Writer’s Block

One of the things that I hoped would come out of this blog was a memoir. I was 150 pages into one about a particular year in my life when Philip died. After that, I couldn’t write for a year. When I finally felt ready to, it was not my memoir that interested me, it was Philip’s death. So I started my blog, and it’s been three years since I did so.

The last few months have been a transition. I didn’t know what was going on. It was getting more difficult to write the blog – I didn’t know what I wanted to say. And I’d been thinking of starting the memoir but really wasn’t motivated. Since what I do is assume everything is my fault, I was sure I was just running out of things to say on the blog and too unskilled to think about starting a memoir.

Some time last year I began getting emails from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. They have an adult writing program that runs year round. And they have classes on Saturdays, which is what I’m looking for because if I have to shlep in my car to Bronxville or take the bus to NY to see what’s offered there, I don’t want to do it after a day at work. When I lived in Brooklyn it was a short subway ride into Manhattan. And if the train you were on didn’t take you exactly where you wanted to go, you got off and took another one that did. And you could do it 24/7.

Here in NJ, not so. First off, for me to even get to the train requires transportation. And since you can’t park anywhere around a train station without an annual parking permit (which, in Montclair, has a five year waiting list), you have to call a car service or get yourself Uber-ed there. The train leaves you at Penn Station, and if you’re not in reasonable walking distance from 34th street, you have to get on yet another train. Or a bus, or a taxi.

There are also buses to the city, and since they’re in walking distance from where I live, that’s how I get to Manhattan. But unless I’m leaving at some odd hour, that forty minute ride is at least doubled. After 18 years of living here, I still resent the fact that I’m at the mercy of the DeCamp Bus Schedule, which runs buses only hourly after rush hour and stops all service sometime around midnight.

I’ve looked into writing classes at The New School , 92nd Street Y and Gotham. Their adult education classes are on weeknights or weekday afternoons. Which leaves me with Sarah Lawrence – they’re just over the George Washington Bridge which means that with no traffic (if there ever is such a thing where the George Washington Bridge is concerned)  I could be there in about half an hour. While driving gives me more control over what time I come and go, I balk at going over that menacing truck-filled bridge with its upper level and lower level and exits from either side. And with eight lanes to choose from you’d better know which side the exit is on or you’re screwed, GPS or not.

There must be something deeper than that holding me back. I’ve managed to begin the memoir, but writing’s gotten terribly difficult, like it used to be before Philip died. Much as I wanted to write, I’d drag myself to my computer every time I decided to. And often I stared, or came out with stilted sentences. And I don’t think this is uncommon, not at all. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” Samuel Johnson said.

Count me among the blockheads.

I’m suffering writer’s block. After Philip died I was so split open that the words spilled out on their own. There wasn’t anything to stop them and I thought that’s how it would remain. But that same vulnerability is turning on me now – I’m struggling with the memoir, struggling with the blog. But I can’t just throw my hands up in the air and cry “writer’s block!” I can’t just wait for it to pass. Because it’s not an “it,” a separate entity that’s been tossed my way. It’s an internal struggle between my ego, which has decided I’m to write every day and I’m to write in an orderly manner and I’m to sit at my desk until this memoir is finished, no matter how many years it takes, and my unconscious, which in the face of my ego’s dictatorship says fuck you.

What is that, “my unconscious?” What do I mean when I say that? Let’s call it spirit, the wellspring of creativity. This “deeper” me is overwhelmed by the personality I’ve constructed to protect it. The blog has simply been my spirit breaking free, telling my stories, trying to understand this thing called My Life. Trying, one word at a time, to live with Philip’s death. There’s a freedom with the blog – it’s mine. I own it. It gets to be what I want it to be. I work it, but it’s to my satisfaction, no one else’s. No editor cutting sentences, no teacher telling me there’s too many words there and not enough here.

But then I started to write the memoir and I froze. I worry about “setting scenes” and “showing instead of telling.” I worry about how to tell the story to the point that I no longer know how to. I push sentences around instead of having them flow. I feel like what I’m writing isn’t even good enough to be a shitty first draft.

And I’m confused. How do I help myself write? I’ve set my desk up to be where I write. I have a desk calendar where I keep track of my writing time. I count the number of hours I write weekly. I note what I want to write the next day so I don’t have to think about where to start. I’ve tried to make a routine. Write every day, even if it’s for ten minutes. Keep a process log where I write about what I’m going through as I keep working. Read a book about writing every day, read a memoir every day.

If I don’t make rules, how do I get myself to write? If I do make rules, I’m too uptight to write.

The struggle with writing has little to do with writing. It’s about unfinished business, business I thought was done once Philip died. His death so overwhelmed I couldn’t see how anything – as long as Natalie was okay – could matter enough to bother me again. But once I sat down and decided to be “serious” about writing and imposed my routine I split in two. Because “impose” is just that – something to be borne, endured, obeyed, something set by authority. And authority means my wicked witch of a mother whose domineering, sneering, angry voice still runs my life more than I care to admit.

