I want answers to unanswerable questions. Read More »
I feel like I’m finally ready to be with people. Read More »
My mind has pins and needles. Read More »
I have finally learned what it means to not care what anyone thinks. Read More »
The other day on Facebook, my friend Gabriel sent me a link with a message that just said: “Seriously, watch this.” After waiting 20 minutes for whatever it was to load (because my internet connection was so bad), I saw this video of the most incredible prank, which is also a promo for the upcoming remake of Carrie. Seriously: WATCH THIS!
In this video from Tuesday’s episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart interviews Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani activist who was targeted and shot in the head by members of the Taliban a year ago for fighting for girls’ access to education. If you didn’t already know who Malala is, prepare to cry. If you did know, you’ll probably cry, too. Let’s just all cry together while we listen to her mind-blowing answers to Stewart’s questions. Aside from discussing her views on the importance of education for women, she talks about fighting the Taliban with peace and truth, equality for all, and her new book, I Am Malala. She is so well spoken and passionate it seems like Stewart can’t help but take the back seat: It’s pretty obvious how inspired and awestruck he is. I am, too; Malala, you are my hero.
The wonderful, dreamy singer SZA (aka Solana Rowe) just released this self-directed video for her song “Teen Spirit.” Over at Vogue, she talks about its aesthetic: “I wanted to live and die by my own decisions,” she says, later explaining that her every choice—including the video’s ghostly lighting and her “dirty T-shirts and random Marni pieces”—was rooted in a DIY mindset. SZA recently signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, the label that brought rapper Kendrick Lamar to the world, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more from her soon.
This week The Believer did this epic lil’ interview with one of my favorite songwriters, Katy Davidson. Katy performs with her own band, Key Losers, and is a sometimes-member of Gossip and Yacht. Even if you’re not familiar with her music, it’s a fun read about being creative—and kind of the opposite of most artist interviews I read, in which people are really freaking about not being able to make a living in any tangible way off their art making. That’s something worth freaking out about, but as Katy hints at in this particular nugget, circumstances and struggle can make for interesting art: “My thoughts on the global debt crisis? It only makes sense that a system centered around the fantasy-based idea of never-ending ‘growth’ will eventually collapse, or at least be forced into rapid evolution. And money? I don’t know, man. This is an exciting time to be an artist. There’s rich fodder in this transitional moment. But there’s also a lot of distraction. I want to continue to push myself to make music that truly reflects our present reality.”
The new Frau demo is out as of this week. So much attitude and feedback. I barely know anything about this band, besides that they are noisy gals from London who are loosely affiliated with the U.K.’s underground feminist scene. Defs my new favorite.
I was sad to read that the actor Kumar Pallana passed away Thursday at the age of 94. These days he’s probably best known for the small roles he turned into comedy goldmines in Wes Anderson movies (Mr. Littlejeans in Rushmore, Pagoda in The Royal Tenenbaums, etc.), but he spent a lot of his adult life as a performer. In the ’50s and ’60s, he appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club and Captain Kangaroo as an acrobat and plate spinner and had roles in films starring Marlon Brando and Jimmy Stewart. Later in his life, he owned a yoga studio/coffee shop in Dallas, which is where he met Anderson. The Dallas Morning News posted this sweet tribute to Pallana yesterday and included a reprint of their 2004 interview with him (The Believer published another interview worth checking out the year before). They also provided a link to this excellent mini-documentary about him, narrated by his son, in which he gave advice about living a peaceful life and demonstrated his plate-spinning skills:
Rookie’s own Petra recently designed a shirt for American Apparel featuring an illustration by Alice Lancaster of a menstruating vulva, and this week the world went nuts. PERSONALLY, I think the shirt is brilliant, but I’m also the person who rants about how the drugstore keeps tampons in an aisle marked “feminine hygiene” because WHY CAN’T WE JUST ACKNOWLEDGE THAT SOME PEOPLE MENSTRUATE? (Maybe I’m also irritated because I recently rewatched Superbad, a movie that features graphic drawings of hairy peens played for laughs while the film’s “grossest” scene involves a woman getting her period. Or maybe I’m so irritated because I’m about to get my period.) Anyway, I don’t think Petra’s shirt—or any art—is above criticism, but most of the ire it’s caused kinda makes me roll my eyes? There are those who simply say it’s gross (maybe the shirt would be more palatable to them if instead of blood it depicted clear blue liquid à la maxipad commercials). Other people have been complaining that it couldn’t POSSIBLY be worn in public (as if art is only valid if it’s suitable in every context ever—I mean, you don’t see family restaurants serving meals on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party plates). Ultimately, Petra doesn’t need me to speak on her behalf, especially when she’s been giving eloquent and intelligent interviews like this one with Patrick McGuire at VICE.
