Tag Archives: writer’s block

A Journal of the Plague Year: #25

Cheers!

This morning I got up to find a comment posted to one of my blog entries! How exciting is that? I will tell you. It’s pretty exciting. It’s rare, these days–it’s rare in general, but it seems more rare these days–in part, I know, because I have not been writing. Guess what the blog entry was about–the one that received a comment? “Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution.” It was published on the blog site a year ago, right after Christmas, 2019. Curious about what I had to say about writer’s block a year ago, because, as I stand here with my coffee after sorting the laundry on this bleak, wet, Saturday morning, I am fully aware that I have hardly written a word since September, I re-read my blog entry. In the first paragraph, I confess, “Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September.” Hmm. I sense a pattern. I wonder if I went back another year I would find a similar confession. I think it’s true, generally speaking, that the time between September and January seems to be a creatively dark time for yours truly, inexplicably (or not). Mostly I think it’s explicable. Let me explicate.

I blame the beginning of the new academic school year. Getting the ball rolling in a public high school and in my own realm as a classroom English teacher, is always a monumental undertaking. Even though, most often, everything is already in place in terms of planning and curriculum, there is just something pretty exhausting about the first few months of a new school year. But this year–oh my–this year was an entirely new jarful of bees. Is that a thing? I was going for a colloquial metaphor there, and I think I may have missed the mark. Bucket of rats? Nest of wasps? Barrel of monkeys? No, none of those are good. Let me just say that it was terrible. This fall we had the monumental undertaking of reimagining everything we do for the virtual-world classroom, for distance learning. That means that every single lesson had to be re-written, re-formatted, transformed into some interactive slide-show. Curriculum had to be condensed. Time had new meaning. The school day itself, reinvented. Suddenly, we relied on help from our colleagues more than ever before and we were feeling blessed and lucky if we had a strong team. The boundary between work and home became completely blurry. I found myself grading or planning until 7 or 8 o’clock at night and receiving text notifications that Johnny had finally turned in his essay at 1 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.

Needless to say, it was difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem, a story, or work on my memoir, or record a song, or read a book for pleasure. This is how I explain the lack of creative productivity from Autumn to Winter, especially this year. And while this transition or transformation from the school house to the virtual google classroom was, in itself and by necessity, a creative act–it did not satisfy the soul in the same way as writing what you think might be a pretty good poem.

So, how do we get started again in this new year, a year that promises to be a continuation of the pandemic nightmare of the last nine months–with the optimism added to the mix of a couple of vaccines and a new administration? If I look again at last year’s resolution blog entry, I find that I had set myself a number of goals and even went so far as to design a kind of checklist to track my progress–inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s virtue checklist from his autobiography. And just like Franklin admits about his project, mine, while it yielded early results, ultimately failed–but not in its entirety. Write a thing a week? I think I was able to do that, or close to it, at least until September. Read for pleasure more often? Not nearly as much as I would have liked. I did not, for example, read a book a month. Write an album’s worth of songs? Nope. However–music was made this year in small increments and in some new collaborations. Close, but no cigar. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me? No, I did not do that. This one rankles, perhaps, more than the others. Why is it that the things we know are necessary are sometimes the hardest things to do? I’m no psychologist. Meditate more often? Well, no. In fact, while I didn’t give it up and maintained a loose practice of meditation, I jettisoned altogether the tracking of stats on my Insight Timer. Spent some time, instead, with Sam Harris on his Wake Up app–which yielded some good results, but still, was insufficient on its own. I’ve never quite gotten used to the idea that someone should be talking at me while I’m trying to meditate, even if it’s Sam Harris. And lumped into the goals about seeking the help of others and a stronger meditation practice was some totally sincere and earnest stuff about better general health. This didn’t work out too well, either. I don’t think I’m alone when I admit that I do not think the isolation during the COVID 19 pandemic has done a single bit of good for my health–except for the fact that I have not contracted COVID-19.

