Friday, February 18, 2011

Hesitation is a hole in the head

I love you, Mr. Gorey.
Okay, so before I get back to work typing my stockpile inventory into its shiny new Excel spreadsheet, I thought I'd take a break from all this saving and organizing to tell you about why all writing except for the occasional blog post has ceased. I'm frozen, inert, stuck, blocked, constipated and jammed up.

Lies. It's a snarl of lies. Or worse. It's excuses.

I'm cranky is what I am. Cranky. CRANKY. And it's not so much about what I'm writing, but what I'm reading. See, I started working on a nonfiction piece because having two fiction manuscripts in progress wasn't enough fun for this chick. So I decided I'd better check out a few books in the genre or at least related to see if I was doing it right because I'm so tired of doing things half-assed and half-cocked. Man, imagine that guy. Half-assed and half-cocked. Hang on, I've got to go gaze lovingly at my inventory for a second to get my mind to focus. BRB.


Okay - so I'm reading this stack of books and I'm getting cranky because I'm feeling:

A) Shallow, insensitive and unobservant
B) Talentless with the written word and/or simply talentless
C) Provincial and frowsy
D) All of the above

Soooo easy, right?

Let's just take Mary Karr's The Liar's Club. This book is amazing. I tell you that with a straight face even though I'm stuck at page 119. But here's the thing. Here's why I'm stuck. I keep making this book about me. As I read, I wonder what's wrong with me that I don't remember so much detail from when I was nine years old. Anyone who's read this book will tell you that Karr's writing is fabulous. Hell, the paperback has four pages of sparkling blurbs from very important publications before you even get to the title page! It's that good.

But I'm flicking away at the pages engrossed and feeling bad because I had a childhood - albeit not nearly the kind of childhood experienced by Karr - but I was a kid with a dad who was a union guy and a mom and a sister and even a brother in a small town. I had a grandma. Two, in fact. But I'm telling you here and now that I could not conjure the kind of mind-blowing detail of those days when I used to make up songs on the swingset or melted crayons in my sister's Easy Bake Oven. I think the crayons were those fat ones. I seem to remember orange, green and brown. But could I give you 320 pages of rich, colorful descriptions and authentic dialog from my life circa 1972? Hell no.

"Why in the world did I think I could write nonfiction?" I fussed at MathMan. "I can't do this. I bumble through my life and never consider the color of the clouds at 2 p.m. versus 2:40 p.m. I don't remember what I had for lunch last week much less what our family had for dinner on May 18th 2008. And that was a significant date. I can't remember a thing about it. I have no business trying to write this. I give up."

MathMan looked at me over his glasses but said nothing. Not that there was anything he could say. I was too far into my drama to allow any of his potentially wise words to seep through the wall of self-doubt and loathing.

I cast around for villians and all I can come up with is vanilla, as in boring, lacking interest, ho hum. I'd blame my parents for being quietly judgmental and overly concerned with public opinion instead of drunken, crazy and loud, but that way of thinking only serves to highlight the chicken and the egg part of this.

Do I not have a story to tell in the first place or do I not remember the story because I was far more concerned with playing Barbies than learning the names of grass growing in the ditch next to the road? And then it hits me - what if playing Barbies is my story? You see the problem, right?

Skimming forward in the book, I'm brought up short because there's a passage at the beginning of Chapter 12 that is so familiar, it makes my neck feel all tingly like someone touched my back, but no one is there. Karr writes about how her mother starts taking diet pills. I'll let her take it from here:
They also shot of sliver of pissed-off into Mother's voice. Even my asking for lunch money - if it struck her as off the subject somehow - could send her tearing around in search of a misplaced wallet, slamming doors behind her, or lead her to scream at the always sleeping form of Hector that he was a lazy sonofabitch. Don't get me wrong. Mother didn't go off every time you asked for something, and she had always been prone to temper fits. But on the diet pills a smaller spark could set her off. And the rages could carry her further...
Whoa. It's like looking in a mirror. Except it's not Karr looking back. It's her mother. Karr's description is every bit what my kids, Chloe in particular, have labeled Raging Around. It's what I do when I'm taking amphetamines to shed pounds the easy way.

So maybe I'm not the one with the story, but my kids will have one. You've heard about the times I ran away from home, no? Their therapists are gonna have a field day.

So anyway, I'm reading Karr with a maniacal streak of literalism coursing through my veins, cracking my knuckles out of stress and snorting things like "She remembers that she was squeezing Cheez Whiz onto crackers right at that very moment of her daddy's story?" I become so unbearable that MathMan gathers up his papers and graphing calculator and flees the room, warning the kids to stay out in case I start raging around because I'm in a fury over Karr's beautifully detailed description of the shadows on the wall behind her mother as she reads to her from Camus.

Maybe it's time for me to switch to another book.
To be continued.


  1. Aw, hell, I don't even need diet pills to engage in a bit of raging around...

    I just got done reading LYING, by Lauren Slater, and now I'm convinced that all memoir is at least partly fiction anyway. I was suspicious before, and now I've decided it just has to be. I can remember details, but I can also change the details and "remember" them that way, too. :)

    Keep writing, stuck one.

