Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dealing with Writer's Block

A while back—I think it was in mid-April—I was confronted with a notion that stopped me dead in my tracks. It came from an unlikely source: Billy Bob Thornton, who was promoting his new book A Cave Full of Ghosts on Craig Ferguson’s “Late, Late Show.”

Billy Bob’s a lot smarter than people give him credit for; his acting in “Sling Blade” and other movies sort of stereotyped him as a drawling, drooling good ol’ boy, but I’d like to remind everyone: it’s acting! There’s a reason he won an Oscar™ for saying “Um, hmm” a lot in “Sling Blade.”

While everyone else is looking for the “dish” on Billy Bob’s marriage to Angelina Jolie, I’m fascinated with his take on contemporary culture. “Some guy who slides down a stairway on a skateboard and lands on a pile of cardboard boxes will have a reality TV show the following week.” Billy Bob’s contention that the culture is cheapened by the creation of “celebrities” as autonomous entities with no particular talent, intellect, or ability—i.e. “Snooki” and the Kardashian white trash—spun me.

The idea that really froze me, as a wannabe writer, was what followed. Back in Ye Olde Days, when education was a limited resource, the written word really meant something. “Education”, a.k.a. “book-learnin”, was restricted to a small number of people. Whatever criteria defined this elite class, when one of them wrote something, committing words to paper, the other people who read those thoughts took them quite seriously. Few people knew how to read or write, and relied on the oral tradition of storytelling in social settings for the promulgation of fact, fiction and myth. If somebody wrote something down, it was really important. It might be read by a relatively small number of people, but those people were the ones who would shape the culture and validate ideas that became the bedrock of today’s civilization.

Nowadays, just about everyone knows how to read and write to some degree. When I was about 10 years old, fed up with the frustration of perfecting my 75-words-per-minute two-finger typing technique on a battered Royal portable typewriter, I told my grandmother “some day we’ll have a device where people can speak into a machine, and it’ll write what they say.” I’ve seen two commercials for such a gizmo this very day; it sells for $74.99 and we call it “software.” I refuse to buy the thing, and change the channel when it’s advertised.

I dislike introspection, and don’t want to sound like an elitist. However, I invested a lot of time and intellectual energy into learning the discipline of typing, and the classically correct use of the English language. The fact that some mook in a basement can strap on a headset and babble 2000 words in less time than an FX commercial break is not only unsettling, it’s repulsive. The fact that you’re reading this says volumes about how far education has come; the fact that you’re reading it on a computer says even more. Still, with ten minutes of mindless babbling and three clicks of a mouse, I could have produced and published this same column, which by my rough estimation has taken over two hours so far.

Point is, when I was hit by this suggestion that the written word meant more in the past than it means now, it combined with a perfect storm of circumstances to give me a massive case of writer’s block. Some of the contributing factors included Ms. Possum’s two eye surgeries in March and April, her broken ankle occurring simultaneously, and a harrowing automotive incident where I had to see the scenic landscape of North Georgia spinning past the windshield at 80 miles per hour as we turned 180 degrees on a four-lane in the rain. (No, I wasn’t the madman at the wheel; the fact that Ms. Possum and I were nearly killed by a dumb bastard tuned up on drugs only added to the stress of the incident.)

Just prior to that, I had undergone an epiphany of sorts, short and sweet: “I have nothing to say.”

I am not the voice of my generation. I’m not even sure which generation I belong to. I’m too young to be a Baby Boomer, and too old to be a “Generation X” slacker. It doesn’t matter. My voice is my own; I grew up in the ‘50s, came of age in the ‘60s, and became a true adult in the ‘70s. I don’t know who I might speak for, or what I might say, if someone held a referendum tomorrow and suddenly decided I’m the epitome of the post-hippie polyester mentality. I’m not a politician, and none of my writing—on this blog or anywhere else—is done with the notion that I can promote myself as a celebrity, a force for good, or whatever else accrues from writing stuff down.

