17 February, 2016

Tapping Out

The novelist boxes up his notes and inters them in the musty depths of a self-storage facility. Then he moves, retiring to some sleepy New England hamlet. He’s convinced that the book labored over for the better part of a decade can’t actually be written. He takes up a new, all-engrossing avocation — beekeeping — and spends the remainder of his years in an approximation of satisfaction, selling jars of dark wildflower honey and beeswax candles from the barn beside his house. His notes and manuscript draft molder and are eventually recycled by his next of kin, who aren’t interested in literary stewardship.

Or the poet for whom words were always lifeblood: he stares at the same vacant page for months, searching his soul for the language that suddenly won’t come. He quits publishing poems. In fact, he doesn’t write at all anymore, save for the occasional critical essay solicited by old acquaintances in the magazine world. His favors to these editors are prompted more by a need to fill empty hours than by creative drive. So he spends his efforts on the work of others, and, although he doesn’t admit as much, what he dreams of finding there is a soupçon of the pleasure he once obtained from his own poems.

Inspiration comes and goes. Creativity needs periodic refueling to keep running, and every writer has his or her preferred depot. (Some lucky bastards refuel midair, impressively enough, like long-distance military planes, but most of us lack the budget and auxiliary support for such maneuvers.) Parks, cafés, mountainsides, parties, beaches, libraries — wherever happens to take you out of your own headspace for a while works. In prose and poetry, perspective is everything. Changes in scenery are crucial… but they aren’t always enough.

Sometimes the tank goes unexpectedly dry, or there’s a mechanical failure, and the writer’s mighty efforts to remedy the problem come to naught. It must feel like a death in the family, to lose a part of one’s self integral to identity and sense of purpose — a horror beyond imagining.

Of course I imagine it all the time. There’s a mytho-romantic element to writer’s block, the tragic drama of a tortured artist pushing forward despite opposition from within. It’s like a Wagnerian opera. What would it be like to sit at the desk, clutching my head in my hands, and staring blankly at typewriter keys taunting me with their untapped potential, the creamy void of a fresh sheet of paper curling from inside the machine, beckoning me, as if from a great distance, to fill it with genius thoughts and ideas? I can see all this so clearly; it looks like I have a migraine.

Maybe more often than it perturbs the average writer, this sad vision preoccupies me. Unlike you, it’s not possible for me to pop outside whenever my low-fuel indicator dings. I can’t take a vacation, a pottery class, a walk down the street. I can’t, in fact, move beyond these four walls most of the time. Every day it’s the same scenery for me, much like Groundhog Day, except at least Bill Murray’s character in the movie had a whole town to call purgatory.

Prison provides a lot of material, from a writer’s perspective. I work with it because it’s what I have (that, plus an active mental life). Yet the images of the exhausted novelist and poet haunt me. Did they see their inactivity coming? Had they heard indicators chiming? More frightening still: were they aware, trying with all their resources to refuel, only to find nowhere offering the type of fuel their craft needed?

I don’t know how capacious my tank is. I suspect that none of us do. The sputtering of a craft running on empty probably feel identical to one merely bogging down for a moment. This indeterminacy makes both equally mortifying. What I’m running on will have to last me the duration of my trip through limbo. One distress I can’t imagine is getting stranded out here.

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