If I were to set goals for myself again for 2021, they would look almost identical to these. But we all know instinctively or intuitively, and the research bears this out, that resolutions often fail. I know I’ve written about this before. We also know, though, and teach our younglings, that goal setting is somewhat paramount to self-improvement, yes? So what’s the mystery? What’s the key? I think it is possible, and advisable, to go ahead and make the goals. Yeah, write them down. Revisit them often to remind yourself about what it is that you want. But ultimately, you must be kind to yourself, you must be forgiving, you cannot beat yourself up, wring your hands, gnash your teeth. And you have to accept the fact that certain things may happen that are completely out of your control, things that may wreak havoc on your best laid plans: a pandemic comes to mind. 330,000 American casualties. The death of a mother-in-law. The dire cancer diagnosis of a brother-in-law. Another dire cancer diagnosis for a friend. Wildfires. A democratic society on the brink of dictatorship. An election year fraught with danger and divisiveness unlike anything most of us have ever seen, an election that feels to everyone of all political stripes to be of monumental, earth-shattering, history-making, dire consequence. The continued violence against black and brown Americans in the streets of our country and a justice system that repeatedly fails to do the right thing. We’ve had a lot this year to take us away from our goals, to make us feel pretty sheepish, frankly, about self-improvement, especially when and if we have been lucky and/or privileged, as I know I have been.

Meanwhile, it helps to find things and people that inspire you and move yourself in those directions. Even during the pandemic, when attendance at a yearly writers conference was impossible, we found a way to conduct a mini-conference through zoom. I participated in a manuscript exchange with some friends from the Warren Wilson MFA program, and this weekend, on the first and second day of the new year, we have organized a virtual reading for poets and fiction writers from that same program. We are finding ways to connect to the tribe. And these things, just over the last couple of days, plus this lovely comment that I found this morning on last year’s blog entry, have put a charge in my creative reservoir. Lo and behold. I have written almost 1500 words.

So, finally, happy new year to you, readers, friends, family. Let’s hope 2021 is less of a shit show. I’m guardedly optimistic about that, but the bar is pretty low, isn’t it? Nevertheless, we have lots to be hopeful about. I wish you the best of luck with your goals for the new year. May you tap into your own creative impulses, whatever they may be, in order to experience a rich, productive, life-giving new year. Cheers!

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Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution

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As the song says, it’s been a long time since I rock and rolled. Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of literal rocking and rolling on the drums. I’m speaking figuratively about the kind of rock and roll that typically manifests itself in poetry, fiction, and right here on the blog site. Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September. I don’t like it. After awhile, it gets under the skin and begins to itch. Left untreated it can fester and come out sideways. So without an idea in my head, I start writing today just so I can say that I wrote something. Here I am writing words, stringing them together to form sentences, stringing sentences together to form paragraphs, the first of which ends right here, on December 25, Christmas Day, 2019.

The only way to stop the block is to write your way through it. I get that. I believe it. I tell my students this. So allow me to write my way through the block. What the block represents, I hope, is simply a lull, a fallow period before an enormously stupendous harvest. What the block represents, I fear, is a faltering of creative powers, a diminishing of skill, a kind of inspiration death. The latter possibility is too terrible to consider and I find myself fighting a mighty battle against it. After all, I’ve had dry spells in creativity before and I’ve always come out the other end and continued to create.

Perhaps, as I believe that creativity feeds more creativity, I have found myself over the last several months wanting in several of the activities or conditions that inspire productive periods for me, and engaging in too many activities that don’t.

Things I know feed my creative spirit that I have not been doing:

  • Writing regularly and consistently, anything, poetry, fiction, blog entry.
  • Reading: Freely reading, NOT the kind of reading I do in preparation for teaching.
  • Making original music, writing songs: Playing drums in a cover band, while fun, exhilarating, and somewhat lucrative, somehow does not do the entire trick.
  • Being in community with other creatives: Socially or artistically–facebook don’t cut the mustard, and convening with a writing community once a year ain’t enough.
  • Meditating.
  • April: All of the other months of the year that aren’t April, they’re just not April. I need to do more April.