Julie Klausner’s interview with Nicole Holofcener on Julie’s podcast, How Was Your Week?, was like mathematically designed to be my favorite: Two of the smartest, funniest women around x talking about female friendship + movies + James Gandolfini + dogs + my friend/boss Tavi = everything I love. Julie’s podcast is always wonderful, but this one really hit the jackpot. ♦
As she boarded the bus, it occurred to Indigo Hamlisch that this would her last time making this trip—a trip she’d taken every summer since she was seven years old: to Silver Springs Academy for Fine and Performing Arts for Girls. She was 15, the oldest you can be at Silver Springs, and she’d been looking forward to this day throughout the entire school year. This trip to camp always felt like she was going home, instead of the other way around.
As she made her way down the bus aisle, Indy waved breezily to Puja Nair, the aspiring playwright, and Yvonne Bremis, the stand-up comedian. And then suddenly, like a blinding turn onto a sunny street or a record scratch in the middle of a movie preview, there was Lucy. Their eyes met.
“Indy!” Lucy yelled.
“Luce!” Indy squealed back.
Indy shoved the army-navy bag she used as a purse under her seat to make room for her very best friend, whom she hadn’t seen in a year. Lucy sat down and hugged her like it was the last time they’d ever be together. Indigo noticed Lucy’s bright yellow Staff T-shirt immediately. Lucy had aged out of camper status that year and was returning as a counselor-in-training (CIT). This would be the first time their one-year age gap made any kind of difference. But Indy didn’t think anything else would change between them. How could it?
“Girl, I missed you,” said Lucy. She popped the cap off a tube of Carmex and ran it over her lips. “So,” she gushed, “the first thing I have to update you about: Remember that guy I told you about on Gchat? Tyler? From Cedarquist?” Lucy’s school seemed to host an endless supply of attractive boys who wanted to date her.
“Tyler or Taylor?” Indigo asked. She vaguely remembered IMing with Lucy in the last month or two about a guy in Lucy’s class who’d been jerking her around over an invitation to his junior prom.
“Tyler. Not Taylor. Tyler. With the skateboard. He’s semipro now.” Lucy beamed before she launched into the complicated saga of their courtship. Indy only half listened, relieved to be back in Lucy’s company but unable to relate to her friend’s boy dramas. Compared with Lucy, Indigo was pretty inexperienced with guys—she’d never gone further than an ill-advised makeout or two. And while Lucy cast a wide net with her romantic pursuits, Indy crushed on only a select few. But when a man she liked finally did come around, Indy fell hard. For example, Nick. She wanted him like crazy.
Lucy grabbed Indy’s arm, practically bursting with girlish excitement.
“And, oh my god, Indy. You should see his body. It’s sick. We only made out, but I swear, I remember thinking I would go all the way with him.” Now she had Indigo’s full attention. Lucy leaned in close and added in a dramatic stage whisper, “I’d never felt that with anybody else before.”
“So are you going to do it, then?” Indy asked, wide-eyed.
Lucy exhaled loudly, and her mouth twisted into a pout. “Probably not. I mean, we’re going to be at camp for so long and everything…also, he started writing me some really weird poems.”
“What kind? Dirty sonnets? Haikus?”
“Nah, just some really bad stuff comparing my body to a smooth half-pipe that he’d like to ride for all eternity.”
Indy guffawed. “Ew! A half-pipe?!”
Lucy shrugged. “He was hot.”
Indigo began to smile just as the distant sound of fifth-graders singing show tunes hit Lucy’s ears like a scent reaching a cartoon skunk.
“Ooh!” said Lucy. “That’s my cue! See you in a bit?” She bolted to the front of the bus, where the theater majors held court. Soon, the vehicle ached with a three-part-harmony version of an emo anthem from Spring Awakening.
Before going any further, a distinction should be made between Silver Springs and other camps—the ones with counselors and bunks and color war and relay races and campfires and mosquitos and those kinds of things. Because Silver Springs was by no means a typical summer camp experience.
Set in the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts, Silver Springs was founded in 1972 by Nic and Sunny Heavenfeather-Strauss, a Beat poet and a ballerina who had retired to the least humid section of the Northeast to focus on their mission of teaching watercolors and the Alexander technique to disabled children. Since then, Silver Springs, named after Sunny’s hometown near Bethesda, Maryland—as well as the haunting Fleetwood Mac song—had transformed into the premier fine and performing arts summer institution for 175 lucky young women. There were no counselors at Silver Springs—only instructors who specialized in the camp’s four fields of study: drama, music, dance, and visual art. The campers’ cabins were more like chalets, air-conditioned and named after famous composers and choreographers (not woodland creatures). The young women of SS looked toward Broadway. Soho galleries. Juilliard. The Mark Morris Dance Group. Lincoln Center. They wouldn’t all make it, but Indy and Lucy were among those whose dreams of becoming great artists (a sculptor and an actor, respectively) were on the realistic side.
