Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Writer's Block

The following piece is a work-in-progress and comes from a challenging homework assignment I gave my students last summer. Normally my homework assignments are not topic-driven but rather technique-driven. The intention behind the assignment was to grapple with a type of writer’s block that comes from a writer being uncomfortable with the topic assigned. I wanted to give my students a topic that, itself, is typically known to induce a heavy case of writer’s block. The assignment was: “Write about the moment you met the greatest love of your life.” The clichéd aspects of “greatest love”–the phrase itself– makes most writers panic. What if what I say sounds trite and over done? How can I make something that can easily sound trite and over done original and interesting?

Writing Teacher Does Her Homework

The chocolate brown leather back chair scrapes the black and white checkered floor of Café La France in downtown Bristol, RI as I get up for the third time this hour to pee. One iced tea and a few sips of a hot Ceylon tea will do that to me. Replete in work uniform of Capri-jeans and black t-shirt which proudly boasts the name of my business, Write Naked, and my website hannahrgoodman.com, I’m “at the office doing “work”. I shimmy back into the comfortable chair and the legs scrape again, a sound I love as it indicates, I’ve “clocked in” for the day. God, do I love my work.

Simply put I’m a writer. Not-so-simply put, I have my own small company called The Write Touch which specializes in all things writing– from website content to one-one tutoring and coaching to consulting about publishing. I consult, teach, freelance write and edit. The classes I teach are untraditional and the curriculum is pretty much homegrown but based on the years I spent as a middle and high school teacher. I’ve developed a writing program called Releasing The Writer Within, which supports the theory that the more relaxed and in touch with your mind and body you are, the better and easier the writing will be. I begin each class with a breathing exercise/mediation and close each class the same way. In between, I teach a lesson on one of the twenty writing techniques I have created. Class commences with homework assignments. Assignments I not only give, but also actually will do myself. I believe that in order to be a great writing teacher, I have to follow my own advice and my own program.

So, here I sit. I’m working on an assignment I gave my adult students just last night: The Day I Met The Greatest Love of My Life. Despite doing all the prescribed rituals I promote in my class to unblock writer’s block, I am left here, at the shiny chestnut table, chewing my proverbial pen (as I now only use a laptop to write unless I’m in the car, shower, bed, or feeding my 20 month old and must rely on a nearby pad of paper and pencil usually stashed in a nearby drawer). Simply put, I’m trying to come up with the right and clever metaphors about meeting my first love, my now-husband. I have avoided the very effective writer’s block techniques I invented. I am violating all my advice. “Let. Allow. Flow.” I tell my students. “Write to discover. Write to learn.” I advise. But I ignore my own advice and beat myself mentally until the words come spilling out like blood. The words I write don’t make sense. So I sigh, push away from the table and go get yet another large Awake tea with non-fat foam on the side. “How’s it goin’ Hannah?” the young girl behind the counter asks me, her young, rosy face bright with enthusiasm.

“It’s not,” I grumble.

“It’s on me,” She whispers, like she feels truly sorry for me, and I manage a small smile before slumping back to my chair.

I place my enormous, steaming, overflowing with foam tea to my left and press my back against the wooden chair. I fold my arms and snarl at the screen.

Then, after a few deep breathes, I give in, as I always do. It’s the same game each time I am faced with writer’s block, which isn’t too much lately– probably because I don’t have the time to nurse a case of writer’s block–I have to write to keep this new career afloat. That, in and of itself, is inspirational; hunger, whether literal or figurative, makes the body sniff out any morsel of food. My food is words, and if they don’t come, I just sniff them out and hunt for them. So, I give in, using my personal favorite technique I created to cure the writer’s blues–“write through the tight spots”. Why? Because I, physically, have a bunch of tightness today in my hands–probably from lifting, throwing, snuggling and loving my daughter and also from shlepping my laptop and box of marketing tools (ala t-shirts, workbooks, and copies of my novel) all over the state to each class I teach.

I like this –“write through the tight spots”– because you don’t have to scrounge and hunt for the words, yet you can satisfy the hunger to write easily by simply letting and allowing the words to come to you. Just relax, breath, find the tightness in your body, mind, soul and get connected and write through it…maybe even about it. But write in and through and about, until the words are flowing effortlessly…like right now.

Yes, I advise a warm-up before a writing session, especially if you are faced with writer’s block and particularly if you don’t have the time to nurse the block with staring, chewing, drooling, or doodling.