Things I’ve been doing that don’t help.

  • The opposite of all of the above descriptors.
  • Facebook.
  • Generally speaking, the internet.
  • Feeling abjectly depressed about the gov’ment, fearful of another four years of said gov’ment, and unable to resist the “what horrible shit went down today on the clown car” impulse.
  • Allowing anxiety about certain monumental and impending life choices to paralyze me into making no choices about anything whatsoever, related or not.

‘Tis the season to make the resolutions, yes? Do more of the stuff that feeds the creativity and less of the stuff that doesn’t. Can we get specific? Can we find some small achievable goals that will build on each other over time so that 2020 becomes a year of productivity and creative health? Okay, then, let’s try a thing. Let’s make a damn list. Here’s a list of achievable stuff that, if I accomplish, would make me feel pretty great about the new year:

  1. Write a thing, at least one thing, once a week. It doesn’t have to be a finished thing.
  2. Read for pleasure, at least one book a month.
  3. Write an album’s worth of songs. For almost a decade I wrote six songs every month. This should not be a problem.
  4. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me–therapist, financial advisor, friends, my courage community–toward optimum discernment regarding these monumental and impending life choices.
  5. Meditate more often–and generally speaking, take better care of my physical, emotional, and spiritual self. Regular exercise, anyone?

That’s a good list. It seems within reach, reasonable. It’s a positive list. I noticed that I didn’t list things that began with the words “stop,” “don’t,” or “resist.” It’s all “do more of” rather than moralizing about what I should do less of. I’m going to make a copy of this thing and post it somewhere where I can see it every day. Maybe I’ll make myself a chart. Get all Benjamin Frankliny up in here. I’m pretty pleased with myself. I’ve written my way through the block and have decided upon some resolutions. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, and to me. Let’s do this.

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#325: Idea for a Poem

Question-mark
I have an idea for a poem
that I haven’t yet written.
This is not that poem.
This is the poem about the poem
I would like to write.
I’d call it a preemptive poem
because it takes the place
of the poem I’d like to write
and the poem I’d like to write
remains unwritten.
Sometimes, a title follows
me around for years.
In the poem about the poem
I’d like to write, I refuse
to reveal the title, the title
of the poem I’d like to write,
the title that’s been following
me around. It’s too good and
revealing it too early might
jinx the poem I’d like to write
and then it might never
get written. The title, and thus the
subject, then, of the poem I’d
like to write becomes a secret.
The only good thing about this poem
about the poem I’d like to write
is that it contains a secret, the secret
of the title and the topic of the poem
that has not yet been written.
I sense that I could go on and on this way,
but sense as well that if I were to go
on and on this way, nothing would get
accomplished towards writing
the poem I’d like to write.
So I must come to a close by saying,
in conclusion, that I have a title
for a poem I’d like to write that’s
been following me around for years.
It’s a good title. I think it will be a
good poem. For now, though,
it will have to wait.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Last Night’s Reading, Short Stay Alumni Converge, More Talk About Secret Agents, and Voices Inside Our Heads

Notes from one of today’s brilliant offerings. My penmanship has become stupid. Translation: Therapy is not art–art is not therapy–but there are important parallels. Anxiety moves us into creativity instead of driving us away–Susan Kolodny, paraphrased.

This title pretty much says it all. I think my work is done here.