Indigo opened her eyes to see she had gained a new seatmate in Eleanor Dash, a dancer with a known penchant for cruel gossip. She was already wearing her ballerina tights.
“You were snoring,” Eleanor said. “It was pretty annoying.”
Indigo didn’t know how long she’d been asleep, but she felt disoriented and groggy. She rubbed her eyes carefully so as not to smudge her mascara and looked out the window just as the bus was pulling up to campus. She could make out the lush lawn and blue buildings with sloping gray roofs in the near distance. Massive shady trees were spaced evenly throughout the campus, and the Silver Springs camp flag, which bore a feminized coat of arms representing each discipline taught at camp above the Latin phrase Ars Gratia Artis (“Art is the reward of art”), danced in the breeze. The overall effect was quite ethereal. Indigo began to imagine which colors she would mix to achieve the specific shades of the scene if she were to paint a landscape right now. Chartreuse and goldenrod. Maybe some cerulean. She was itching to get started.
As the campers exited the bus, the camp director, Lillian Meehan, greeted each one with a lei made from peonies. On her way off Lucy looked back at a still-sleepy, rumpled Indigo, and smiled and winked. Indy felt the warm rush of camaraderie wash over her. She smiled back and soon enough emerged from the bus into the warm kiss of sunlight on the grassy patch, where Lillian greeted her with a lei. And when she lifted her face to take in the familiar postcard of the sprawling green campus before her, Indigo found something small and sublime in its composition.
There, on the lawn of the main sprawl of Silver Springs, right near the office, stood Nick Estep, holding a blowtorch to a huge metal sculpture. Goggles rested atop his dark hair, which came down to his T-shirt collar and shone in the sunlight. Indigo’s heart rocketed to every point on the surface of her skin. She smiled. She was in a beautiful setting with an endless supply of paints, her best friend was there, and so was her painting teacher/crush, Nick. All of the elements of a brilliant summer were perfectly in place. Now it was just up to her to create it.
I was so happy to see this video of Malala Yousafzai walking out of the Birmingham, England, hospital where she’s been in treatment since the attempt on her life in October. The article makes it clear that she is not done with hospital life, but it is still amazing to see her up and around. We are all cheering for you, Malala!
Ever since I came across his short story collection Pastoralia in college, George Saunders has been my literary hero. I once went to see him read at a cafe in San Francisco. My boyfriend at the time had bought me Saunders’s latest book, In Persuasion Nation, and after the reading, we both waited in line for him to sign it. When it was my turn to meet him, I kind of stuttered, “You’re my hero, thank you for everything!” Saunders flipped to the first page of my book, where my boyfriend had written an uber-romantic love letter. He chuckled, then told us that the key to a happy and long-lasting romance is to always remember to praise your significant other and never take them for granted. “For example,” he said to us, “just the other night, I told my wife that she has an incredible behind, because, well, she really does.” HOW COULD I NOT FALL IN LOVE WITH THIS GUY? This New York Times profile of Saunders, published in anticipation of his newest short story collection, Tenth of December, is the ultimate pump-up tribute to his incredible writing. And it’s full of all kinds of delightful stories about him–like how he attended the Colorado School of Mines and got sick from swimming in a river infested with monkey feces. Oh, and also that he used to get together with the writers David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Ben Marcus for intense discussions about how to be emotional in fiction without being sentimental or cheesy. Real talk for writing bros.
WARNING: DO NOT WATCH THIS VIDEO IF IT HAS BEEN A WHILE SINCE YOU’VE EATEN A CORNUCOPIA OF DELICIOUS CHINESE FOOD. Because OH MY BAO, this li’l video of two documentarians eating their way through China is gonna come after your salivary glands. I’m talking noodles; I’m talking meat on sticks; I’m talking glistening, pudgy silk tofu literally quivering with hot oils and scallions. Holy mother of Chinese cuisine, have mercy on me.
The latest issue of my favorite comics anthology, Gang Bang Bong, edited by Ginette Lapalme and Ines Estrada, is now available for purchase online. I bought it a couple of months ago at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, and it’s the best issue yet. Get it! Read it! Love it!
You know that feeling of satisfaction when a big fancy publication writes about someone you like and they totally GET it? I felt that way reading this New York Times profile of Julie Klausner and her wonderful podcast.
