Sunday, 12 June 2011

Broken: Interruptions and Writer’s Block

I’ve been popping my head out of the rabbit hole and scanning the horizon now and then. I can’t say there are many pleasant sights. The world seems to be teetering on the brink of – um, something . . .

Summer is usually a light-hearted, energetic, and creative time for me, but what I’m feeling most is uncertainty. Like I’m the smackee caught in a perpetual smack-a-mole game, bracing for the next blow.

This is not good form, entertaining all these restless and doomerish thoughts. Perhaps the wave of current events predisposes me to a semi-permanent state of post-traumatic stress disorder.

At any rate, a lot of things seem to be broken.

I’ve had a solid week of broken stuff. This means my projects go on hold while I engage in necessary repairs and purchases. It means I struggle for an hour to right a confused printer only to have it suddenly refuse to communicate with the computer again for the tenth time. When I go out and buy a new printer, instead of relief, I find I’ve just spent over an hour carefully choosing a rather handsome one for the combination of features, reputation, and cost, only to find that it has a fatal defect. Instead of rebirth and renewal, I have a stillbirth on my hands. Only I don’t know about the defective chip in the printhead tape until I’ve struggled with the installation for three hours and finally call technical support in the morning.

When I rebox the darn thing, drag it back to the store, exchange it, and reinstall the (second) new one (in minutes this time), then the landline goes out. There’s some sort of area problem, only I don’t figure that out until I’ve spent a half hour trying to post a repair order online, and then another half hour spinning in an endless voice mail loop when I reach for the cell phone. When one of my loved ones gets through the loop on their first attempt, I know I’m a magnet for jellyfish.

At least the landline dial tone spontaneously reappears, but when that’s a go, the garage door opener expires. Then the internet goes down about the time the garage door guy has replaced the switch three hours after his ETA. Only the internet doesn’t come back up with the usual “repair connection” mouse click. Some human genius who refuses to own up to the deed has tried to clear the router and modem by disconnecting cables rather than the power cords, and placed one back in the wrong jack. Why is it we check the thing that matters most last?


I have a new keyboard for my laptop sitting in its shipping box – you know all the rules about water and keyboards – but now I’m afraid to install it. This should be a simple 15-minute operation, but the way things are going, I have visions of my beloved and invaluable laptop disintegrating or exploding into space if I touch a screw.

In between my technology struggles are a whole raft of things that go along with having two teens leaving the nest – graduation preparations, college loan documents, entrance essays and videos, and on and on – you know, normal put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other stuff that should go well but doesn’t always, eating up the hours.

The good thing is that these jellyfish – piles of them! – are small obstacles. I’m thankful for small obstacles and disasters because they seem to dispel even larger obstacles and disasters and give me something to blog about.

Sometimes I find that these involuntary breaks from writing do me some real good even though I chafe at them. I get insanely happy when I finally have a workday with no interruptions. Karma, or fate, or that gosh darn cruel muse gave me a break one day out of the last ten. I don’t mean a break from my writing, but a chance to write for a change. I latch onto a chance to write like a mutt with a tasty bone. I growl at others to stay away, something I need to work on.

Anyway, I spent a good twelve hours that day frolicking in a manuscript and revising. I found that my absence from the work was a boon. I re-entered the project with a fresh and eager mind, re-visioning the strengths and weaknesses of it in a new light, which is really the point of writing and editing, no?

This is why it’s always good to slow down and let your work simmer. It’s natural to do this after completing a draft, but sometimes these infernal and frustrating breaks in the middle are even better. My subconscious mind seems to have worked that much harder for me while I was whinging (as they say in the UK, rhymes with binging) over the interruptions than it would have with my active, daily participation. Sometimes our subconscious minds just need a little space.

Life is funny like that. Things happen for a reason, and sometimes dealing with stuff like broken printers, phones, routers, and garage door openers has a cosmic overtone (I picture confronting a jellyfish and having a sundog burst out of it, sci-fi style).

You could apply this principle to difficult manuscripts and the spectre of writer’s block. I’ve never felt that there is such an animal. Yes, there are times when writing doesn’t go well or fallow periods (I typed gallow periods!) in which the spirit is willing but the mind goes blank.

Stuckness always happens for a reason. More often than not, writer’s block is simply a signal that there’s something wrong with a manuscript. Our subconscious minds know this and refuse to go further until the problem is corrected. The problem could be an awkward scene, a character defect, or that we’re telling a story from the wrong POV. Whatever the issue, we’re grounded until we’ve solved it. We often refuse to accept this and keep trying to go over, under, or around the problem rather than letting the work simmer.

These writing dilemmas usually fall away with a sudden realization. This may not happen as quickly as we’d like. In fact, I can despair here again why we check the thing that matters most last. At any rate, these creative impasses are rarely solved by the rational mind. Solutions seem to appear from the intuitive netherworld, a gift from the subconscious mind. This undermind, as I call it, basks in creative ferment and works very hard on our behalf. All we have to do is wait patiently (or impatiently, as is often the case) until it sends up a eureka moment signal. 

Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask the subconscious mind to help, please-please. Like anyone else, it responds nicely to well-mannered requests. Asking may even spur it to respond quicker. The subconscious mind also works when we haven’t asked it to, as in the case of my string of interruptions being rewarded with a little more clarity when I returned to my work.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can use these broken times to our advantage. They don’t feel good, but sometimes the struggle opens up to become the path. Not that it’s easy to let go and let things happen naturally. This takes practice and lots of reminders. Building new, positive habitual patterns is as hard to accomplish as undoing negative habitual patterns. Clue: in Buddhist philosophy, it’s said that more miseries come from trying to avoid misery. . .

So celebrate your broken moments. Embrace uncertainty. Do what you have to do. Have faith that your subconscious mind works even when you can’t. Have patience. Just keep going.