I do, however, have a great respect for the written word. Billy Bob is right; when you write something down, it matters more than if you just mumble it on a “reality” show. I learned this early on when one of my mentors—the late, great Celestine Sibley, an award-winning journalist—told me that I could gauge the effectiveness of my writing by the volume of hate mail I receive. (If someone takes the time to read what you’ve written, and then takes more time to sit down and write you back, no matter what they say, you’ve reached them on some deep level.) I learned how to deflect criticism, make people laugh, and cut them to the bone, thanks to the written word. Just as the twelve-year-old boy discovered that learning to play the drums was a great way to impress chicks and get laid, so the older Bob learned that writing well earns respect and recognition; if it’s employed properly. Many things in life—from parenthood to simply earning a living—require personal responsibility, but for the uninitiated, writing is a dark territory where the faint of heart should not venture. Like voodoo, witchcraft, and pop-culture devil-worship, there is something dark and ugly about writing. It’s hard-wired into our brains that the written word carries a unique power and meaning. This is why newspapers are still marginally relevant today, even if the “journalists” who write for them are partisan propagandists telling outrageous lies. “I read it in the paper; it has to be true.”

There were plenty of things that caught my attention and made me start composing blog posts in my head: the Social Studies teacher in North Carolina who never heard of The First Amendment and assured her students that “people were arrested for slandering George Bush”, the pandering of the gay and Latino votes by Osama Bamalama, the burning of assets like Dr. Afridi in Pakistan, who helped us track down and kill bin Laden, the “Fast and Furious” business-as-usual that is burning up today’s headlines, and even the tour-boat captain in Florida who got his hand bitten off and was then charged with feeding the alligator. Things blow past so swiftly these days that I can’t keep a contemporary track on them. I felt fleeting guilt at not passing along my favorite Father’s Day story: the guy in Texas who caught a 47-year-old pervert molesting his 4-year-old daughter, and beat the pervert to death with his bare hands.

In the last couple of blog posts—too long ago, by my standards—I was called out for expressing “liberal talking points.” I since resolved that personal dispute, but it was another consideration in the hiatus of introspection that’s consumed me for the last few months. I had another minor epiphany on that issue: like many liberals, I want what is best for the greatest number of people. Unlike most “progressives”, I realize that the achievement of that lofty goal is only possible by the application of conservative, pragmatic principles. Sorry, Hawkeye; that’s another tough dichotomy to live with.

The thing that broke me loose to at least take a swing at writing again was something sort of flattering someone said to me today: “Whether I agree with you or not, when you say something, you do it with a unique voice that’s informative and entertaining.” [I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.]

I have a problem with that, too. If I wanted to be educational, I’d become a high-school teacher and tell impressionable kids to “ignore alien orders.” If I wanted to be entertaining, I’d take on stand-up comedy, channeling Will Rogers, talking like Larry the Cable Guy, and falling out of my wheelchair if the jokes bombed.

As it is, I’m consumed by [what I consider] righteous anger, distrust of any politician of any flavor, paranoia of any expressed institutional good intentions, and despair that anything I might say or do will ever make a difference in anyone’s life. My initial realization that “I have nothing to say” has devolved into a desire to not insult the intelligence of my Constant Readers by stating and re-stating the obvious, especially regarding politics. I don’t need to explain to anyone with three brain cells to rub together that the government has failed, there is no leadership extant, and we’re going to Hell in the proverbial hand basket. My personal views on morality and cultural mores matter even less; like Popeye, I am what I am, and no one else could care less. I’m not an example or role model, good or bad, although most people would regard my life as a cautionary tale. Don’t try this at home, kids; we’re professionals.

And, to add to all this existential angst, there’s the inescapable fact that I’m closing in on 60. I never thought I’d live this long, and it’s a minor miracle in itself, but the truly depressing part is that all six decades were spent hurting people and breaking things. The only positive things I ever did were playing rock & roll and making movies for a few years. Those avenues are now closed to me, thanks to my becoming a wheelie, so when I think of writing as becoming my last meaningful outlet, I get a massive case of writer’s block. I have nothing to say.


Blogger camojack said...

For a guy with nothing to say, you're terribly loquacious.

Anyway, my fellow Baby Boomer, (yes, you are!) I enjoyed visiting you once again for a few hours last month

June 21, 2012 8:48 AM  
Blogger Beerme said...

In addition to the fact that you obviously have something to say, we need your voice, Robert. Too often we get caught up with furthering OUR side against the OTHER side, when in reality, OUR side's representatives don't carry out our wishes anyway.