When I was little, I asked my parents why half the members of U.S. Congress were not women. I think they mumbled something about voters and sexism and patriarchy. My baby feminist brain just could not compute. Why are the people’s representatives predominately white men when this country is made up of so many other kinds of people, I wondered? Years have passed since then, and although the gender balance is far from even and the number of people of color in office remains shamefully low, this election brings the most female Senators ever to D.C. They all got sworn in this week, and to celebrate that, ABC released this inspiring group interview, done before the holidays. It’s pretty amazing to see them all together in one room (aka Leslie Knope’s dream) talking about their governing style, the issues that really matter, and the possibility–or rather the inevitability–of having a female president very soon.
Every January, Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger runs a series of posts asking notable locals about their regrets from the past year. My favorite edition is always the compilation of musicians’ remorseful admissions, called “Let It Out.” Not only is it entertaining to read local stars’ tales of guilt; it also reminds me that even the coolest of people make stupid mistakes from time to time, which makes me feel better about my own not-so-cool screw-ups. Side note: I feel as if Rookie readers will especially appreciate the regret listed 7th from the bottom. That is, if the name Ryan Gosling means anything to you.
I haven’t known what to do with my feelings of horror and helplessness since reading about the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on December 16 near Munirka, India, and then, a few days later, about her death, from injuries sustained in that attack, in a hospital in Singapore. I scoured newspapers and websites for more information, but I found myself faced over and over again with the same horrible, incomprehensible facts: the brutality of the assault, the failure on the part of several passersby to help the victim and her male companion, who had also been terribly beaten, the extent and nature of her injuries. I was desperate to learn more, but I’m not sure what I was looking for—I think in the wake of something so earth-shakingly terrible, we long for some kind of explanation, or maybe an assurance that it wasn’t really as bad as the stark facts made it seem. We need things to make sense, to appease our fear that things happen, for absolutely no reason at all, that are worse than almost anything we have imagined. I know that nothing I read will give me any of that, and that nothing will placate my sorrow over what happened to that woman and her friend. But when I read this blog post by Basharat Peer on The New Yorker’s website a few days ago, I finally felt I could stop searching for new info. (Warning: that post explicitly describes details of the rape.) Peer goes into the cultural, political, and legal context in which the crime took place; talks about the massive protests that followed (and are still going on) and how they’re different from any that she’s seen before, because they involve everyone, not just committed activists and lefties; calls for reform of India’s regressive sexual-assault laws; and includes this video of a speech given by Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, at a protest outside the Delhi Chief Minister’s house. I found a loose English translation here, and it reminded me of the kinds of things people say at SlutWalks (“We are here,” Krishnan said, “to [say] that women have every right to be adventurous. We will be adventurous. We will be reckless. We will be rash. We will do nothing for our safety. Don’t you dare tell us how to dress, when to go out at night, in the day, or how to walk or how many escorts we need!”), and that helped me remember that what happened in Dwarka wasn’t a list of unfathomable data—it was something I already knew, something we all know but can’t accept. Krishnan’s words woke me up and filled me with raw, righteous anger—which was what I needed, not more facts.
In August of 2012, Chavela Vargas, one of my favorite people who ever lived, passed away. She left her native Costa Rica in the 1920s to pursue a musical career in Mexico, where she became a hugely popular folk singer with the most grizzled, gorgeous voice. She was also a gender-bucking feminist: in the conservative climate of 1950s Mexico, she’d appear onstage wearing pants and smoking a cigar; she refused to change the pronouns in love songs from she to he, and she partied with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. That all feels like a super-reductive way of describing her, but luckily ANOTHER amazing Latina, Sandra Cisneros, wrote the most loving celebration of Chavela’s life in The New York Times Magazine. I can only hope that we all live lives as full and juicy as hers. RIP Chavela.
On a more contemporary note: my friends are all having intense but necessary discussions about race and culture right now, sparked by things like Django Unchained, white people who love Chief Keef, and a certain awful new reality show which shall go unnamed. This led my friend Rembert to write a crucial meditation at Grantland on Django, the N-word, and how we need to keep talking about these things in 2013. ♦
I have only one fear in life, and that is of writing.
Up until the point that I got my first actual writing job, I loved to write. I wrote all the time when I was a kid, and when I was a teenager. But the second I got my first $10 writing assignment from a tiny, tiny newspaper, suddenly I hated to write. Part of it is that I just hate work. I am by nature a sloth—I am really lazy, and I really don’t like to work. I have never had any work that I’ve enjoyed.
I’ve spent most of my life reading, and I have probably never read without feeling guilty. I always feel that I’m supposed to be doing something else—and I always am supposed to be doing something else. When I was a kid, I was supposed to be doing homework; as an adult, I’m supposed to be writing. If I tell myself, “Fran, you have to write,” I will not do it. I am so resistant to authority that I am resistant to my own authority.