  2. well this may be a drawn out comment as my fingers seems to like this tiny taplop keyboard this evening

    I think you are neither A B C or D

    I think you are yourself with your own memories, style, and self.

    That's why you and I are friends.

    I could compare myself to a lot of folk and find differences in how they do things and how I do them.

    Dont mean I'm (or they) are wrong just different.

    If it makes you feel any better I don't remember lunch from last week much less 1968 but I bet, like me, you remember the important things from whatever year you want to name.

    I cant write which is obvious from this comment BUT I do believe you have things to say and it may be here at this blog, in a publication or just a look at the person who serves you that dipped cone (keep it clean everyone inside joke for me and Lisa) at the DQ drive thru.

    OK done (as the internets say Finally)

  3. Non-fiction is easy ... just make it up.

  4. Don't think for one minute that Karr doesn't compare herself to writers she admires and come away thinking she's a total fraud and a piece of shit.

    It's just what we do.

  5. Ah, Lisa, all writers are liars anyway.

    I know the feeling you have - I often get it when I come to your blog. Here's this woman taking fragments of her everyday life and thoughts and turning it into writing which grabs you and whirls you along to the end with its crafted honesty and there I am over at my blog spouting long-windedly about Kant and Heidegger (Jesus, I even quoted St. Augustine in my last post ... how pretentious is that?) ... Ah, shit!

    I can read almost any half-decent writer and be struck and amazed at their skill. If I got too stuck in that mode, I'd probably never write another sentence. So, I'm not Stephen King or Joseph Conrad. Neither are you.

    If you start to get into this writing thing, I suppose it's inevitable that you start to look at the way others do it - and wonder at it. Hell, if we're clever, we can even steal - oops, sorry, pick up - a few tips. But that's it. They write their stuff, you write yours.

    Carry on, lady, you're doing just fine. If I were to presume to give you any advice, it would be something on the lines of writing to your strengths rather than your weaknesses and not worrying about what others do. Doing your thing rather than trying to do someone else's. But what do I know ...

  6. Do a picture book of you on diet pills and work from there! Or, consider all the talentless hacks with book deals and work from a place of superiority. You da man, man. Now share those pills already.

  7. Do a picture book of you on diet pills and work from there! Or, consider all the talentless hacks with book deals and work from a place of superiority. You da man, man. Now share those pills already.

  8. My crankiness is definitely fueled by a similar feeling of ineptitude when it comes to transferring what I see in my mind's eye to that blank sheet of paper staring balefully back at me. I look at the artwork of others and feel inadequate rather than inspired. What to do but keep at it? There are colors and forms, faces and situations, shapes and characters that only I can introduce to the world. It's the same for you. Truly recalling being there vs. writing a realistic interpretation is a test of an author's skill and not a matter of eidetic memory. I always love reading your views of events and look forward to more.

    Meanwhile, if you need to divert yourself with a book that features a character called Half-Cocked Jack which is educational and enormously entertaining, you might want to find a copy (in 3 volumes, written entirely by hand) of Neal Stephenson's 'Baroque Cycle'.

  9. I think you're working on a masterpiece & this is all a sham & when you tour the planet instead of being heckled you're gonna throw tomatoes at us in line as you nelsonmutz the night away ain't fooled for a minute.

  10. Elissa - You crack me up. You rage? I just can't picture it. And I know you're right about the memoir/fiction angle. I need to get with it.

    Steve - Hello, Kitten Toes. Thank you for encouraging me to continue writing and exchanging innuendos with you. xo

    Bill - A man of few words and such powerful words they are!

    Jayne - You're right! And I'm sure Karr does. It is a writerly thing to do.

    Francis - Thank you. You know, I don't find you pretentious. I like coming to your blog and learning. I'm The Really Broke Housewives of Euharlee and you're Nature on PBS. Big difference. But we each have our place, don't we?

    Dale - I can see it now. Raging with Lisa! The first photo will be me snapping my pills in half to make them last longer since I've been cut off for a few months. Bad dealer! I mean doctor.

    susan - Thank you. I thought you'd understand. I'm going to look for Baroque Cycle.

    Randal - Nelsonmuntzing my night away is now me favorite saying. Ha Ha!

  11. Playing barbies is definitely my story.

    My kids are adamant that me as mother is their story, not mine. Apparently we're not to write about ourselves as mothers.

    I say, just tell your story!

  12. Shallow, insensitive and unobservant? I knew it--you ARE running for public office!

  13. I love your honesty...but remember that you are extremely talented, and all of your blog readers would agree with me! :) You'll get unstuck, don't worry.

    Hey, have you read "The Happiness Project" yet? If not, girl, do it! :) I think it might just be the inspiration that you need right now. :)

  14. I doubt that writers of memoir really remember as much as they do. When I read Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle I was skeptical of the details she could recall from such a young age. But I soon forgave her because her writing was so good. If you can grab my attention, I don't care if it's truth or fiction. The key is in the hook.

    You, my dear, need to shelve your competitive spirit. It'll do you in. And, yes, if it means putting aside books that make you question your own ability, then do it. I think you need some kind of mantra to frame above your workspace. Something like, "I rock, therefore I write."

