, and emotional capacities. If some people, more worthwhile people, peak past thirty, it’s because they learn how to better manage whatever resources they have left. But what is worst about turning thirty is the knowledge that, for the first time in your life, you’re working with less potential than you ever had before. From thirty onward, the limitations just keep growing. So it’s safe to say that I’m dreading this birthday, and all the moreso given the new situation in which my life finds itself.

About two months ago, as the move to my new apartment reached a fever pitch of complications, landlord arguments, and DIY furniture disasters, a thought occurred to me that saddened me terribly. It’s only when all this moving is finally done that the real work begins. I may have grown up in Baltimore, but I’ve long since turned Washingtonian - for a decade, virtually all my friends have either lived or moved away from DC, all the hangouts I knew were in DC, and DC is still the only city around which I can drive without being guaranteed to get lost. Without having ever held a paid political position, I’d become fixated on following politics as only a longtime Washingtonian can be. I moved to Baltimore permanently to take a job in the ‘family business’, but aside from this business, I have no business in Baltimore. It’s a city I neither understood nor appreciated as a kid and swore that I would leave the moment I got an opportunity and never return. Now that the two-month nightmare of moving is over, I’m now living the second nightmare of making peace with the city I so hated as a teenager.

So I therefore thought to myself about how best I could ease myself into this ‘city transfer’ in which a mere 40 miles makes the difference between home and a strange land. I have no reason to think that my DC friends will ever visit me in Baltimore except to trust that they will visit this underrated city (and friend?) out of the goodness of their hearts - you will...won’t you??? Certainly, I will get to know plenty of Baltimoreans before long, but the road to social business currently requires two hours of driving. Perhaps I could have an event - not immediately, but soon - in which I can introduce my newfound cohorts in Baltimore to my eight divisions of DC cohorts so that I might create one giant DC-Baltimore legion. But I have no wedding and certainly no Christening with which I might summon friends soon from near and far. All I have is that dreaded, awful thirtieth birthday which I would prefer to call a regular day in the life of a twenty-six year old.

And so I decided to put on a thirtieth birthday party. I come down to DC all the time, it’s high time people came to Baltimore for me - and come they are. People look to be coming not only from DC but from Maine, Boston, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Phoenix, and San Francisco also. But such an event is no easy task to put together. Merely putting the date together has already been the cause of multiple awkward emails. Now, let’s be clear, these emails were in no way awkward - ok...that’s not entirely true... Most of these emails were in no way awkward. They were merely awkward in my head and shall remain so until the moment this party is over.

Just to give one example: there is a friend of mine, not a close one, but one whom I’ve long thought I could be better friends with, but for whatever reason we’ve always remained on opposite sides of the social circle. Perhaps this person doesn’t particularly like me, and frankly I’m long past the point of caring. But this person’s been dating a girl for a number of years, and when they first got together I made a point of being very nice to the girlfriend. In the three odd years since they became an item, they’ve become the inseparable couple “____ and _____”, one very nearly as much a part of the social circle as the other. And so after I sent out the email, I got an email back from the ‘girlfriend’, who says “As always, thanks for the heads up:).”

A perfectly legitimate, polite response. But the neurotic in me reads the “As always” and thinks “.....Oh dear...” To a normal person, this no doubt means ‘you’ve always been considerate.’ But this is me about whom she’s talking about, and I’m generally of the opinion that I’m quite obnoxious, so how could she possible think better of me? My instinct tells me that there is a 70% chance that this means ‘Shut the f&^% up already!!’

So after five seconds of thought, I respond with what I think is precisely the right balance of self-deprecation and sincerity. “As always, clogging your inbox is the least I can do:).” If I sent too many emails about the party, as I no doubt have, this is the perfect way to shrug it off/apologize. So I send it off, and I think nothing of it for fifteen minutes.

…”as always, clogging your inbox is the least I can do :)”....

‘Clogging your inbox....oh god....that’s a double entendre. Does that sound like I might be making a pass at her? Oh god, it kind of does. And if that sounds like I’m making a pass, it’s the single worst pass in the history of emails. Oh god, I honestly don’t know which bothers me more: the fact that it sounds like I’m hitting on her, or the fact that it would be the clumsiest pass ever...Well she is attractive, maybe you subconsciously inserted a Freudian slip. Isn’t ‘insert’ a Freudian slip? Oh my god, SHUT UP EVAN!’