I wrote a long-winded (and brilliant, hehe)"comment", here but it was lost in the blogger black hole. So I need to separate this into two installments, because I'm too vain to just forget it, now, lol! So here is part one:

Our country is exceptional and we are so, mainly because of our Founding Fathers and Mothers. They wrote an exceptional document on which this great country has been founded: our Constitution. It is so exceptional because it lays out good governing principles succinctly and allows for adjustment within these principles. It is further exceptional because it is so prescient. It foresaw the meddling and growth of governments (federal and others) that we have witnessed and it prepared for them. Even with the development of technological expansions that have made meddling exponentially easier and more egregious, our wonderful constitution has the power to save us from all of that by returning government to the proper sphere of influence in our lives, if we let it!

As a quick aside it is interesting to note that this document, as written, included only 4543 words, while most of the big bills our current congress-critters produce have that many pages! This lawyerly insistence on pegging things exactly to the legal, niggling details has produced most of the trouble in this country. (Look no further than our current "constitutional scholar's" work for proof) Most of the time the result is full of more unsuspected and unwanted outcomes than those that were intended.

June 24, 2012 11:58 AM  
Blogger Beerme said...

Often, we may be better off not doing anything about an issue, even though we don't like the outcome, in order to avoid an even worse outcome by encouraging our elected representatives to "fix it" for us. We think they are going to do what we want them to do, or what they told us they would do, when they are FAR more likely to do neither. They are far more likely to do something that barely resembles what we wanted or they said because they have different goals than we. They are oriented towards getting re-elected and that is not our concern, is it?

I could point out thousands of issues that illustrate this condition, both large (Federal) and small (local) but I will point out two that are Federal and one that is local just to make my point. The Bush administration's Medicare Part D prescription drug entitlement and the Obama administration's Patient Affordable Care Act show clearly how this principle works. They are both riddled with unintended (and un-advertised) consequences. And BAD ones! In my state of Michigan, our legislature is engaged in "fixing" the state's relatively new Medical Marihuana law. The fixes are clearly going to be worse than no fix at all.

Which brings me back to my original reason for writing this long "comment": you must keep writing because your point of view is needed and because the political climate which is necessary to bring about the best chance of getting the "right thing" done is getting better every day (as the more optimistic Beatles reminded us back in the day). More and more, people are realizing that they are regularly being duped by their elected officials and that the entire system is being "gamed" to rig the results and to fool the electorate into thinking they're getting somewhere. When a majority realizes this, change will out. We need your voice (and many others) to ensure that this day comes sooner, rather than later.

June 24, 2012 12:00 PM  
Blogger Hawkeye® said...

Hi Possum,

I apologize if I contributed in any way to your writer's block. I guess I came down on you pretty hard, and I've felt bad about it ever since. I guess I was somewhat of a "reactionary" at that point in time (defined as: If you say something that irritates me even in the slightest, then look out, 'cause I'm goin' to "react"!).

I can be a hothead at times, and I've been known to offend family and friends as well as "those people" (as you might say). Again, I'm sorry if I offended you in any way or caused you to withdraw for fear of being mauled by one of your "Constant Readers" (which I am).

Yes, you (like me) are in fact a Baby Boomer. And you are also a GREAT writer. You have a style of writing that is perhaps not exactly "unique", but it is certainly atypical among the general public. And I mean that in a positive way. Your words are more elegant and profound than the average blogger (even when you call someone a "mook").

I hope Mrs. Possum is feeling and doing better after all her recent trials. I wish both you and her (and all your kin too) the very best

Keep writing. I hope to hear more from you in the near future. (And I promise to refrain from acting like some creep out of a slasher movie.)

Sorry I couldn't join you and Camo over the Memorial Day weekend as I had first hoped. Hope you had a good visit. But as I "prophesied", I had to work that weekend...

We are typically a 24/7 operation, so when the plant shuts down for a holiday, you can almost bet I'll have to be there. On Saturday we cleaned out our cooling towers and addressed some problems inside a large dust collector. On Sunday, we shut down the power to the entire plant and cleaned and tested all our electrical switchgear.

(:D) Best regards...

June 24, 2012 2:34 PM  
Blogger Boberin said...

I agree with do indeed have something to say and we are happy you're around to say it. Be well my old friend...even though we are thesame age...giggle...

June 26, 2012 11:09 AM  

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