Sometimes writing feels like physical therapy. There are days when I wake up and forget that I've ever written anything. Words fall out of my mouth in some sloppy order not of my own choosing. Definitions are lost in the dark recesses of my brain. All of the tricks of the trade I've long collected are stacked away in some closet, undoubtedly covered with dust. I mumble. I stutter. Inadequacy sets in like gangrene.
Such days are usually the result of my self-inflicted writing drought. When I get lazy and eat or watch Gilmore Girls or scrapbook or email people instead of working, that's when the cramping sets in. And stretching out writing muscles is a LOT harder than stretching out regular ones.
It takes brute force. I have to pick up my pen and shake it awake; but first I stare at the pen, the foreign object resting at an odd angle in my hand. It's laughable trying to find the correct pressure from the ball of the pen on the surface of the paper. Like learning to walk or ride a bike all over again. I'm clumsy. The word "the" peppers the page. Sentences are fragmented and elementary.
And the vocabulary sucks.
I find myself writing things like:
She pulled the chair out from the desk and stood beside it.
Men gathered in twos and threes.
The wild forest gasped for air between the thick, shifting fog.
Boring. Unnecessary. I can't remember the basics. Never waste words, I remind myself, and press my index finger hard onto the DELETE key, holding it there until the prior bouts of lameness disappear.
That's when I turn to the physical therapy version of writing. I act as both therapist and patient. I sit with my fingers poised above the keys of my laptop and, rather than waiting for the dry riverbed of inspiration to suddenly flood again, I drill.
Audrey, I say , give me a character.
That's awful. Give it another shot.
Better. Tell me about her.
She's slow and sweet. She lives in a small town. She is a teacher.
I couldn't care less.
She's the kind of girl who doesn't mind stepping across the aisle of a bus, stooping to look a tearful stranger in the eyes, placing her hand at the nape of the stranger's neck and then leaning in and pressing a kiss to her forehead. Like a stamp of approval. A blessing.
Yes, Audrey, you do "sweet" quite well. Now I need you to give me something lurid. Shock me.
She is studying law enforcement and criminal psychology at the night school in order to become a detective.
Her mother was raped a long time ago, and the crime was never solved. It split Beth's home when she was a child, and now she wants to keep that from happening to other children.
That's noble, and all. But "noble" does rivet people to their seats. Remember, no author has a captive audience.
Well, one of the case studies she works on for her final starts to hit close to home. She begins to suspect a local man of committing the crime.
And the crime against her mother.
That's not a bad idea.
No, it's a good idea, Audrey. That's why I call the shots and you merely write them down. Now, show me Beth .
In thirty minutes I'll have the girl on paper. Her hair, the way her eyes move, her odd habit of rolling a paper ball between her hands as she thinks, the number of half-eaten ice cream cartons in her refrigerator. Then, on cue, I'll move her around the town. It may even begin as a copy of Livermore, something I know very well, but Audrey the Therapist nudges Audrey the Blocked Writer away from the familiar and into a territory that actually breeds words again.
I don't like this story. But Beth is merely a tool. Later she'll be shelved in favor of my other project(s), someone more worthy, deeper, cooler, with better style and clearer philosophy. Once Beth, or another character like her, is created to jumpstart my brain, the days of writing become easier. As long as I don't sit down on the couch with a bowl of Cheetos, I really ought to be okay. Perhaps Audrey the Therapist can take a vacation, bug somebody else for a while.