After I am warm and words are flying…not words about Mike, per say, but words about the “tightness”…I guide myself to begin to write something, anything about Mike. I begin with what I can safely say is the handy metaphor. First, I compare Mike to a flower. Yes, I’m serious. Mike is a single rose, simple, beautiful….blah, blah….YUCK. But I play it out, and then I laugh and start with another analogy, but dismiss it as it is about food and that just never, ever will work. 9 ½ Weeks is the only way that kind of writing can go.

It’s hard.

This topic is truly something that could come across as cliché, which is why I gave the assignment in the first place. I wanted these types of blocks and worries to arise, and the challenge really, for my students, is to write through this tightness…the tightness of cliché and the tightness of self-consciousness.

When I gave this assignment just last night, I got lots of groans and mumbles. They too worried about its clichéd-ness. I stood in the front of the small class room and watched them furrowed their brows and bite their pen caps. They were wrestling with a writer’s greatest pet peeve and enemy– the overused and trite– the cliché. Now, here I sit, my ass numb from the hard chair, my own brow furrowed as I mumble over the impossibility of the assignment. I’m probably trying way too hard to sound clever. It feels like I’m reaching into my purse, an endless pit of “junk”, while driving, hoping to “feel” my way towards my cell phone only to figure out that it’s not there.

I reach and feel and–


So, I try again: The memory of the day I met Mike resides in my brain like a dream. There it is. I just gave myself permission to forget trying to find the analogy (another thing I preach to students. STOP TRYING I scream. LET. ALLOW. Funny, I scream that.)

In the haze of the dream….there’s always the grassy knoll. The Dr. Pepper can. The two other boys. My roommate. The baseball hat. Yet, other details, the time of night…the type of baseball hat, the order of words spoken, constantly change. My memory is like one of those incredible dreams you have that you won the lottery or your book was finally published. The memory is so enchanted that it can’t be real. The memory is a reliable old friend, who in times of crisis, you may not talk to for years and years but as soon as you call them, you feel like you just went to Starbuck’s yesterday and shared a muffin and drank lattes, and at the end of the visit, you feel reborn. If Mike and I have a terrible fight where I’m ready to pack up and haul out, I pull out old reliable, my friend–my memory of the day we met.

Mike wore a baseball hat that sometimes in my memory is gray and other times maroon and still sometimes black. I never know what the logo of the hat says, and I always ask Mike to remind me and I never remember what he tells me…so I make it up. I try to use something that maybe back then would have made sense. A University of Vermont hat or a hat that had the name of a mountain he skied on while at UVM, and still sometimes I think maybe the hat had a logo of something that Mike felt he should be into, as a guy, but wasn’t, like baseball or football. So, yeah, he wore a baseball hat and thick, tortoise shell glasses. It was the early nineties, before small glasses were the norm. He was skinny, tan, tall, and had blue eyes that were cloaked with huge black lashes and the heavy glasses and baseball hat. Even now, sans big ugly glasses, most people don’t realize he has blue eyes because they are covered by not only glasses and maybe sometimes a hat but he’s got enormously long eye lashes and his eyes aren’t big and round but more small and elliptical.

He wore shorts and, I think, Tevas or some other sandal type maybe Berks. Yeah, probably Berks. He was a private school kid who went to UVM for a year and then transferred to Clark….all adds up to Berks. He was in the middle of two other boys who were horrendously pock-marked, beady-eyed and loud. At least in this version of the memory. Mike stood out of the trio like Beyonce′ in Destiny’s Child (how’s that for analogy?). Plus, he looked like the guys I met at summer camp and Harvard Summer School, where I spent the previous summer. He was artsy-smart but not weird–my type.

I stood on a grassy knoll outside of Atwood Hall and adjacent to the “sundial” sculpture that stuck out and up from the middle of this section of campus. I had a leather black “satchel” as Mike says when he recalls his version of the moment we met. “You were so tan, you had these bright banana yellow jeans and a tight shirt and this big old lady purse. You were hot. Those big thick lips and your huge smile, all teeth.” Yes, this is meant to be a compliment. My husband speaks constantly in hyperbole. Every thing is larger, louder, and brighter in his memories. Like recently, might have been last night, when he explained how he was at work, returning to his “cube” with a cup of coffee and he smelled something foul. “My nose just died. Someone clearly let one rip, and I know it wasn’t me.”

Anyway, I have to say, Mike nailed my outfit and even the purse. It’s true I had a fondness for button-fly, brightly colored jeans and enormous purses. My purse was my “woobie”. No one, as far back as middle school, ever saw me without an enormous, inappropriate bag. I had a bag like Ali Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club…only mine had fat-free salad dressing, pens, notebooks, and self-help books.

