Getting an ‘A’ in Writer’s Block

September 16, 2010 at 12:54 am 1 comment

There it is. Another week creeping by, and the unwritten blog post lurks in my head, but just out of reach.

the brick wall

I know writer’s block. You could even say I studied it in school. Or at least, that’s when I had my first encounter with the psychic annoyance of it all.

The summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I attended the summer session at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. My “major” was Creative Writing. Six days a week, I would be working on writing. Every two days a paper was due.

I actually really lucked out with my class. I inadvertently ended up with the most sought-after teacher from the winter session, an English teacher/poet who was, at the time (and probably still to this day), one of the most generous, passionate, funny and interesting people I’d ever met.

He was the kind of person who would read a line of poetry and say, “Man, isn’t that amazing? I wish I’d written a line that ended with the word ‘leeks.'”

And suddenly you were wishing you’d written a line ending in vegetables, too.

Saturdays are for Sleeping

At our first Saturday class, he greeted us with eyes at half-mast and said, “It’s July, it’s 9 am on a Saturday, and we’re in a classroom. Let’s never do this again.”

So he made a deal with us: Go to the author readings that were to be held occasionally on campus in the evenings, and we would never have to go to class on a Saturday again. It was a deal we all kept, happily sleeping in on Saturday mornings as our roommates grumpily trudged off to class.

He wore black every day and had outrageously undecipherable handwriting. We all thought he’d probably lived some crazy life somewhere along the way, but we knew that now he lived in town with his young daughter, a precocious and cheerful six year old.

He taught us that, whether you liked a book or not, finding a beautifully crafted sentence within it could be the ultimate payoff. It’s what got me through several of the boring reading list books I had to suffer through during my senior year of high school.

He always urged us to keep at it. He could see this great talent in us, even if we couldn’t, or weren’t bothering to look for it. Here was a teacher who really wanted you to believe in yourself and wanted you to succeed.

So yes, I lucked out with him as my teacher. But still, I always had those papers looming in my mind – the writing assignments that were due every other day.

You see, my problem was inspiration. What to write about? I could ace a journalism class or essay questions on a test because I had topics. Nonfiction was easy.

The be-creative-every-other-day writing assignments at Andover were another story altogether. Sitting in the library, trying to come up with something to say, I would just feel stuck.

gimme inspirationAnd so I began to write about my surroundings. Whether the assignment was a poem of a specific style, a short story or a piece of prose, it seemed like all of my writing themes gradually started to center around the library.

And then they started to get weird.

I remember one poem focused on the fan blowing behind the librarian’s desk, before devolving into some kind of ominous horror story. Another one centered almost entirely on my book bag, sitting on the floor of the library by my chair.

It was some seriously bad stuff.

It wasn’t just me. One of my best friends got into the habit of writing his assignments at breakfast right before class. His papers began to take on themes like cereal and French Toast and bacon.

But the critiques were never what we’d think they’d be. No matter how much we may have felt we were tapping a dry well, our teacher always found something. “See, you think you just threw this together, but look at that great internal rhyme!”

Eventually, I broke out of my library phase. (I’m guessing I found some places other than the library to do my writing.) And my teacher’s confidence in my abilities seemed to seep into my own consciousness.

My final project was a collection of pieces, and in his critique, he even made a point to say that the potential shown in my “library meditations” finally manifested itself more fully in my later writings. (I couldn’t believe he actually gave them a name. Ah yes, my Library Meditations!)

It was the best “I told you so” ever.

Years later, I was reading a book by Evan Connell when a sentence stopped me in my tracks:

The fog pressed against the screen door like a person.

“Man,” I thought, “I wish I’d written that line.”

I know who to thank for making me take notice.

sharpen your pencils, class!

So…there’s still the ongoing issue of my blog posts.

Have ideas for topics? Feel free to leave them in the comments. Otherwise, be warned, I could be entering my “Office and Desk Meditations” phase…


Entry filed under: Writing.

A Good Idea at the Time And then I panicked

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