Writer’s block is painful. There are painful things in our lives that we don’t seem to be able to fix. Things that you know the origin of, you have a high chance of fixing. Obviously, if I knew exactly what this was, I would fix it. I do not know what it is, exactly. I have my theories, but I don’t really know. However, I do not believe that I will never write again. And since no one would ever accuse me of being a cockeyed optimist, probably I will.
II. Helpful Tips and Sympathy
I wasn’t sure how to start this, so I did anyway. I’ve faced plenty of writer’s block in my time, though maybe less than some. I’ll lay out whatever rules for dealing with it that come to me. I think I’ve already laid out the first.
Control your environment. No one comes or goes. You’re alone, with enough time not only to write but to fall into the place of writing, which can take a while. No internet, no phone. Play music. It can amp the mood and separate you from the people on the other side of the door. (I listen to movie scores when I write. Nothing with lyrics—too distracting. Modern movie scores are very drone-y, in a good way for writers. Just sustained emotion. Hans Zimmer, Rachel Portman, Carter Burwell, Mychael Danna…there’s tons.) Make sure your desk faces the right way. (I have to face the room, not the wall.) Not too much clutter…it all matters.
Start writing. You can overthink anything. You can wind yourself up into a frenzy of inertia by letting a blank page stay blank. Write something on it. (Don’t draw something on it. The moment I doodle on a page I know nothing else will ever go on it. The blank page is scary, but it’s also sacred. Don’t mar it.) Anything can be rewritten—except nothing.
Be specific. You want to write something. Why? What exactly are you going for? Whether you’re at the beginning or the middle or the last damn sentence of something, you need to know exactly what you’re after. Verisimilitude? Laughter? Pain? Something that rhymes with orange? Whatever it is, be very cold about being able to break it down, so even if you walk away, you walk away with a goal.
Stop writing. Know when to walk away, when you’re grinding gears. This is tricky, because it’s easy to get lazy, but sometimes straining for inspiration when it’s not there is just going to tire you out and make the next session equally unproductive. I believe that Stephen King once likened it to kissing a corpse. But then, he would. Walk away, relax, and best of all…
Watch something. Watch, read, listen—it fills the creative tanks, reminds us why we wanted to write in the first place, and often, it’ll unlock the thing that’s missing. That doesn’t mean you’ll see something and subconsciously steal from it (though it doesn’t 100% NOT mean that), it just taps into the creative place a blocked writer can’t access. Very often I’ll see a movie that’ll completely inform what I’m writing, which will bear no resemblance of any kind to that movie. I’ll just know how I want to feel when I’m writing it. (Episode 10 of season three of Buffy: totes indebted to The Last Temptation of Christ.)
Have a deadline. I would probably never get anything written if it weren’t shooting next week. I’m a terrible procrastinator, which means the adrenaline of last-minute panic is my friend. (It’s all that kept me afloat in school, I’m sad to say. My attention has a disorderly deficit. There was no acronym for that when I was little.) But you can create deadlines of your own. Friends are good for this. Make yourself mutually accountable—you have to deliver such-and-many words by this-or-then time, as do they. You might not always (or ever) hold to these, but they can help you remember that your writing may matter to someone besides yourself.
Have rewards. I’m talking about cookies. Actually, I’m finishing with cookies. What matters more? Earn them, then enjoy them.
OK then. Good luck!
No, wait. Good writing! No—happy writing.
Ack. No! Um…and thus I have argued that the main causes of…blech.
This is Joss, signing…what? No.
Bon appetite! Rosebud! Nobody’s perfect! To infinity, and…I give up. I’m never gonna find the right ending.
I’m gettin’ a cookie.
I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent—and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.
1. If you think you are suffering from writer’s block, stop writing immediately.
2. Walk away from your computer.
3. Remember this: writer’s block doesn’t exist. What does exist is a condition in which you don’t really know what you’re trying to say, and therefore are having trouble saying it.
4. Don’t try to think of what you’re trying to say—yet. Go do something other than writing or thinking, preferably something where you’ll sweat (running, weeding the garden, walking the dog) or be pleasantly distracted (cooking, going for a drive).
5. When you’re done with that diversion, start thinking about what you still need to learn before you know what you’re trying to say. Don’t start writing yet.
6. Usually this will require making some phone calls, or doing some research. DON’T START WRITING YET.
7. Once you’ve done that additional research and thinking, start composing in your head the idea that got you stuck.
8. Find someone whose opinion you trust. Explain to her what you are writing. Listen to yourself as you’re talking. You’ll be sorting out your thoughts as you’re talking.