Perhaps I can begin with the stuff left unfinished or uncovered by my title’s verbosity. We had a lovely little meditation experience this morning sandwiched between two readings of Stafford’s “Ask Me.” Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I’ve made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life. This has to be one of my favorite poems on the planet and it served this morning as the perfect bookend for 20 minutes of silence. But then, things turned ugly. Even though our masters of ceremony reminded us and warned us (no breakfast on the weekend until the 10:30 brunch), we were woefully unprepared. It was a rude awakening. It necessitated another foray to Whole Foods where I bought Burt’s Bees lip balm, a couple of bananas, a box of granola bars, and a latte. I refrained from eating a banana or a bar for some masochistic reason–I think I planned to save these items as a contingency for tomorrow morning’s unfortunate fast. Today, I thought, I’ll be brave. I will hold out. I was successful. I survived. And boy, that brunch was delicious. And I had Faith Holsaert all to myself–which brought me no end of happiness. Do you know Faith? You should know her. I cannot believe my good fortune to have her as a fellow Wally and a friend.

That’s it, everything that is not already alluded to in the title. I suppose it could use a little flesh on its bones. So, let me try that.

Last night’s readings were mind blowingly good. Yes, I know “blowingly” is not a word, but that’s how good they were: word-makeruppery. I was so honored to share that evening and that podium with these fine folks–but there’s the wonder of it–there will be (my prediction) no group of readers on any evening before or to come that I would feel less honored to share a stage with. I wish you could have been there. This guy, fellow Wally, Rolf, he’s making these lovely recordings, so the best I can do is to share my part of the evening with y’all. You can skip ahead and continue reading if you like, or, you can rest your eyes for 9 minutes and 50 seconds to listen to these five prose poems from my manuscript in progress, Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. 

Today, our ranks started to grow. There is always a group of people who, for what ever completely explicable reasons, are not able to come for the full six day retreat. So about three days into each of our conferences, new writers arrive and it’s like Christmas, but only if Christmas was a good experience for you. If it was not, insert a favorite holiday. Levity increases. Joyfulness exudes. The writing contests begin. Just in time for another round of discussions about agents, which is both terrible and good: terrible because we’re talking about agents, good because the more we talk about it, the less scary, the less secret they become. That’s a win. And finally, we heard an expert and insightful lecture about psychoanalytic insights into the obstacles many writers face in the creative process. Hint: writers often face obstacles in the creative process. There are reasons for these, some of which are unconscious. Psychoanalytical insights may be, often are, helpful. Here’s a takeaway that came from a new Wally friend, Peter, which I thought summed up Susan’s big concluding idea very nicely: Don’t try to get rid of your problems. Make friends with them. If you get rid of them, others will just show up in their place!

Yes. Amen. Take me to the bridge.

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#296: The 11th Poem of April

feat-master-11

was difficult to write.
I didn’t like today’s suggestion.
I thought about witch hunts,
fist fights between teenagers,
and spring time rain.
I thought about my dogs
and how angry I was at
the one for waking me up
at 2 in the morning and at
the other because she took
a dump on my meditation
cushion. Not to mention the
vomit. It was a sock, I think,
wholly formed, covered in
dog stomach bile, I found
on the stairway landing.
I thought about drummers
and drumlines, drumsets
and rock and roll records.
None of it, on this 11th day
of April, floated my boat.
I introduced Romanticism
to 15 year olds today.
That was something.
I played them some Wagner
and some Beethoven and
some Led Zeppelin for good
measure and I think they
understood. But, you know,
during the discussion of the
opening letters by Robert
Walton to his sister, it was
clear that only a handful
of kids knew what the hell
we were talking about.
That could make a poem,
I suppose, a rant about how
young people don’t read.
In numerology, 11 is the
most intuitive of all numbers.
It is instinctual, charismatic,
dynamic and capable when its
sights are set on a concrete goal.
11 is the number associated
with faith and psychics, all of
which I stole verbatim from
numerology.com, which is an
actual thing, a thing for which
I am immensely grateful, because
it helped me to finish this poem.

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Radio Silence (An Interview)

radio-silence-L-M8qvlZ

It’s been quiet around here on the Michael Jarmer blog. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Don’t think I haven’t wondered what had become of that guy who was wont to be so prolific with his blogging. Don’t think I haven’t worried about him just a bit. Well, me and this Michael Jarmer guy happen to be friends–more than just Facebook friends, and we were able to catch up recently, face to face, so to speak, and he gave me the whole scoop about why the radio has been so silent of late. He asked me to fill you in. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. To make it easy, I’ll just record verbatim the interview that transpired when I sat down with Michael in his natural habitat down there in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, in a house surrounded by a grove of oak.