So, there I stood, alone, waiting for my first, real, college friend– a blond-haired, supper-thin, bronze-skinned, big-boobed Californian who would later become my freshmen year roommate. Our goal was to meet up for an evening of scoping out the quad in search of cute men. Despite the fact that she and I were both betrothed to home-town honeys, we were on the hunt. While “Sarah” and I had absolutely nothing in common when it came to just about anything from taste in clothes and music to, well, how many sexual partners in one month was appropriate to the best cure for insomnia–hers was a couple shots of rum before bed and mine was to write in my journal or watch the Late Show. The one thing we had in common was we loved boys. Well, no. Let me be more specific: attention from boys. Flirting. Yes, we were very different in our approach. She used her physical assets, and I, well, I used my inappropriate bag. It seemed to draw the “right” kind of guy–intelligent, curious, artsy. Sometimes it failed and attracted the “wrong” guy. But that’s another story.

I probably had the bag over my shoulder and my hands on my hips. I know I felt weird standing alone, especially since, for the past seven hours, “Sarah” and I were attached at the hip, having bonded during the orientation as we sat in a group of other freshmen who had tested out of Expository Writing and opted instead for A Fairy Tail Seminar. Us so-called brainiacs were shoved into a group and forced to perform getting-to-know-you rituals like round robin Name Games and other humiliating activities. “Sarah” and I made eye contact immediately and rolled our eyes at the same time. More eye rolling as our group leader invited us to share our fears about being out on our own for the first time–round robin style.

So, I stood feeling out of place, clutching the stupid bag….and contemplating whether or not to go and find “Sarah”….but where to look? I only knew how to get back to my dorm, a homely, low-rise red brick building smack at the top hill and center of campus. I couldn’t remember which was next to Tilton Hall, where I remember from the tour I took three months earlier, food, mail, and a coffee shop reside. I turned my head left and right, my shoulder-length brown hair swinging in front of my eyes. My hair was unusually curly instead of frizzy thanks to a perm that was growing out. As I parted the curtain, there was Mike, along with “Larry” and “Moe”–the two other nameless and almost faceless guys. I know they were each skinny in a heroin addict way, wore baseball hats, and had scruffy faces. They may have said something to me. I don’t know. As Mike and the other musketeers approached me, Mike’s eyes met mine in a, “Oh, there you are” way.

At the same time, I heard “Sarah’s” mousey, high pitch voice. She was behind the trio, farther away and with her was another Fairy Tale seminar girl we had hooked up with, “Annie” who seemed like such a nice, innocent girl to be hanging out with “Sarah”–then again, I imagine I was too. “Annie” was chubby with long, curly red hair. She was funny in a high school, drama-club way. I think “Sarah” hand-picked both “Annie” and I to be her side kicks. Later on, when it was apparent “Annie” and I, would never fit into the role “Sarah” needed, the friendships ended, and we were replaced with someone over-qualified for the job: A Long Island stereotype-of-a girl named “Molly”, who would prove to be so pathetic that she propositioned Mike for sex after he and I had been together for almost two years; her boyfriend, an oafy know-it-all was off in Japan for the summer. She had been a virgin before the “oaf” and wanted to “have sex with someone else” before she married the “oaf”, which of course she would do after college (actually, she didn’t. I think he dumped her fat ass.). She was short, dumpy, and constantly on a diet. Mike describes her as “repulsive, physically and mentally repulsive to me. Just disgusting to look at– she looked like a pear with a pancake face.” The proposition came when he drove her and “Sarah” to the mall while I was at a dance class. Mike says that one minute she was complaining about how she thought I didn’t like her and in the next breath she was soliciting him for sex.

Oh, yeah, and he said no.

Oh– and later on “Annie” would lose thirty pounds, shed the hair and don several piercing and go out with a guy–no kidding– this guy was a hunchback who looked like the monster-guy in the Goonies or if you’re younger than me– Shrek. He looked a little like a hunch back Shrek. And his name was “Hanz”, which sounds like a Salsa Dance instructor. But “Hanz” was really bent over, one eye worked well, and …the only way he was like a Salsa dancer was that he was a total ladies’ man.

“Hey, meet my new friends.” “Sarah” did a hair twirl and a little thrust of her generous chest. She leaned on “Larry”, the less attractive of the two.

“Larry “ and “Moe” mumbled a hello and then turned back to “Sarah” who was busy bending over and tying her Keds, her ass popping out of her shorts. “Annie” shuffled her feet and mumbled something to one of them, and they started to discuss music or tattoos or something. Me. I was staring at Mike. And he at me.

