by Jule Selbo
How do you write when the season is against you? When it has decided to perform its yearly duty: blow around some haploid male genetic material from one plant to the stigma of another, hoping to get lucky and cross-pollinate. A pretty random sperm delivery system – but it has worked for – forever? And, okay. Fine. We need it. But, does it also have to draw and quarter very necessary brain cell I have to continue on its business? Does it have to expel aggressive particles with scratchy, knobby nodules that get into tender, moist sinuses, under eyelids, unprotected eye sockets, down my epiglottis and trachea?
Even as I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the writer Dennis Potter The Singing Detective (and more), and his battle with debilitating psoriatic arthropathy and how he kept writing through the itch and pain; the photo here shows the lead character in the Singing Detective TV series (suffering from psoriatic arthropathy)
I now think I’m being a big baby…
But I started my wail, so I’ll continue.
How do you write through monstrous headaches, monstrous clear mucus that erupts like a volcano or becomes a never-ending waterfall of nasal drips?
Rhinitis. I get why it’s called that (‘Rhino’ being Greek for ‘concerning the nose’ – it’s how rhinoceros got their name (for the large horn on their nose). Sometimes, in pollen season, I can feel like my nose is the size of a rhino’s.
I wake up stuffy and slow-minded, I shuffle instead of prance in the morning light. Feels like a 5-martini hangover (well, maybe it does, I’ve never had five in one sitting).
Sometimes I dream of a sympathetic guillotine that could neatly, quickly, severe my head. But I don’t relish that permanence. So I imagine a Dr. Frankenstein puppeteer who can, hourly, unhook my head, put it in a deep freeze to cool and clear, then re-attach it so I can get on with my daily grind.
I cut off the fantasies to deal with reality. I determine to not let inanimate particles sideline me. I have a deadline. And not making a deadline (for me) can bring on a critical condition much worse than an allergy attack.
But how to push forward?
Maureen Milliken’s observations on writing, in her June 29, 2022 post, mentioned the help of story prompts. She noted that if a roomful of (let’s say) twenty writers are given the same prompt, there would be twenty very different responses, story ideas, and/or characters built. She noted how prompts can be like the jolt of a cattle prod and can get our fingers flying.
I’ll add another possibility. If there’s no one providing that prompt (or you’re not feeling self-motivated to make up one for yourself, here’s my trick – and the history of it.
It was a pivotal day for me, thirty some years ago. I was a newbie playwright, right out of graduate school, and having my first play produced off-off Broadway in NYC. The play had caught the eye of a producer who was (then) married to Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman (‘Night Mother, Getting Out, The Secret Garden etc.).
I was invited to a cocktail party with other struggling playwrights at their oh-so-upscale condo near Lincoln Center, one of those renovated, highly-coveted artists’ lofts with huge back windows that let in northern light and overlook an expansive (rare for NYC) garden. The building sported a maroon-ish black, jagged brick exterior, a marble lobby, and a burly but elegantly mustached doorman in a black suit with gold epaulets on his shoulders. He watched me sign in – that was a prerequisite to being allowed to the step towards the gleaming, gold elevator. His appraisal was felt, I could almost read his thoughts: “hey kid, you’re not wearing Gucci or Prada – so what right do you have to enter this domain?” (Reminder: this was all from an insecure 24-year-old’s point of view.)
Inside the condo’s cherry-wood paneled living room, Marsha sat like an unhappy queen, clearly not in the mood to be inconvenienced by her schmoozy, hardworking partner’s desire to throw a little party to support up-and-coming writers whose plays he might produce one day. Maybe she’d had a bad writing day, maybe she and her hubby had argued, maybe the guest list was not up to her standard, maybe she had just met with her divorce attorney that day (the divorce came pretty soon after), but for whatever reason, she was very unsocial, bordering on very unfriendly.
Another neophyte, who was only trying to make conversation with the woman whose career we all admired, asked how she dealt with writer’s block – or writer’s doldrums – not being able to get started on any particular day. Marsha sniffed and sneered, nearly gave us an eye-roll, but she deigned to answer. “Read. Read. Read,” she said. “And then, at some point, find a scrap of dialogue or a sentence you particularly like in the book or playscript you’re reading – get off your ass, and type it onto your blank page. Then rewrite it in your voice. And somehow make it work in your story. Use it as a jumpstart… and then just get over yourself and get on with it.”
The unhappy, unfriendly lady unwittingly had given me a great gift. From that day on, if I was stuck on my latest play (that was my focus then but I continued to use it as I moved into different modes) and was close to dumping it into the trash, I would grab a script from off my desk, and read.
It worked like this: let’s say I happened to pick up Tennessee Williams’ famous (infamous for its time) Streetcar Named Desire and his lionized line “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers…” popped out at me. I might get up off my reading chair, head to my computer and – thinking about my own play and its story, begin to type: “Never trust a stranger, who knows if he might be a friend or foe?” And once I put those words into one of my character’s mouth – possible responses and maybe even a plot twist or character quirk would start to intrigue me.
Maybe there’s something to be said for the reading of great writing that, through a weird osmosis, gets another writer energized to get back to the keyboard. But soon, for me, the base writing didn’t necessary have to rise to laudatory levels – there was inspiration everywhere – the other day, sitting behind home plate at Hadlock Stadium, watching the Sea Dogs play the Flying Squirrels, I was reading about fuzzy “Nutzy” and his female pal “Nutahsa”, the visiting team’s mascots. Their history fascinated me and inspired a character nugget for my latest villain (he’s not going to put away acorns for the winter but…)
Sure, truth be told, the new sentence or idea might not (often didn’t) end up in the final product, but it got me out of a procrastination/self-loathing/ laziness/blahs and back into a few hours of joyous writing.
Any other tips out there?