Friday, July 04, 2014

On writing, new phases, and being blocked

I'm not used to feeling blocked, as a writer. It's not that I find writing always and only easy -- sometimes I'm fast, sometimes I'm slow; sometimes it is joyous, other times painful. But part of the benefit of putting pen to page and fingertips to keys, week in and week out in a whole bunch of different forms for approaching two decades -- of having the privilege to be able to do that -- is that even if the stress and the pain and the slow never go away, you learn better how to manage them. When I have a task and a deadline, there's rarely any doubt in my mind that the former will be done by the latter, and that I'll feel its quality to be somewhere between "tolerable" and "actually quite good, thankyouverymuch." And when I have a glimmer of inspiration and a block of time, odds are I can harness the former to make use of the latter. The end results may or may not be something I would ever share, but either way I usually feel like I've learned something and advanced down some kind of path in some kind of direction. So there are ups and downs, but the downs don't generally fit my understanding of the word "blocked."

For the last few days of June and the first few days of July, I was out of town. It was a trip that marked something of a transition. It was the occasion of the last main piece of work (other than a day or so of loose-end tying that had to wait until I was home) for a contract that has filled a non-trivial minority of my hours over the last six months or so. And then the trip involved several days of visiting and of doing not-so-much, which often for me boils down to time for reading and writing. I read uncharacterisitically little, and wrote...well, I'm not sure the ratio of staring at the page to writing was actually any different than usual, and I certainly spent a fair chunk of time doing it, but it felt very much like the engine was revving but the car was in neutral, or maybe the clutch was engaged but the ice was too slick, or the rowers were straining but the boat remained tied to the dock, or some other metaphor of energy fruitlessly expended. That is, it felt more like something I would describe as "blocked" than the harder moments usually do.

I'm still not entirely sure what it's all about. I mentioned above that I'm at a transition between this contract and whatever comes next, but the contract was only ever a part of my time, and in the kind of self-directed stuff-making work that I'm lucky enough to get to do, such transitions aren't all that unusual. They rarely worry me and sometimes excite me, and I've been feeling moderate but consistent anticipation of this one.

Another factor could be that part of the "after" with which I will replace the "before" that has been this research contract could well involve moving forward with a new book project. That is a bigger deal, no doubt, and it could explain part of my flummoxed reaction to the page. But, really, I'm not in a position to have to commit to anything yet. It will be more a matter of slipping into a somewhat more active engagement with something I've been reading and thinking (and indirectly writing) my way towards for a year and a half. I even have a good idea of how to approach the first chapter, and am not feeling super fussed about either that approach or about the project as a whole -- if I try it and it isn't working, I'll change it up, start again, work on something else, whatever. I mean, I'm not quite that blasé about it, but it feels like it's in a reasonably good place, and I know (kind of) where I'm going, (kind of) what I'm doing, and (approximately) what my decision points will be. I just need to get to it. (That said, if you know me, don't ask me about it. :) )

So what's going on, then?

In reflecting on it further tonight, I've realized that what I'm really feeling knotted up about boils down to grasping for what might be called "sensibility" or "stance" -- not for this possibly-maybe book project, but for my writing-related activities in general over the next while. Whenever you write -- and I'm thinking mainly about nonfiction, because I've don it a lot more -- there are a lot of different factors that you can combine in a lot of different ways that will shape what you write and how, and even if there is a deliberate, conscious component to arriving at the precise combination, making it real always ends up being about implementing a gestalt rather than a measuring out of specifics one by one. This whole is a synthesis of considerations of voice, audience, self, agenda (for the piece), analysis (of the world), larger writerly goals, the contours of interest and passion, and probably a bunch of other things that would take a separate post to sort out and do justice. Any given instance of such a synthesis doesn't really doesn't need to have a lifespan longer than one piece of writing, and there is no reason you can't be working on several things based in very different sensibilities at the same time or in close succession. Certainly I have had intervals in the past when the spectrum of sensibilities spanned by my work has been reasonably cohesive, and others when it has been an eclectic hodge-podge. One isn't better than the other. Nonetheless, I'm feeling a need for a bit of cohesion at the moment.

Now, I'm not looking for some single sensibility to inform everything, but rather a range that is broad enough to flexibly guide what I'm doing in projects large and small (or to be what I'm deviating from when it doesn't). And I think the part of that whole that is stumping me at the moment is that I want it to have a certain kind of groundedness in my experience and in the world around me, broadly understood -- not in a confessional way and not necessarily in an obvious way, but at least potentially in a vulnerable way and definitely in a way that makes sense to me. This might, at times, be directly about the content of what I'm writing, and be visible to others, but it may just as easily only really be visible to me, and show up under the surface in things like how I choose topic and focus, in the epistemological underpinning -- what I claim to know and how I claim to know it -- and in considerations of craft.

So obviously I'm not at a complete loss, here. I have some pretty good ideas of what I want, at least on a propositional level. But, though writing this post has helped, it still hasn't gelled for me. It's still a tangle of conflicting impulses rather than a shape clearly outlining a set of productive tensions brought together into a cohesive whole. And I have next week's episode of Talking Radical Radio to finish for Sunday night and the last bit of contract-related work to complete, if I can, for a lunch meeting on Tuesday, so it's not like I can submerge myself in it and come up with an answer in the immediate term. But hopefully the angst-inducing, wheel-spinning portion of the process of synthesizing that whole is over, and I can get on to working out the kinks in a more practical, experimental projects both big and little.

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