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.