And who I’m not yet ready to write about because I lose my footing when I try to.                                                                                                                                                     

©2016 Denise Smyth

I Have What I Give

Tuesday morning two men were standing next to my car discussing the parking situation, and I joined in. I live in a garden apartment and you need a pass to park overnight on the street. Each apartment is allowed one pass. The complex hired a towing company that randomly comes to check cars, and your car will get towed if you don’t have a pass hanging from your rear view mirror. One of the men was complaining that he came home late one night, couldn’t find a parking spot, noticed there were cars without passes, mentioning a red Volkswagen that was there every night. He’d called the towing company, who said they were too busy to come. So he parked around the corner and wound up getting a ticket because next day it was alternate side of the street parking and he didn’t know.

“You mean we can call the towing company ourselves? “ I asked.

“Of course,” he answered.

So I could call the towing company if I notice anyone without a pass, which I never do because I’d never thought to look. I could go out late, take Zoe for a walk, check for passes and get the sons of bitches who don’t belong there towed. And I had it in for that shiny red Volkswagen – I’d been seeing that car a lot lately, parked near mine. I was going after it.

There is such satisfaction in watching somebody else get blamed and take the consequences. Because if s/he got punished, I was absolved. And that’s what we do in this world, we blame others so that we can momentarily feel better about ourselves.

The Mississippi House wants to allow prisoners to be executed by a firing squad if lethal injection is too expensive. Sounds barbaric, no? Because even if we think the death penalty is the right way to deal with the worst of the worst, we think it should be hidden. The process is medicalized to hide the violent act that it is.

But I bet if Mississippi had a firing squad and invited the public, it would be standing room only.

No, I didn’t go checking cars for passes and I didn’t call the towing company. I might feel mean but I don’t act it. But every time I saw that bright little car I wanted vengeance. Except when I saw it today. Because the culprit who was driving turned out to be a human being, one who smiled at me when she made a u-turn near where I was walking Zoe. And when I walked past her as she parked, I decided to lie.

“Excuse me,” I said when she got out of the car. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

She swept the pageboy-bangs out of her eyes and said, sure. I asked her if she lived here. She said she had since February. I asked her if she had a parking pass and she didn’t know what I was talking about. I told her about the man wanting to have her car towed, and how I thought that was mean-spirited because at that moment I did think it was mean-spirited. I told her the rules, no parking without a pass between 9:00pm – 6:00am, and that if you got towed, it cost about $500 to get your car back. None of this had been explained to her. How she missed the large white signs with serious red lettering that are all over the complex and that explain all this, I do not know. She told me that last week she saw five cars get towed and she’d had no idea why. I didn’t know why her car wasn’t number six but I didn’t ask.

Me having her car towed would have been an act of quiet violence. Imagine waking up for work, not seeing your car and getting a little dizzy because you were sure where you parked it but maybe there was something you were missing. Maybe if you thought back and thought hard you could remember something that would tell you exactly where your car was.

You call the police, find out your car’s been towed because of something that management never warned you about. You have to get yourself to the towing company, pay the fine and try to come back to world but you can’t because you’re confused and angry and impotent and on top of it, you’re late for work.

Why can’t I remember the phantoms I get angry at – like other drivers – are people. Why is it always that other people are traffic? Why can’t I remember it feels better to be kind? The paradox is I have what I give. When I’m angry I’m the one who suffers. The driver in front of me who’s going 45 in a 50mph zone is oblivious to the rage I feel because I want to go faster. It doesn’t matter that it’s a speed limit, not a minimum speed. Nor does it matter that I’m rushing for rushing’s shake, not because I’m late for anything.

But when I’m kind I am soothed. Like when I stop to let someone turn in front of me because the traffic’s heavy. I see the tension leave their face as they wave in thanks. Their gratitude and relief are my own.

I miss Philip’s little kindnesses. When he was a kid he’d call because Sandy had no money to get home and no parent who would come to the rescue. Or because Mark didn’t realize he didn’t have enough money to pay for the dessert he ordered at the cafe they hung out in. I gave Philip money to take care of them because it pained me that there were kids out there whose parents were absent. But once I reminded him he was being generous with my money and like it or not, he couldn’t save the world.

I didn’t trust these kids that I didn’t know. Maybe this is how they live, taking advantage when they could. Maybe they were laughing because they got over on me and Philip. But maybe that’s just the way I look at things. Maybe Philip’s way was something for me to think about – if someone’s in need, you help. Was that it? Or did he just want them to like him? Or did he like the power of coming to the rescue? Or all of the above? And I was about to say that I’ll never know, but that’s not true. If it’s that important to me I can still talk to him about it. Not in the way I want to, but in the way that is so.

There was a price I paid to be a dependable mom, and I paid it gladly. I was the one who got called when someone needed to be picked up or dropped off. I was the one Philip called when he needed to be at the airport at 5:00 in the morning to fly to a fencing meet. I was the one who took the kids to Six Flags every year, who took 12-year-old Natalie and three of her friends to Disneyland and then to Santa Monica, the other parents asking, Are you sure you want to do this?

I was sure. It was my deep need I was trying to fill by taking care of what my children needed. It was my longing to be taken care of that made me so quick to care for them. It was my wanting to be loved that made me love them so hard.

And it was my need to find my way home that made me want to be home for them.

© 2016 Denise Smyth