9. NOW sit down and try writing that down. If you’re still stuck, maybe you still don’t know what you’re trying to say. Repeat steps 1 through 9. If necessary repeat again. And again.
10. Celebrate getting past a hard part of your writing!
The worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced struck when I was 14, before I’d actually written anything. I knew that I wanted to be a cartoonist more than anything, but thanks to a childhood spent reading superhero comics and science fiction novels, I’d gotten it in my head that you needed not only an idea, but also a plot and even an entire fictional “universe” before you even started, so instead of actually writing or drawing, I sat around wishing I was writing or drawing. And when I did eventually stumble upon what I thought was a suitable idea (e.g., Elric of Melniboné mixed with Neuromancer, only it’s set in an alternate, futuristic version of the 1950s, and all the characters are robots…or are they?), it was so ambitious and convoluted that I would get frustrated and give up before I had completed a single page.
Fortunately, I soon discovered comics by people like Chester Brown, Harvey Pekar, Julie Doucet, Seth, and Joe Matt—people who made comics about themselves, about everyday life. At first I was like, “You can’t just do a story about waking up and making a can of soup for breakfast!” But then I’d find myself thinking about that story for a long time after I’d read it, and going back to those comics and rereading them, trying to figure out what made them so compelling. I wasn’t smart enough to work up any big theories about the true nature of art or anything like that, but I did feel, admittedly arrogantly, that if they could do stories like that, so could I.
I felt like I’d been trapped behind a massive roadblock for years, and suddenly I was able to just hop right over it. I could write and draw about anything, even the most mundane occurrence in my generally mundane teenage life. The ideas had been there all along, I just didn’t realize that they counted.
Then, of course, I was faced with the realization that making comics was about so much more than just coming up with an idea or a story. Contrary to what I’d believed when I was sitting around endlessly brainstorming (“I’m an amazing cartoonist…all I need is an idea!”), I was terrible. It was obvious that I had a lot of practice and learning ahead of me. But I was actually, finally, writing and drawing; and I was surprised to discover that once I started making comics, those elusive ideas came to me with much greater ease than when I was sitting there staring at a blank sheet of paper. They weren’t high-concept blockbuster ideas, but they were stories I was eager to tell, and that’s a great feeling.
Writer’s block is hardly ever a symptom of having nothing to say. It’s usually just your dumb lizard brain beating yourself up because you’re afraid of (in this order, at least for me):
1. Discomfort/ boredom
2. Not knowing exactly what it is you want to say yet
If you can push through the squirminess and clock the hours at the computer like you’re doing brain cardio, puking out whatever it is you MIGHT want to say in a fixed period of time, you’ll be OK. Because once you get ANYTHING on the page, you’ll be able to return to it later and make it better. If you leave and you have nothing, you’re not being very nice to your present OR future self.
The good news is that, even if you’re judging yourself while you barf out that crappy rough draft, what you write is usually not as bad as you think it is! Just make sure you sit on it for a little bit of time before returning to it and editing the shit out of it. It’s always easier to shape something from something than to make something from nothing. So try as hard as you can to blurt something out, even for 10 minutes, and know that once you’re done, the hardest part is behind you.
Writer’s block isn’t magically ordained, or sent down as a decree from God or whatever. It’s not external—you’re the only one doing the blocking! So please try to be gentle to yourself. Being hard on yourself is the #1 cause of misery and wasted time and keeping yourself back. I’ve never heard of anybody who’s bullied themselves into being more prolific or successful.
Give yourself the gift of letting yourself put something down that isn’t perfect. You will return to it later and make it wonderful.
The hardest thing for me has always been the beginning of a project—just getting started.
I went to painting school, and I learned all about how to stretch canvases in all of the olden-times ways, with hand-made stretchers and millions of layers of rabbit glue and sanding (so much sanding). All of this fussy craftsmanship shit. I’d think about painting, but the idea that everything had to be perfect and gorgeous and “right” had been drilled into my brain, and I wouldn’t even be able to start. Any ideas I’d have would immediately be second-guessed (by me) and would evaporate.
After college I decided to make comics, but at first I didn’t really know “how” to make comics. I’d never thought of myself as writer—I didn’t know how to structure a story. I didn’t know how to plan out my pages. I didn’t know how to draw my characters.
I thought back to a painting teacher I had when I was 16, who did one tiny painting a day, just as a way to always have something going. Like a diary. When our class visited his studio, he had thousands of paintings on his wall—the last five years of his life displayed all at once. It was so moving, so cool. I decided to do something in my sketchbook every day. I told myself I wouldn’t to show it to anyone. It could be big or small, a cop-out or an ambitious project.