  15. I am cranky because I don't have half your work ethic and I feel like a slacker and a time waster and I have no interest in working out. And I am feeling envious of your upcoming magnum opus, "Half-assed and half-cocked."
    p.s. I like your writing better than Mary's.

  16. I read a quote recently that the quickest way to stifle creativity is to compare ourselves to others. So true...

    What you write is good--hope you trust that.

  17. I loved that book. It was incredibly powerful. Stop comparing, start writing. You remember the important things and you put your own slant on it - that's what makes it yours.

  18. Okay, so here's the deal:

    I'll drive to GA with a case of wine, a large notebook and a bunch of pens.

    We'll hang out, consume, and talk. You can write MY story, and I will write yours.

    Then we'll trade.

  19. Okay, so here's the deal:

    I'll drive to GA with a case of wine, a large notebook and a bunch of pens.

    We'll hang out, consume, and talk. You can write MY story, and I will write yours.

    Then we'll trade.

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  22. Okay - so I'm reading this stack of books and I'm getting cranky because I'm feeling:

    A) Shallow, insensitive and unobservant - Bullshit!
    B) Talentless with the written word and/or simply talentless Bullshit!
    C) Provincial and frowsy Bullshit!
    D) None of the above

    My answer about you is D.

  23. I think this situation is akin to looking for a lost item. You scour the place searching & looking, just when you you give up & stop looking, you find the thing you were looking for.

    You need your own style, not something or some formula some other writer(s) already did.

    Maybe you can replenish your creative self by going off to the park pool & soak in a hot tub?
    For $1.75 I can soak in the park hot tub & destress , relax & renew. Best $ I ever spent, really.

    I am a water baby for sure.

    If you can't do that, maybe just a nice soak in the bathtub w baking soda to soften your skin & pamper your soul.

  24. What can I possibly add that someone else hasn't already wrote? We are trained to second guess ourselves in this culture due to advertising preying on our insecurities. (And that goes double for women!) Believe in your story, your voice, don't second guess it. That's what editors are for! :)

  25. "Maybe it's time for me to switch to another book... "

    ...or time to get off the speed, babe?

  26. comparing yourself to someone else is a bit of a waste of time as we are stuck with who we are and never will be someone else and i can't remember this morning nor much care...what matters is now anyway[i think], my friend, are a wonderful writer, i love to read your words and would actually finish a book you wrote, something i can't say for many i start and they ARE carry on and stop snarling at the kids/husband/cats if that makes you happy...just carry on doing whatever it is that keeps you you. xxx

  27. Lisa,
    Is there a reason you need to write a memoir?
    Maybe the block lies in the fact that you're trying to fit yourself into someone else's memoir.
    You writing about your kids, about your spreadsheets, don't even get me started on the Publix receipt around your neck...fantastic observations, insight.
    Maybe focus on what you excel at instead of what other's excel at?

  28. In order to have villains in nonfiction, you have to be more judgmental and suspicious, if not more wounded/healed. Also, it's best to start with recent rather than deep past.

    I could give two shits about someone eating Cheese Whiz. I could make the privileged s.o.b.'s whose parents read them Camus into villains, just because they had what I didn't, if I were willing to get in touch with envy and other vices. Just be more Southern and embrace all the weird and broken shit in your life, then the writing will come to you. On the page vice is more glorious than virtue.

    On your past blogs, you spent some time talking about money. Why didn't anyone teach you how to manage money the way you have to manage it now? Get a little pissed off with them, maybe.

    Mock and eviscerate the people with whom you worked, the ones who fired you?

    Or go back to that very awkward but well-told story about the road trip, eating Mexican, and having to wash pants out in a sink.

    What I'm saying is, you have done well showing villains in your blog posts, and I'm sure you can find more if you will just be more bitchy.

    Best wishes on that.

  29. I'm stabbed in my fear-filled heart with the "shallow, insensitive, unobservant" part. I write mostly nonfiction, so these 3 things are my big bad wolves, always lurking in the dark woods.

    Am I wallowing? I am I am I am. Sorry. It's one of those weeks -- and it's only Monday. Did I say fear?

  30. Not to rain on your downer, but I think we all go here. And I didn't stop by to platitude, but will simply say again: your writing is excellent and you have NOTHING to shy away from. Bring it, baby.

  31. As i tell my teen daghter when she is feeling indequate - we all feel that way sometimes and you just have to push on through.

    I do understand the feelings, I feel that way reading your writing and the writing of so many others - I have settled in to the knowledge that my blog is not great writing but just my musings, as shallow as they may frequently be.

  32. Lit putting me in a writing funk earlier this year (or was it later part of last year?) either way, i read it thinking, "there's no way i can do that."

    i had this whole moment in Lit when i found out that the david she was talking about--who she had a love affair with--was david foster wallace (because, yes, i do live in a cave in georgetown indiana and this fact had passed by me). anyway, i had this moment where i considered david and mary and jonathan franzen all having coffee at some ivy league event and that it was this echelon of writers that i would never have access too in the same way i won't be invited to wills and kate's wedding (i'm not sure which is more heartbreaking).


And then you say....

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