Summers in Santa Barbara are or have been blissfully mild, allowing every sort of diversion or recreation. I spent two as a Teaching Fellow at the South Coast Writing Project working with teachers who hoped to teach writing. The Director, Sheridan Blau, brought in a host of writers, some nationally celebrated, some academic, some amateur, all of whom described the processes by which they got words on the page. He’d build on their comments, set the class a set of assignments and wait for the inevitable throat clearing and, yes, dare I say, whining. “Why is this like opening a vein?” Sheridan inevitably barked. The bark was delivered frequently enough that the class pitched in for a t shirt emblazoning the phrase surrounded by blood spatter.
So, Writer’s Block. It’s a real thing. I’ve seen it for years and have had an occasional bout of blockage myself. Over many, many years of reading the work that came from blocked imaginations, I devised and borrowed assignments that were intended to liberate the writer. My colleagues may have insisted on quality; I wanted fluency. Revision is a separate and exceedingly helpful skill, but one that can only follow fluency. There has to be something to revise. I won’t trot out every stratagem in one tip sheet, but I will explain one of the most effective and provide live footage (on paper) of a writer galloping down the path I suggest.
Borrowing from those who compose music, I’ve called this, “Writing In The Key Of And…” , by which I mean asking the writer to summon up a memory of any sort, any subject as long as there is some immediacy to it, then describe the event without using any punctuation — no capitalization,no pauses, ellipses, periods, question marks. Nada. However, every separate thought or description has to be introduced by the word “and”. There’s some resistance at the outset, and many questions, but then the magic often happens.
There is something about a headlong rush through the describing of a moment that can bring breathless urgency to a piece. Part of the process is that it shoves together the essential and the transitory, the observed and the imagined, self-reflection and the emotion of the moment. I say, “Throw attentive self-editing to the winds. No room for doubt. Keep the pace. Go wherever your mind takes you. Then let’s see what you’ve got.”
My car’s battery died last week. Not a particularly notable event. As it must to all batteries, last week death came to mine. Here’s my Key of And:
“What the hell the car is just not working and lights are flashing and then not flashing and then nothing at all and I am supposed to be going to volunteer at the Hospice Boutique and I like volunteering and I hate being late and I hate ditching even more and I have ditched many many too many things in the course of my life and what the hell is the course of my life and is it a course as in path or is a course as in academic course and that’s exactly the sort of question that serves absolutely no purpose and the expression that comes to mind is tits on a bull and that is a vile expression and how do I get things out of my head that I do not want in my head and songs are among those things and I have a song in my head literally around the clock and I don’t know actually if I do when I sleep and I do know it’s there when I wake up and many of them are from God knows where or when and that put the song who knows where or when in my head and that’s not one I want in my head and I have to do a quick recasting of songs and I’m trying as hard as I can and come with que sera sera and that’s not much better in terms of existential panic and I do like the tune though and I can keep that on in the background and think about other things and one of those things is death and dying and that’s two things and maybe one after all and I won’t know until I know and that’s if I know and what am I doing spilling my guts here and where am I supposed to spill my guts and I wish I had a guru or master who welcomed gut spill and I actually really don’t want a guru or master foraging through my guts and I have to get out of this assignment and this will be the end.”
Cautionary note. I am remembering how hard it is to return to a crafted sentence after having enjoyed the literary wind in my hair, and, of course, I am tempted to go off on a riff about my hair or lack thereof. So there are some issues with fluency that will need attention. On the other hand, I am reading Anna Burns Milkman, a book that won the Mann Booker Prize and one that I find fascinating. It’s not quite written in the key advertised above, but there are moments that come close.
From page 200, randomly selected:
“ ‘It’s creepy, perverse, obstinately determined’ went on longest friend, she said, ‘It’s not as if , friend,’ she said, ‘glancing at some newspaper as this were a case of a person glancing at some newspaper, as they’re walking along to get the latest headlines or something. It’s the way you do it- reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea beside you, essays being penned — your discourses, your lubrications. It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical illusion. Not public spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why — with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pull together — would anyone want to call attention to themselves here’.
Some readers will have arrived at this point having read both passages, and some may come away with an appreciation of fluency as an end itself. Others, not so much. All I can offer at the end of this exercise is that no veins were opened in the making of this essay.
I’m done, and it is probably not necessary to say that the last bit in the last sentence sent me to the exculpatory note at the end of movies in which no animals, they say, have been harmed, and from there …