Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Around the Block

Normally, I have no problem coming up with topics and concerns to explore in this blog. But this month, I’m stuck. Maybe the two books I’m working on have drained all the words from me. Maybe it’s because I’m getting on a plane tomorrow to play a show in Washington D.C. and all the arrangements for that are eating all available brain waves. Maybe I’m just, for once, speechless.

Writer’s block is a mysterious beast. There are, naturally, numerous websites devoted to helping writers work through this strange malady – something to read while you’re not writing. It’s almost as if the language centers of the brain have collapsed in on themselves, like one of those awful third world high rises after an earthquake, and all the words are stuck inside, dead or dying.

The problem is manifold. Some say its lack of focus or purpose. No clear goal or goals. If you were passionate about your subject, they say, this wouldn’t be happening. There’s probably a metaphor in there for how I should live my life, but I’m too tired to find it.

Or it could be a sudden onset of shyness – you’ve grown weary of revealing your private observations, values and opinions to a vast, faceless legion of strangers. What, suddenly now you’re shy, after all these years of nakedness?

Any kind of creativity has its snags. It’s unrealistic to expect the flow to be perennially vigorous. Rivers and streams have their dry seasons. The trick is to somehow get across the sandbars, through the shallows and down stream to the source. The ocean, thankfully, shows no signs of drying up.

My favorite image of writing will always be my father. My parents emigrated from the Netherlands to America after World War II. There were few opportunities for a young married couple in Holland after the Germans got through with it. They landed in New Jersey and eventually settled in Ventura, California. I grew up without any cousins, aunts, uncles or grandparents. Outside of our little home, every Bolland we knew was far across the Atlantic. Apart from the occasional phone call, the only substantive link was the written word.

My dad would sit in the sun on the patio in our backyard with a portable typewriter on his lap, carefully typing nine page letters to the family back in Holland. He needed two copies, one for his parents and one for my mom’s parents. This was the sixties. There were no copy machines. He’d put a sheet of black, oily looking carbon paper between two sheets of very thin white paper (it was called “onion skin” back then – very thin and light to keep the air mail costs down) and carefully begin typing. No rewrites, no white outs, no mistakes. Total commitment. Just say it and move on.

I’ll never forget his quiet focus, his reverie, his near trance-like state as he hunched over that Olivetti crafting long stories of how us boys were growing up, or what the orange blossoms smelled like, or how the California sun felt on your skin. These accounts were my grandparents’ only link to their far-flung children and grandchildren living half way around the world. This wasn’t mere reporting. This was writing as an act of love.

This went on for years. There must be hundred of pages of this stuff. All four of my grandparents are gone now, and most of my aunts and uncles too. My dad has the letters. What’s most haunting is that they were all written in Dutch, a language I cannot read. My dad and I have often spoken about getting them translated, but it’s such a daunting task. There is just too much material. I feel something slipping away.

Whether it’s songwriting, prose, poetry, fiction or non-fiction, the process seems to be the same – if there is no compelling purpose for writing, no discernable reason to put pen to paper (or cursor to doc), then why bother? Art without hunger is art without truth. No matter how elegant the composition or fortunate the arrangement of elements, if there is no beating heart, no radiance shining through the fabric, no music, then it’s all just sound and fury signifying nothing. The key to overcoming writer’s block is hidden deep within the folds of this insight. It’s almost as if writer’s block is doing you (or your readers) a favor – it’s preventing you from writing a word until you’re in touch with what’s real.

My dad never had writer’s block. That’s because he wasn’t trying to write anything. He was up to something far more primal, more elemental. He was reaching out across the miles and joining lives together. What if we let that goal guide all our art?

We humans are by nature communal creatures. We need to tell each other our stories. I need you to know what I saw, what I heard, what I thought, what I felt. If I clamp it all down and keep quiet, something dies a little inside. And if I ever stop listening to the people around me, if I ever grow dismissive and tone-deaf to their music, a loneliness will well up around me and drown me.

The absurd popularity of social websites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace testify to this incessant need to speak and be heard. Next time you compulsively log onto Facebook or sneak a furtive glance at your Twitter page during an important meeting, take inventory of how it makes you feel. There’s something going on there we haven’t quite grappled with yet. For all its lamentable ills, the interscape, as Jon Stewart calls it, plays a vital role in our communal human experience.

We no longer sit in the sun with portable typewriters on our lap and a sheet of carbon paper sandwiched between two onion skins. But we still utterly rely on the power of language to keep our love alive, whether it’s half way around the world, or half way around the block.


Curious Curandera said...

I just wanted to say I think you have a really interesting blog happening here!

Anonymous said...

Dude, I know this seems voyeuristic that I've discovered your blog and probed into your myspace, but you really are inspirational. Who the hell writes about not being able to write? That's freaking beautiful. I can totally empathize and relate to your being disconnected from your blood and soil, I spent most of my childhood in Palestine. I came back to the States with my mom and little brother when I was 15, just in time for high school and September 11. To spare you the details and cut this short, I've spent a lot of my life under the wings of people of religious faith and authority. Never have I been given the luxury of exploring spirituality in such an unbridled fashion. Your class (in the few weeks it's been) has rendered me free from the confines of religious abjection. I've grown disenfranchised from from Dogma, the superstitious, the super natural, and the superfluous. But through the lens of our comparative religions class, I've managed to remove the nihilism brought upon by the realization that all that I was taught to believe was a pretense. Thank you for unknowingly allowing me to be moved once again by the numinous and transcendent without the baggage of superstition and hyper-religious broken promises. Haha so much for cutting it short! Thanks a million.

Ammar Najjar