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3 January 2009

Chip Off That Old Block

Now we come to the Year 2009, and because I’m left so disgusted by what the Year 2008 had to offer, I must deny myself — for today, at least — the urge to rant and cry out, “Enough already!” Instead I’ll will myself into a total change of pace and answer a question frequently asked me by writers, both professional and aspiring, who seem to think I might know something beyond what their Journalism 1 professors professed.

Here we are, once again confronted with that persistent, seemingly undying question: How do you deal with writer’s block? It comes up wherever writers meet, wherever writing is discussed, and, I assure you, the snail-mail and e-mail queries I receive do not escape the drumfire. Obviously, since it’s so heavy on so many minds, the problem can never be discussed too much. So here we go again, the 6,017,895th replay:

Writer’s block is nothing more than the writer’s all-time favorite excuse for not writing.

The phenomenon wears many guises. In the classic version, the writer sits at his keyboard, slack-jawed, vacant-eyed, just south of a coma, an inner voice assuring him that, with this story — finally and at last — he is about to be exposed as the incompetent fraud he has always known himself to be.

Classic or not, most of us rarely experience this extreme form. But most of us do evidence symptoms of the disease, the most common of which are:

  1. The Pencil-Sharpening Ritual, wherein the writer grinds four boxes of new Eberhard Fabers to sooty sawdust so as to delay the writing of his first sentence on the computer.

  2. The Tidying-Up Binge, in which the writer empties his desk drawers, sorts through the forgotten bills and old apple cores, then refills the same drawers with the same detritus. This process is guaranteed to keep one from writing for at least an hour.

  3. The One-More-Phone-Call Stall, a condition akin to panic, which stems from a perceived sense that one’s research is nowhere near complete and that writing, of course, is still out of the question.

  4. The Jeez-I’m-Hungry Syndrome, in which the wavering writer staggers off to the nearest fridge, or deli, or snackbar, or vending machine and consumes 8,000 calories in (name favorite pig-out food). Writing an opening sentence is in no way possible while one noshes, say, cantaloupe smothered in cold pork gravy. Right?

Such silly procrastinating notwithstanding, writer’s block is simply a form of stage fright — a chronic malady suffered by all performing artists, even the most skilled and renowned. Where a great actor might glimpse the audience from the wings and be nauseated by the conviction that he’s about to make a fool of himself, a savvy writing hand might regard his blank screen and, aware of the infinite ways his story can open, be instantly and fearfully certain that he’s about to choose that very one which will most infuriate his editor. Since the seizures are roughly comparable, so are the cures. The actor overcomes his by willing himself on stage and speaking his first line. A writer can recover by willing himself onto the screen and tapping out a single sentence.

For instance:

Say Gump Junction Gazette has assigned you to a story about local traffic light maintenance and you’ve interviewed Sam Frammus, city street superintendent. You’ve got a pad full of notes, all as exciting as last year’s Altoona phone book. You feel the presence of the pencils and the drawers and the fridge, but you stay in your chair and compel your fingers to type:

This story is about traffic lights and how much it costs to keep them working.

(Not much of an opening, to be sure. But keep going — this time with a question.)

So why should the reader give a fig?

(And answer the question with another sentence.)

Sam Frammus, honcho in charge of keeping the damn things working, says it will take $7.5 jillion in new tax money just to make the red, yellow, and green stay in the black. And that, pal, should make you blue.

(All right, can we be serious, please? But wait. Maybe that play on colors can be worked into something. Let’s see. What if we.....)

And the block is magically broken. The writer’s experience and talent have clunked into gear, and he begins to poke and fuss at the root idea, and one word inevitably leads to a phrase, then a sentence, a paragraph, and soon there evolves a workman-like article with a bright and “colorful” opening.

So forget the baloney about “writer’s block.” Forget the pencils and desk drawers and the peanut butter hoagies. Think stage fright. Think like a pro. Think: “Stage fright is a chronic disease. But it’s manageable — treatable. For a cool, professional writer, the first-aid is to write a sentence and to ask and answer a question about it. So what’s the big deal?”

* * *

Heartfelt Thanks

I can’t let 2008 slip by, however, without thanking all of you who have written cards, sent e-mails, and phoned to wish me well during the medical travails that made last year especially difficult for me. If there were ever any reason to be grateful for the physical torment that has belabored me for weeks and months, it would most surely be this blog and the wonderful friends and acquaintances and their fascinating correspondence it has brought into my life.

So many of you, says my international hit-counter service. In so many places — far away and nearby. And while I’m deeply moved by the fact that there are multitudes of you in Jacksonville and New York and London and Washington and Berlin and Sydney, I take special delight in the reports that tell me I have one reader, maybe two, in the distant reaches of Siberia, Greenland, the Outback, and even in China. I often wonder about them and how and why they’ve taken to reading the eclectic fumings and fussings and flapdoodle of some old geezer in parochial St. Augustine. What a hoot! What a spark to the day!

And it’s here where I apologize to each of you I’ve not yet found opportunity to answer personally. Please bear with me, and rest assured that if time and fate allow, I’ll somehow, some day, write you — one on one — to let you know how much I cherish your interest in me and my work. Actuarially, my life is nearing its end, but subjectively you have made the adventure infinitely more exciting and uplifting. God bless you all.


Copyright © 2009 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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