Me: Even though you wrote about how you were endeavoring to beat the post writer’s camp blah blah blahs, we have not heard from you.  What’s up with that?

Michael: I talked a good talk, but I was, in actual practice, unable to beat the post writer’s camp blah blah blahs. I was, in fact, mired in the blah blah blahs, unable to write more in the new novel, uninspired for blog topics, even I found the poetry muse absent, out on some other business  junket, no doubt. Things went from blahzy to blahziest in short order.  I guess that this was just not a writing summer. But don’t worry. It’s not like I was sitting on my thumbs.  I had some stuff going on.

Me: What kind of stuff did you have going on?

Michael: I was mostly preparing for the release of my band’s new album.

Me: Tell us about that.

Michael: I play drums and sing in a band called Here Comes Everybody, and we’ve been working on this record for about six years now, a pop rock record that takes it’s lyrics from three plays by William Shakespeare.  The album is called “Play: Songs from Shakespeare.”

Me: That took up all your time this summer?

Michael: No, that wouldn’t be fair.  We were rehearsing once or twice a week, doing a promotional stunt here and there, trying to get a crowd for the cd release party on September 4, and now trying to get another crowd together for the vinyl release party on October 24.  But, you know, I’ve had this experience before.  I have found that the writing slows way down when I get busy with music–as the music slows way down when I’m busy with writing, and I tend to get busy with writing when musically I’m in between projects, or not gigging as much, or in between bass players–it’s kind of a teeter-totter effect.  There’s only so much creative fuel to go around, and when the teeter-totter falls on the music side, even if there’s plenty of time in the day, especially on a summer’s day, that doesn’t seem to make a difference.  I don’t get the writing done.  I feel bad about it.  But then I remind myself of all the good stuff that’s going on with my musical life, or in my family life, and then I don’t feel so bad.  But it’s a discipline.  Mostly I feel bad about not writing.  And then there was some teaching this summer, which is unusual, and now, of course, the school year proper has just kicked in and I’ve got two new courses I’ve not taught in a long time and that takes up some mental and creative energy.  This is all very boring stuff.  I’ve got lots of excuses (explanations) for not writing. Some of them are pretty good, as excuses go.  They don’t always help; tugging at a writer constantly while going through a dry spell is a fear that the well has run dry, that your best ideas are behind you.  All that’s stinking thinking, because the thing is, the new novel beckons, I want to write more poetry, and I want to write about teaching.  So, I’m not making any promises at this point, but I’m going to make a concerted effort to get back to the blog. I think it’s important for the health of the creature they call Michael Jarmer.

Me: Well, good luck with the return of the writing, and good luck with the new record.

Michael: Thanks.

Me: Hey Michael Jarmer, thanks for spending some time with me today.

Michael: Yeah, no problem; it was a pleasure.

 

 

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#115: Terza Rima (A Complaint Ending In Banana)

banana

I’m sorry about this one.  Written late in the day when the brain is mush, it’s a terza rima, a form invented or popularized by Dante and bastardized by the English:  3 line stanzas in iambic pentameter with a “chained” rhyme scheme that ends in a single line chained to the middle rhyme of the last stanza (ABA, BCB, CDC, D), and in this case, followed by a completely random and stupid second part (DDDDbanana).

I.
So I prefer a subject over form
because it’s one thing to plug in some words
but quite another thing to brave the storm

of idea or topic blank as a bird
who has forgotten how to sing a song
or a ghosty pale dude without a shirt.

This complaint in terza rima is wrong
and doesn’t at all feel much like a poem
but an exercise that’s gone on too long.

And besides, what English word rhymes with poem?

II.
Loam?
Foam?
Loan?
Gnome?
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

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