written in November 2011)
It’s Thanksgiving morning, and—holiday or not—I’m up for my 5 a.m.-7 a.m. writing ritual. This is not me. I didn’t crawl out of my comfortable pillow-top bed and leave the perfect warmth of three dogs and a 98.6-degree Fahrenheit partner. Some alien invaded my body overnight—some foreigner with much more discipline than I could ever muster. And yet, even the alien has writer’s block.
I stare at the clock. Its brown rim. Its cream-colored center. It’s now 5:20. The seconds hand is mesmerizing today. I watch it round the bases: One. Second. At. A. Time. I wonder why the tick is louder than the tock. The clock ticks in Dolby surround sound. Amplified. Annoying. With each tock, the brown-wood-rimmed living room clock reminds me that another second has gone by. Producing nothing.
I’m wide awake now. The laptop is booted and ready to take on thousands of words, one agonizing letter at a time. I take a sip of coffee and stare at the blank screen, wondering whether I should write fresh stuff, or go the easier route and obsessively edit an old piece that I tackled sufficiently the last time I was awake on a major holiday at 5 a.m. It would be easier than risking writing something new.
How deep do I want to go today? Do I really want to write hard stuff? Today? Why not tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow might be better. I’m not sure why, but I’m certain of it.
It’s Thanksgiving morning, but neither food nor my latest short story is cooking. Still, I sit before my laptop to write because I hear my friend’s words echo, “Practice makes perfect progress.” I spend a few seconds adjusting the font settings because I might have more inspiration in Bookman Old Style. And that’s when a childhood memory pops up to distract me.
Mrs. Stallneck, my third-grade teacher, introduced me to the craft of writing short stories. I flirted with writing, and fell in love. One of her standing assignments was for the class to write a short story every week. I wrote faithfully, for I had found a new best friend. For a shy loner, writing was a comforting, supportive, and always adventurous pal. Mrs. Stallneck encouraged me to be creative—to imagine beautiful scenery and interesting people who did amazing things. I had literary puppets to play with.
“You can write about anything,” she encouraged. “Just imagine it, dream it, and then write it.”
In good penmanship, I wrote stories about talking dogs and treasure islands, and I turned in these pieces with pride and joy. I remember that I had a favorite place and time for writing: afternoons at the kitchen table. I had found my first love, and I remained true.
My classmates were not as dedicated. One day at school, Mrs. Stallneck demanded that those who had not turned in a short story in the past three weeks write one during recess. I was the only one on the playground that day. I had all the swings and monkey bars to myself, yet they weren’t as fun. I was alone and lonely. I wanted to be inside with my classmates, surrounded by the smooth glide of ballpoint pens pressed to faint-blue lined notebook paper. Instead, I sat on the swing and wrote an epic adventure in my head.
Third grade was an amazing year. But now I’m back in today, in my living room, staring at the clock and its ever-louder tick tocks. The coffee is still hot, yet my fingers are cold. I must get them moving, but the words aren’t coming. I look around the living room, searching for an object to describe in as much detail as possible—just to get warmed up. My eye catches a current picture of me and an eleven-year-old boy. We’re both in our Taekwondo uniforms and we’re grinning like drunken sailors. Devin is holding up the identification card—the one that tells the world he’s now a black belt—that I just awarded him. I’m so proud. He’s so happy. It was a magical moment.
That same boy grew to become a fine young man—passed me up in height as a teen. Devin now towers over me, and I have to lift my heels to get a proper hug.
Devin is now attending Yale University. (I love to name drop his school. I want you to know that I know a smart person.) He was in town for the holiday, so last night we met at a Thai restaurant. Over a sinus-drooling-induced red curry, he asked how I learned to become a better writer. More specifically, what did I do in college to improve my skills? When he first enrolled at Yale, Devin set an intention: He wanted to become a better writer by the time he graduated. Although he had written many essays and research papers since freshman year, he still didn’t think he’d grown very much.
“My sentences are still stale,” he said.
This boy is worlds ahead of where I was at his age, I thought. I never gave weight to the freshness of my words when I was in college. (Of course, I drank a lot of alcohol then, so fresh words weren’t my primary concern.)
“So what did you do?” he asks again. “I’m perplexed.”
I take another bite of curry, a sip of water, and then say, “Facts.”
I’ve been lucky. I’ve had few moments of writer’s block in my life because of how I grew up in The Word. As a journalism student in high school and college, I didn’t have the luxury of devising iron-clad plots or ruminating on the psyche of a character’s motivation. I had a deadline to meet, and gruff editors didn’t care about colorful words. They cared about facts. They needed to see something in writing—now.
My best defense against writer’s block was to write about real things in real time and focus on the facts. That way, the story wrote itself. Every story was believable because every story was true. Real, stupid, and fallible people doing awful things. And occasionally, real, honest, hardworking people being heroes. I wrote far more article about real, stupid events (everyone knows that tragedy and outrage tops feel-good stories at the newsstand), but I had a soft spot for the kinder, gentler profile piece of quiet heroes in the community.
I look Devin in the eye, and add, “But more importantly, practice.”
While a student at San Antonio College, I worked on its weekly newspaper, The Ranger. I wrote whether I liked what came out or not. I never seemed to have writer’s block back then. Writer’s block would have gotten me kicked off the staff. So I wrote about the subject I was assigned, not what I curiously preferred. I wrote about topics and situations that made me uncomfortable, but I did it—I could dig deep that way—because it was a job. I could ask tough questions of authority figures that normally scared the breath out of me. I could confront situations and dilemmas without fear. I had a story to write, and it was always due NOW. I didn’t have the luxury of writer’s block then. I had to write—something, anything—and do it by the end of the day.
Practice has served me well in many areas of my life. Taekwondo. Chinese calligraphy. Making a good, strong pot of Tim Horton’s coffee. With practice, I have always improved. And so I tell Devin not to worry so much about how the sentences come out. Invite all types of sentences to join the page in practice. Edit later. Improvement will happen naturally, oftentimes without notice. For now, just practice.
When my newspaper career ended, I started to care too much about what I wrote, how I wrote, and what it sounded like. I wanted every word to be perfectly placed and every point to be well-timed. I essentially wanted perfection at the beginning, and if I didn’t think I had it, I hesitated to write it. I’m an editor, and I know God created editors to improve others’ writing. God created them because no one writes perfectly—especially in first drafts. But I’m odd: I felt embarrassed if my work didn’t come out right the first time. I’m an editor, for crying out loud. I should know better.
Still, I told Devin, “Practice.”
These days, I’m trying to embrace the imperfection of the first draft—to allow myself the opportunity to write true crap and not change a damn thing at first glance or hide its raw ugliness from editors who will confirm that, “Yes, you have just written true crap. But, wait, there’s a nugget here. Right behind the semicolon. There’s something there. Do you see it? No, not the one near that coffee stain. The other semicolon. Do you see it now?” And then I do.
Just put your fingers on the keys and see what comes out. With or without coffee. Early mornings or late afternoons. Holidays, weekends, or birthdays. Before the kids wake up or after they’ve gone to bed. In the quiet and the chaos of life. On major holidays and amid the dull, monotonous days of summer.