There’s always something that happens in a day, something worth remembering or noticing. Putting those moments together started to form a story, without my even trying to write one. It was reassuring, but also humbling—it meant that I didn’t always have control over everything I made. And you don’t, either. Sometimes what makes something good is something you improvised, or something you weren’t even conscious you were doing, or something you thought was a bad idea. If you go into a project demanding perfection, you’ll never have a chance to be pleasantly surprised by those lucky “accidents.” But if you leave yourself room to figure things out as you go, you’ll not only have an easier time starting a book/poem/article/diary entry/whatever; you might also end up with a better end product.
I did eventually show people my sketchbook, and those sketches became my first graphic novel, Spaniel Rage. Since then, my process has changed—I found that I do like to do some pre-planning now. But when I just don’t know where to start, I stop and look around, and write and draw whatever I see around me, whatever I’m thinking about. It’s my start button. You can find yours, too.
(Also, I have put a waterproof notepad in my shower. All those good ideas you get in the bathroom go right down the drain if you don’t write them down!)
I have been telling stories and making up nonsense words for as long as I can remember. But around the time I started high school, I started to realize that for me, writing wasn’t just a hobby. It was my freaking life. I knew I wanted to write and not just wanted to write but wanted other people to read what I wrote and not just wanted other people to read what I wrote but wanted other people to read what I wrote and like it and not just wanted other people to like my writing but wanted other people to read it and like it and be transformed by it.
Do you see how if you go down that path you will (a) seem full of yourself and (b) scare yourself into doing nothing by placing outrageous expectations on your writing? So let’s you and I take a step back, and try to remember a time when an afternoon of writing was something to look forward to, not something that caused us crippling anxiety and agony. Here are some tips to get you there:
The internet is not your friend. The internet wants you to do excessive online browsing. The internet wants you to scroll through Tumblr until your wrists hurt. The internet wants you to read other people’s writing. The internet wants you to have 30 tabs up at once that you can’t possibly close until you’ve read every single link from the Wikipedia page on zombies. You have to peel yourself away from the internet.
You could do what Miranda July does here, or you could download an app like Freedom or Self-Control, both of which block you from going online for whatever amount of time you specify. I personally prefer Self-Control, because even if you restart your computer, you still can’t get online as long as you are under the time limit you’ve set for yourself. Also, the app allows you a “whitelist”—a small number of websites, pre-ordained by you, that you can still access. I like to keep one tab open for Dictionary.com and one for Poetry.org, so I can look up words and poems as little breaks between writing bouts.
Give yourself small assignments and projects. I’m the first one to resist any kind of writing exercise because I’m all like, I am far too complex to submit to a lowly writing exercise. I will come up with my own inspiration, thank you very much. And then I go online shopping and spend three hours finding 45 items to add to my shopping cart until I have the equivalent of a down payment for a house in the ol’ cart. So, no, I am not too far advanced, and, yes, I do need a kick in the ass sometimes. So kick yourself. Tell yourself that whenever you get a paper receipt from a store, you will, by the end of the day, write a poem on the back of that receipt, or the first few sentences of a short story.
Take an old book that you don’t care about and a black Sharpie and make an erasure poem, which is where you delete entire chunks of text to create a new poem. It’s way more satisfying to do it to an actual, physical book, but if all of your books are precious, you can check out Wave Books’ online portal for creating erasure poems here.
Keep a notebook at your bedside, and every morning write down whatever you remember of your dreams the night before. If you don’t remember your dreams, make them up. Dream up your dreams.
Go to a café and eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. Write down what you hear, then go back over it and scramble it up, take stuff out, add what you want, and turn it into an absurdist play.
If the physical act of typing or using a pen on paper is somehow a block for you, get a recorder and record yourself telling a story. Transcribe it the next day.
Be curious about other people. You know who has a million and one stories to tell? Your parents. Your grandparents. Your weird uncle. Your weird aunt. These are people who have lived through a lot of shit, and what’s more, they know other people who have lived through a lot of shit. Yes, some of the stories are boring, and some are about how cute you were when you peed yourself at the movies, but there are also amazing, incredibly sad, and incredibly hilarious stories to be uncovered. Gabriel García Márquez’s inspiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude was just sitting around his kitchen table listening to the women in his family gossip. He turned that gossip into gold. You can too.
Read, like all the freaking time. I meet young writers all the time who don’t read, and I’m always like, “What are you doing? Stop writing so much! Read more!” Be a better reader before you start worrying about being a good writer. Reading George Saunders in college inspired me to write better short stories; reading Kafka and Babel and Gogol and Kharms inspired me to write with more imagination. Reading Chelsey Minnis in grad school got me writing poetry again. Ariana Reines’s first book, The Cow, encouraged me to keep writing poetry and eventually to emerge from my writing hole with my own book of poems. Read other writers. Develop your tastes as a reader and eventually, just as Ira Glass says in this video, your writing abilities will catch up to your high standards as a reader.
