Overcome Writers Block: The Problem
Feeling deep in the weeds as you write a memoir, or any creative work based loosely or tightly on your own life? I was. I’m currently working on a memoir as part of the Randolph College MFA Creative Writing program; I knew it would be hard. Just not this hard.
More stuck than I’d ever been, I knew that I needed to overcome writers block, or whatever it was that was sucking all the life out of my prose.
But I’m finding the deep dive into back story tremendously difficult. In the words of Adrienne Rich, you need to find “the wreck and not the story of the wreck” (from the poem Diving Into the Wreck). Also, not all memoir writers, including this one, enjoy talking about themselves. I frequently get a criticism pointing out that all the people I write about are vivid except for myself.
In the middle of probably the fourth rewrite of my opening, I felt despair mingled with self-pity. Why the hell was I bothering? Who needs another memoir, anyway? I’m too old for this shit, for both the pain of the work and the attention of the reading public, given all the snappy books written by people born when Clinton or the second Bush was president.
Furthermore, I’d gotten very hung up on childhood trauma. I’d been digging into my own childhood pain for a while, something I don’t particularly recommend you try at home (post on the way about the benefits if not necessity of therapy for writers). Unfortunately, as I wrote, all that excavation had resulted in me losing, if not my sense of humor, my appreciative eye for the ridiculous.
Where the hell had I gone?
Then on a TV show that Steve and I watch, a woman visited a psychic. I’ve never done it, never seriously considered it, and yet I couldn’t get the idea out of my brain. I googled, found a local one, and set up an appointment.
Overcome Writers Block: The Process
Her office was comfy, cool, and dark, and we got right to it. I asked her to check in with Karl, my first husband, who is so important to the memoir that people have asked if I’m writing a biography of him. (Not my intent; you see my dilemma.)
“He’s surprised,” said the psychic.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she’s so private.” The psychic consistently used third person to refer to me; apparently whoever she was talking to was responding to her directly.
Here are Karl and me on our wedding day, December 27, 1987. Excuse the condition of the photo.
Feeling a little miffed that he hadn’t said more, I then asked about some of my friends who’d died of AIDS around the same time as Karl. I hadn’t really been able to say goodbye to any of them.
And that was the point when I began to feel some peace. Two of them in particular are apparently big fans of what I’m doing. For 30 years, I’ve carried the guilt that my friend Felix, who died within a week of me leaving Key West, had been angry with me. Not at all. “She wasn’t my nurse,” he told the psychic, which was wild because that was one of the first things he’d said to me when we met and he let me know he was HIV positive. “She had to leave, and I didn’t want her to see me like that, ” i.e., dying.
The other, Michael, said I needed to wear more colors and “stop dressing like an old lady.” Ha. This from the guy who once knitted me a sweater out of the all the extra bits of yarn he had from knitting other people’s sweater, the camp DIY version of Joseph’s coat.
Then I went back to Karl. I asked if he’d moved on, if he had anything more to say.
And the psychic said, “He’s worried that you blame him.”
“I could never blame Karl,” I said. “I loved him.”
Words from him started to pour out: so much love, so much appreciation, so much support. I cried and I’m not much of a cryer.
Overcome Writers Block: The Aftermath
I came home and the book started to form. The book has become about me, and I’m less afraid to write it. Truthfully, I don’t feel tremendously excited to write most days. But I have stopped questioning my purpose in writing. Now I know.
When I first read Marie Howe’s poem “My Dead Friends,” the idea of talking to, let alone asking guidance from my dead friends and dead husband seemed odd, out of reach, even a little morbid. But my dead husband and dead friends are the engine that powers the book. They’re the people I want to honor, to remember. None of them lived to meet my kids, to do so many things that they would have loved to do.
I owe it to them. And being able to connect with their love, their greatness, helps me connect them to the people who never got to meet them.
The psychic who I visited, Joan St. John, is amazing. I was so blown away by the experience that I recommended her to a dear friend in California. Joan provided her with an equally mind-blowing, life-changing session. If you’re looking for this service, I highly recommend her.