On Getting Rid Of Writer’s Block

DSCF0860I’ve been going through a few weeks of being unable to write. I spent the first week after my trip recovering from a nasty cold. The second week  I finished up laundry and caught up on missed appointments.  I don’t know what took up the third week but it wasn’t writing and that is what I wanted to get back into. During the fifth week, disgusted and scared that I might be suffering from a blockage, I decided to simply sit down at my computer and see what might come forth.  I had no problem writing blog posts. But working on my book was another story.

It probably had a lot to do with the fact that I had finished Part II of my book while I was sick in England. I couldn’t go out much and needed something to keep my mind occupied rather than allow myself to turn bitchy and unpleasant to be around.  But back at home and coaxing those first words out for Part III seemed well nigh impossible. I needed to change my style from a time line narrative to something more free and open, where I  allow myself to become the person I am now …  not the person I was back during the days before I took control of my life and began the process of healing from the trauma I’d been through.

But it was hard for me to change costumes.  Since I started this project, I’d drag out the old screwed-up me every day, dressed in her victimhood and write in her voice. I’ve been doing that for almost a year now and had gotten pretty good at.  Through the writing process the pain of that time has now been dealt with and I no longer feel the hurt, the dread or the fear I made myself return to in order to begin my travels back in time. Who says writing isn’t healing?

In my first attempts to move forward in time, my natural instinct was to return to that old time driven story which I wanted to be done with. I wanted Part III to be more open, philosophical, and forgiving of those who had done me wrong. Whenever I began to write about my process of healing I was drawn into the conflict of who to be … Joan, past or present.  The result?  Nothing! So I gave myself some time to relax and clean out a few closets, which seemed to be a natural remedy for the undertaking of making the shift I wanted. I read through journals of my healing time and otherwise occupied my time with seeing friends and having some fun.

Knowing that I was going to see my writing coach, Kevin, this week, I sat down on the weekend in front of the screen to see what would happen.  I typed a few beginning words.  I didn’t like them. I deleted them, took a deep breath, and started again.  It took a while but before too long I was on my way to writing the transition chapter into Part III.  Monday night having finished that chapter, I started another.  Same thing.  I couldn’t stand the opening words I chose, deleted them and tried again. Words started to pour out in bucket loads.   The next morning I sat down again to continue work on that chapter and wrote another five hundred words before my appointment with Kevin. I didn’t want to stop. All I want to do now is keep going. I have no difficulty getting back to where I was after taking breaks and I seem to have entered the third phase of my book without further difficulty.

As in the past when I’ve had difficulty writing, I’ve taken some time off and allowed the project to simmer on a back burner.  Sure, I pissed and moaned about my lack of words, but eventually when I stopped fighting it, I was able to relax and try again.  It has always worked.

How do you end periods of being unable to write?  I’d love to hear about your ways of getting back to work.

Rejuvenation On The River

DSCF0305I’ve had time to myself for two weeks. My husband went off on his own adventures, while I decided to adventure further into my writing. Doing that helped me to discover new things about myself.  About being alone. About what I can get done when I decide to do it. And how the work, the writing, can leave me gasping for air.

I’ve always known that I’m an introvert, but often wondered if I could go a bit further and be the hermit I once thought I’d like to be. When I first visited the shores of Ireland back in the ‘80s, I thought how wonderful it would be to spend a winter on the rugged, windswept, west coast, in a tiny cottage overlooking the Atlantic.  There were few houses in the area that I loved most. The only sounds were of the sea, the wind, sheep calling to one another, and an occasional barking dog. I  felt that this would be the closest to God that anyone could ever get.  I dreamed about trying it.

But all it took was one week here at home without the love of my life, to convince me that I’m not made for that kind of life. I’m not introverted enough to dream again of crawling into a cave somewhere on a lonely cliff watching waves pummel the shore, spending every moment alone, contemplating God and his linty home in my navel.

Though I’ve been alone for two weeks a number of times, it has never been at a time when I’ve been so drawn up into myself as these last two have been. I’ve not written memoir before and didn’t realize how reliving difficult times might affect me. But I had a mission to write as much as I could during the time that Bill was away, hopefully finding myself closer to the end of my first draft.

In my first week here at home, I wrote some 6,000 words in three chapters.  They are three of the toughest ones I’ve gotten through and there are still a few more to go before I can concentrate on the good parts … finding myself and beginning to make major changes in my life. Reliving difficult times is hard enough just letting them flash by in an instant. But spending one week all alone, writing about incidents that were some of the worst moments of my life broke the bank. I’m one  who likes to edit as I go along, hoping to get as close to an imperfect, perfect draft as I can.