Dreaming counts! We’re all told that we’re supposed to be “productive.” There’s a glut of things to know about, memes to forward, hashtags to create, instagram photos to take, etc., etc., etc. There’s not a lot of time in our lives to dream. But being a writer is saying that you want to see beauty in places that other people often overlook. So give yourself a day or a week off, or even a few months off, to daydream. But don’t let your brain get comfortable. Make it spin. Give it time to gather strength from ideas.
A lot of writers swear by routine, but I swear by chaos. There’s enough fucking routine in my life. Every day I have to brush my teeth. Every day I have to smile at strangers. Every day I have to worry about money. Every day I want something I can’t have. Every day I find some way to go on! I know that writing every day for an hour would help me tremendously with writer’s block, but I also know that I need an element of wildness in my writing. I need to know that writing is something I do because it sets me free. It makes me feel golden with confidence. It gives me the gift of gab. I feel like a god. I feel like an entertainer. So write when you damn well please.
No one is going to die if you don’t write. The world will find a way to go on. But you might find your soul shrinking the longer you go without writing. The thing about writer’s block is that sometimes it’s real, and sometimes it’s just your brain taunting you: What if you’re not a good writer? What if once you put the words down on the page, it becomes evident that they are not so brilliant after all? And then there’s the fear that if you do write the most perfect story or poem in the whole world, will that mean you won’t ever have another good idea? What if you run out of ideas? Well, then you…
GO OUT AND LIVE YOUR LIFE, BECAUSE AS LONG AS YOU DO THAT YOU WILL NEVER RUN OUT THINGS TO SAY.
The best way to avoid living your life, as a writer, is to spend your time worrying about writer’s block. So, live your life for a while. Your talent and your instincts as a storyteller won’t die, I promise. And then when you’re ready, hole the eff up, and write, write, write.
III. Tough Love
“Writer’s block” is a term invented by very spoiled and whiny writers to refer to periods in which they do not feel inspired. The assumption hidden behind this term is that creativity is an everlasting, full-powered fountain, so that if at any given moment we wish to write but nothing exceptional comes out at the other end of our keyboard or pen, there must be some malfunction obstructing the natural cycle of everlasting creativity.
I’d like to offer an alternative perspective. Creativity, very much like love, is a gift. And you don’t get to get gifts all the time. If you go on a date and you don’t like the guy or girl you are meeting, you are not experiencing “lover’s block”—you simply don’t love at that moment, and if you’re patient enough you’ll experience love in the future (probably in the place and the time you’d least expect it). If you don’t write well, keep writing bad stuff (don’t worry, bad writing is completely ecological—it doesn’t damage the ozone layer or give you cancer). If it gets too frustrating, stop doing it—move on to badminton, collect airplane models, or do all those other things that people who don’t write do. But mostly, wait patiently. (Patiently as opposed to impatiently, or angrily, or bitterly—because those kinds of waiting don’t breed future good writing. Patience does.)
Writing isn’t a habit. It’s a unique form of expression. And nobody owes you that special experience on a daily or a weekly basis. But if you make an effort, when it’s gone, to keep living your life and experiencing new things, it will eventually return. And when it does, enjoy it as much as you can, before it goes away again.
I had writer’s block today. Here’s what it looked like:
I woke up late and sluggish, a result of having spent last night watching a six-episode marathon of Say Yes to the Dress. Too logy to work, I lingered over my oatmeal and tea, reading the New York Times on my phone despite the fact that the actual paper paper was lying on the kitchen table, next to the sugar bowl. Convinced that I would never be able to focus on work without a dose of endorphins, I headed to the gym. An hour later, I was far too physically exhausted to even contemplate opening my computer, let alone work. Ever the taskmaster, I forced myself to it—and spent an hour pinning wool blankets and linen throw pillows to my Pinterest wall.
Then I was hungry. So I ate lunch. Afterwards, I considered what a challenge it is to concentrate on a full stomach, but I forced myself back to the computer. Isn’t it remarkable how an hour of web surfing passes in the blink of an eye? Before I knew it, it was time to pick up the kids.
Another day lost to the torment of writer’s block. Right?
No. Wrong. There is no such thing as writer’s block. There is only procrastination, and laziness. Had I just turned on Freedom and sat the hell down, I could have written at least 1,000 words today. They may not have been good words. In fact, they probably would have sucked. But that’s not the point. The point is not to produce lyrical perfection—that’s what rewriting is for. The point is to sit your ass in your chair and write, even if all you write is a paragraph about what a lazy cretin you are.
Writer’s block is a myth. Get to work. ♦