And knowing myself as I do, I guarantee you that I will anxiously pursue this line of thought once a day nearly every day until this party. It’s bad enough to live in dread of being an inconsiderate douche who would hurt one’s friends. It’s bad enough to live in dread of being a total social idiot. But to be both simultaneously is a dread I don’t wish on my worst enemy. Furthermore, I guarantee that the one thing to make me keep worrying in precisely this loop is to write about it and post it. Which I shall soon do. As always, self-deprecating comedy is much more important than the stability of friendships.

And therein lies the problem. I have become far too self-revealing in what I’ve written on this blog. It’s become like a substance addiction whose presence or absence defines my life. I used to be the person who laughed at people who post personal things on blogs, now I’m that person with a vengeance, and it only took three months.

In my case, I’m positive it started around the time I started that series called ‘My Generation.’ I’m neither proud nor ashamed of it, it was a risky piece that contained some of my best and worst writing. But what it required was that I had no shame about writing about all sorts of things, be it my ‘struggles’ with family, schools, health, employment, or relationships, it would have required me to write as though I have no concern as to what I write online about myself. The reason I was able to do it is because, to a certain extent, I don’t. I don’t care what most people think of me, because frankly, most people are at least as idiotic as I am. Those who understand the spirit in which such writing is intended probably had certain moments in their life when they were as idiotic as me. Those who wouldn’t understand it are idiotic in completely different ways.

But eventually a few realizations face you whether or not you face them: the first of course is that the world is run by such idiots, and they’re usually of the latter camp - it’s amazing how often power and humor don’t correlate. The employment world might be able to take on a person who struggles with learning disabilities and depression, but they’d emphatically not take a person who struggles with some of the things I’d planned on writing about later in the piece. What are they?....Know me better, then maybe I’ll be idiot enough to tell you.

The second realization is that when you start trafficking in untrammeled self-revelation, the rest of your writing becomes a slave to it. Once you begin to talk about the more vulnerable parts of the self, you have to cross every “t” to make sure that everyone who might be affected by what you say takes minimal offense. Once you start dealing in ‘baggage’ and the effect it has on the people around you, you have to give every nuance of their side, even if it compromises your own. When I ended Part I of ‘My Generation’ with the line, ‘love will be what saves us.’ I’d been inspired to write the piece by the wedding of two friends, and I found myself quite moved by my own writing. It seemed like precisely the right note upon which to end the first part of that piece that would eventually build in part-five to a tableau from the wedding. But now, three months later, I can’t bare to look at it. I have no idea if love will save us or me or you or anyone else, there are plenty of people it hasn’t saved.

It was right around the time I wrote this piece that I started getting the complements of people from the ‘homestead’ who’d apparently been reading the blog and awoke quite suddenly to the fact that I could write. It’s wonderful to get those complements, but I can’t help wondering if my writing would even have been noticed had I written something less complementary, regardless of quality. The truth is, I have no desire to write anything uncomplimentary, and I don’t think there is anyone there deserving of anything uncomplimentary written about them publicly - it’s one thing to write about yourself, another entirely when it’s about others. And this problem wouldn’t even exist if I didn’t have so many more uncomplimentary things to say about myself than about others. So as the saying goes,...never look a gifthorse in the mouth, or at least that’s what I was taught in Pikesville.

The third realization, and perhaps the most important, is that writing about oneself can be like an addiction. There is only one thing more solipsistic than sitting at a computer to write, and that’s sitting at a computer to write about yourself. We’re not all Montaigne, and there is only so many interesting thoughts about oneself one can have without boring the crap out of us all. There’s no prize for digging into the ever more insignificant trivialities of your own existence except the one you give. The subject of this blog is supposed to be whatever interests me, and it’s given me a more inexhaustible stream of writing than I ever thought would flow. I would not like to learn in twenty years that the subject that most interested me was myself.

So I will try to get back to more substantial essays on this blog. However daunting it seems, however much hard work it is, I should write more like my ‘early stuff’, in which I wrote long essays on Jon Stewart and Johnny Cash and J.K. Rowling and other people whose names begin with Jo. As for all that leftover unfinished material, maybe it can fit into other essays. Perhaps I can use it as interesting anecdotal material that will add color to whatever ‘substantial’ essay I’m writing at the time. Though maybe it’s not defined enough...maybe it needs more back story....


  1. I promise you that Baltimore can be an enjoyable city— just steer clear of Pikesville. In fact, best to just not count the County as Baltimore proper.

  2. I will certainly take that advice to heart. I should have years ago. How are things Adina?