On the fifth day out, I knew I would need a break. I did not realize that my self induced hermitage would leave me feeling so low. I needed some time out. I spent more time fantasizing about what I might do to have some fun than I did writing. I thought about all of the things that might bring me back up from the past into the present day where there is fresh air, funny people abound, and I could begin to refill my now empty tank of energy. I made a dinner date with a friend, went to a movie, and wished I was with Bill or a bunch of friends who were gathered together out in New Mexico.  But I had made a deal with myself and I knew I had stuff I needed to do.

Still daydreaming about what else I could be doing to make myself feel better, I remembered the kayaks that Bill and used to have when we lived in our last home on the river.  Early summer mornings were the best time to be out on the water, before too many fishermen and rowers made it feel like rush hour and the wildlife all disappeared for the rest of the day.

Remembering that the kayaks are still at our disposal,  now owned by our son, I decided to give him a call to see if he’d like to join me for a morning excursion out on the river. Living here in townfor just a bit over three years, I haven’t thought of my little yellow boat until then.  And knowing that Bill was spending some quality time with our daughter and grandkids in North Carolina, I thought that kayaking with Mark would be a great way of being with just him, without the rest of the family taking up so much of my attention.

Great Blue Heron © Mark Rough

Great Blue Heron
© Mark Rough

Sunday at 8 AM found us on our way to the river.  By 8:30 we were on the water. It was warm, sunny, and the surface of the river reflected every leaf and blade of grass along the shore. There were few fishermen about and no rowers. I decided to take Mark up Ivy Creek, which feeds into the South Fork Rivanna River, where I used to paddle when I felt like being completely alone.  He’d never been there before and enjoyed the abundance of wildlife we saw … several bald eagles, herons, both Great Blue and Green, an Osprey eating its breakfast at the top of an old dead tree, turtles by the gazillion, kingfishers, and so much more.  Mark was a super paddling companion.  Not in a rush to get somewhere, just casually paddling to see what we could see and being in the moment as dragonflies and butterflies flew near.  I was touched by those old mother feelings,  being with my son and being able to share with him a place I’ll always love. It was a beautiful morning in every respect and when I got home I was ready to plow back into those three chapters. I edited and rewrote them several times, then sent them off to my writing coach for his approval.

I miss the river and being able to go out the backdoor and into the watery world of rivers and streams any time I

Osprey © Mark Rough

© Mark Rough

choose. Still I love living in the city where I’m finding it easier to balance my needs. I’m within walking distance to the University, can hear the marching band warm up for the coming football season, while sitting in my garden. Yet I’m able to able to drive a short distance and find myself peacefully floating through wooded countryside for the rejuvenation I so desperately need as I work my way through this ongoing, sometimes difficult project.

I’ve spent years searching for this balance. It could be my age, but I no longer dream about that cottage on the coast of Ireland. I have everything I need right here.  Next time I’m having difficulty keeping at my writing, you’ll be able to find me in a small, yellow kayak drifting down the river.

The bird photography above was taken by my son, Mark. If I ever had a dream for him it was just this, to love and respect the natural world around us, as he does.

The photo of me at the top of the page was taken by my friend, Susan Preston.


Bird Watching

RobinSitting in a public garden, under the shade of a garden house, I look up to see a robin sitting on the nest she built under the eaves just off to the left. I apparently do not disturb her, sitting only a few feet away.  Nor do the number of people who pass nearby or the Siamese cat that wanders in and out of the spent azaleas lining the edge of the brick walkway.

The robin is just sitting … her intent, I’m sure, is to keep her two or three heavenly blue eggs warm so that the babies growing inside of them will enter into the world in perfect health. She simply stares into space, occasionally moving her tail over the edge of the nest a bit, dropping a small black and white speck of feces. She then moves back in place over the eggs, continuing to sit in what I decide is the way the Buddha would sit had he been a bird.

I wonder what she is thinking about. Is she concentrating on her breath the way I do when I meditate, going with the ebb and flow of air in and out of my lungs? Is she listening to the songs of the other birds around her? Contemplating tiny movements in the eggs she is guarding with her life? Do birds actually think? Or do they simply follow the natural rhythms of life; ancient messages that send them from continent to continent in search of warmth and abundant food as the seasons change.

What made me choose this spot, on this particular bench to sit upon?  I was looking for a quiet place where I could contemplate my life, the day spreading out before me, and to receive those unspoken messages about where I will go next. Is there actually a destination I’m yearning for or shall I just move forward one or two steps and see where my legs take me? The question of “why” pops up every time another thought comes to mind, and the process stops dead in its tracks.

I take another deep breath, noticing how it feels as I slowly let it go. I wait a moment before inhaling again. Where will I go today and how will it be as the sun goes over the edge and the stars begin to appear?  Does it matter as long as I move? Or shall I sit beside the Robin, following her cue?