The look wasn’t of love. It was: okay so you’re the only other normal person here. I think, somehow, we both sensed that “Annie” was only normal for the moment but that college would help release her inner freak.

It was late, dark out, maybe close to 9 pm. The August night sky dotted with stars, the air sweet and coolish but warm enough. Of course, as usual, I was freezing. “You have no blood.” Mike tells me now. It’s true. I don’t.

I smelled the Drakar at the same moment our eyes locked. Reminded me of my boyfriend, Mike. Yes, I’m not kidding. That was his name. (Later on I differentiated between my two Mike’s as Mike number 1 and Mike number 2. Mike number one became Mike number two and then there was only one Mike.) The Drakar masked the smell that had taken over my olfactory senses since I arrived on campus seven hours earlier. Wow, it had only been 7 hours. So much had been determined within those hours. Friends and cliques were forming and would remain as they were born for the entire year. There was a smell that would remain for entire four years I was there: It was part patchouli incense, part pepperoni pizza, part stale library books, and a floral, bitter unidentifiable perfume. It stayed with me for the four years, and even now as I write this and if I close my eyes and squint a little and breath a certain way, I can smell it again.

The two smells swirled thickly around me as I suddenly became aware of my huge purse and wish it could be swallowed by the ground. I shifted it and attempted to push it to the side and away from me….but it was latched around my shoulder and not moving. My legs felt wobbly and warm. As my eyes hit his, a vibration hummed from the bottom of my feet to the top of my formerly permed hair. The vibration continued until it came back down from the top of my head and settled in my throat causing it to open.

“Did you know Dr. Pepper is made out of prunes?” I said like we’re 11-years-old and he’s the only one who still wears acid wash jeans while the rest of us have moved on. I say it like Dr. Pepper is so uncool and I, standing with my old lady satchel, am the epitome of cool. Later on this would bite me in the ass as I took to enjoying a cool Fresca from the dorm vending machines. Why a college campus had a beverage that an old folks home should have, I have no clue.)

Unimpressed, not embarrassed, unashamed even if it was made from prunes, he shot back, like a pro-volley ball player, “No, it’s not. It’s made from cherries.” And I might be making this part up because it may not even be a fact but he proceeded to turn his can to the ingredients and read to me “Cherry flavoring…”

I don’t remember what happened next, but I do remember that several hours passed on that sundial. Everyone else had scattered, and Mike and I were still on the grassy knoll, and he still had that can of Dr. Pepper in his hand.

I lean back in my chair now, a year after I began this piece. My butt is parked in a hard wooden chair at Starbuck’s and the sounds of latte and espresso making fill my ears. My wrists throb from typing so fast, and my ass is sore from sitting too long in the same position. I feel I have lost the initial rhythm in this piece and wonder if letting it sit half-done for so long caused it to become soggy, like lettuce if you leave it on your kitchen counter all day. I don’t know how to finish this or even if this is a piece. What the hell is the point here? What point am I trying to make. Several different versions have been saved to the computer. One of them contained all sorts of details about the various characters we met at school that first year and what became of them. But then reread all that and thought how is that all related to the moment I met Mike? Wait–I think I just got the answer. Those people all seemed so fucked up and weird and Mike didn’t. In fact, the two of us always said we were the only normal people in the group we met.

Looking back I realize that, in fact, we weren’t so much the only so-called normal people in the group but the only people who wanted to create a stable life at college.

Both Mike and I suffered in high school from a kind of private hell that our families, in the end, couldn’t help us with. On the outside both of us appeared to fit in at school, make friends, participate. Inside, we both felt inadequate, frightened of the future, frightened of leaving home, yet knew that leaving was necessary. When we came together that first night, that look we gave each other was one of, "Finally, someone else who feels what I feel."

The mental private hell we each had in highschool, separately, was so similar in its subtlety (no one really knew) and in its complexity (normal teenage activity didn't ring true for us and we longed for someone to connect to). That private hell benefited from those years at Clark, the years of shutting out everyone for nights in our dorm rooms or later apartments, watching The Real World or Howard Stern, making love, making dinner, creating a future.

Maybe I wanted to show the readers that there was a real reason why Mike and I gravitated to each other that first night. Everyone else around us vibrated at a different frequency, one that sang a song of fury and risk and danger, experimenting. None of our friends wound up staying friends throughout college and none of the people we knew as couples got married (except one who is about to get married!). We were it. What drew us together was simple–we vibrated the same frequency, one that sang stability, comfort, safe, home.

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