Living All The Way

Amaryllis, © Joan Z. Rough

© Joan Z. Rough

“This is my living faith, an active faith, a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, learn, dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, speak, write, read, draw, provoke, emote, scream, sin, repent, cry, kneel, pray, bow, rise, stand, look, laugh, cajole, create, confront, confound, walk back, walk forward, circle, hide, and seek.” 

Terry Tempest Williams

Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?

Brody is afraid of big, bad strangers!

Brody is afraid of big, bad strangers.

Fear can be a good thing. It keeps us safe and on our toes when we dodge an out of control car. Or when we walk down an unlit street in middle of the night hoping the dog will pee so we can go home and back to bed. When we’re afraid, our senses do double time. We hear the snap of a twig off in the distance, the crunch of gravel underfoot … things that we may not notice during daylight hours when we’re not on guard.

As children, fear makes us behave when we know that we’ll be beaten if we don’t. We fear hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes. It allows us to make decisions more quickly, as a jolt of adrenalin wakes up our response system. We then choose between fight and flight in a heartbeat.

But fear can also be a bad thing. If you spend your life being so afraid that you dare not leave your home, you are missing out on a whole lot of good living. To a certain extent, everyone is afraid … of losing a loved one, being abandoned, and dying.  We’re afraid of the boogeyman that haunts the hollow tree down the street and the bedraggled old woman who walks by every day carrying all of her possessions in two worn shopping bags.  Sometimes she stops and stares and all we want to do us run in the opposite direction.

I have spent a good portion of my own life living in fear.  I was afraid of my father because he was mean, hateful, and abused me. I was afraid of my mother because she didn’t protect me from him. For a good long portion of my life I’ve been afraid of being useless, unloved, and being alone. I’ve lived on adrenalin, ready to run like hell or fight to the end.

The most important question I was ever been asked was, “What are you so afraid of?”  At the time, I was unable to come up with an answer for the psychologist who sat across his desk from me. I was twenty-five years old and a new mother. I’ve spent the years since trying to find the answer to that question. It’s been a long, difficult journey of digging down so deep it’s made my heart bleed at times. I’ve got a handle on it now and continue to work at bringing up the rest of the remains of my somewhat fractured life.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of becoming a mom to one of the cutest, funniest, little balls of fuzz I’ve ever been acquainted with. Brody is a bundle of joy … happy, respectful of his big brother Sam, and ready to wash your face if you smile at him. He often streaks through the house with odd bits of laundry I’ve neglected to pick up from the floor, like my bra or underpants.  He loves toys and at the end of the day the whole basket of dog toys that Sam is usually bored with, are spread from one end of the house to the other.

But the joy ends when someone he doesn’t know walks through the door.  We know very little about him, except that he’s four year old and was given up by his owners because they could no longer care for him. He supposedly lived in a barn for a good long while, so most recently hasn’t had what I would call a real home.  All we can do is guess at the rest.

The problem is that Brody is afraid of losing his space and this place he now calls home.  When my brother arrived a few weeks ago for a four-day visit, Brody was not comfortable.  It took him the four days to get to the point where he trusted Zed enough to allow him to pick him up and hold him.

He snapped and bit a young man I was trying to hire as a dog walker for a time when we would be away for a whole day. Brody broke the skin, but there was no blood.  Needless to say that didn’t work out very well.

He seems to be mostly afraid of men and especially my son. As long as Mark sits still on the couch, Brody will be calm. But as soon as Mark gets ready to leave there is hell to pay, with Brody behind him, barking, growling and lunging trying to get hold of a pant leg. Should Mark turn around and face him, Brody backs way off with his tail between his legs. It’s a serious and scary situation. I don’t want him to bite anyone, yet I want my family and friends to feel welcome in my home, especially by this little guardian of mine.  And I have no intention of giving him up.

Because I know and understand fear so well myself, I feel nothing but love and compassion for this sweet, little being.  He is always on alert. Even when I think he is sound asleep in my lap, he’ll rise to the challenge of the slightest sound that may mean an acorn has just fallen from a tree outside or that we are being invaded by aliens. They are things that I can’t hear or smell myself. Things that lie hidden in his past that I will never know of.

But I am bound and determined to help this little guy through his fear so that he can live a peaceful life. And while I’m helping him, he is helping me discover more things about fear and myself that I was not yet aware of. Every day I ask both myself and Brody what we’re so afraid of. With the help of a dog trainer friend, I know I can help him have a chance at a happy life and my own healing will continue.

What do you fear?  What do you do to keep your head on straight when you’re afraid?  Do you whistle a happy tune or hide?